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What I’ve learned about success, in business and in government, as the editor of Fortune

June 2, 2021, 8:45 AM UTC

The first substantive feature on Amazon.com that Fortune published was in December 1996. The title of that piece—“The Next Big Thing: A Bookstore?”—seems almost quaint in retrospect. Amazon.com, as the article explained, was “leading a wave of digital shops out to invade established industries,” a slew of upstarts taking on everything from publishing and stock trading to that most impregnable of advertising businesses, the telephone yellow pages.

Amazon, the young prince in this domain, had no storefronts or pricey inventory to stock—back then, the company didn’t procure a title from a publisher or book distributor until after the customer had ordered it. Jeff Bezos, a former hedge funder who’d quit his Wall Street job, moved to Seattle, and managed to raise a tiny bit of seed capital to get his Internet bookseller running, was now spending the company’s cash flow (and then some) on “hiring programmers who [could] make his service even more efficient,” wrote Fortune scribe Michael H. Martin. Bezos was determined to make sure customers could get any book in print, and he gave them hefty discounts, too. As he told us then, “Most online businesses fail because they misestimate the value proposition.” 

Bezos clearly didn’t.

Six years later, in 2002, Amazon made it onto the Fortune 500, sneaking in at No. 492, with just over $3 billion in revenue. In the six years that followed, the company shot up an unprecedented 321 places on our list, to the No. 171 spot. Six years after that, it was the 35th largest revenue producer in the United States. Today, it’s No. 2 on the Fortune 500 (behind only Walmart), with $386 billion in annual sales.

I joined Fortune at the start of 2000, just a few years after Michael Martin wrote about this “next big thing” in business. The print magazine then—there was no website—was flush with stories about the shining new Internet economy. A veritable cottage industry of dotcom analysts spoke of the vast new economies of scale that came from connecting buyers and sellers via the web, and the savings that could be had by shedding the brick-and-mortar casings of old-world commerce. What they often missed—and what Bezos understood from the get-go—was that the Internet offered an analgesic, not a panacea: It took away some of the pain of store-based commerce, but didn’t guarantee success. (For evidence, see the endless potter’s field of dotcom graves that have been filled since then.)

What did give companies a genuine edge, and what still does today, is to empower consumers. It sounds almost too obvious to say, and yet it’s a message that’s routinely forgotten. Want to sell more stuff? Make it as easy as possible for a customer to buy it. Want to entice the masses to spend hundreds of dollars on your revolutionary “smartphone”? Take a page from the Steve Jobs playbook and make it as intuitive to use as possible.

When I think of what I’ve learned about business since arriving at Fortune—and, particularly, in my past four years and change as editor-in-chief—I come away with a comically simple set of lessons: Empower customers. Treat people well. Meet an unmet need. Make the world better.

If you want to judge a business, forget the price/earnings multiple and rate of sales growth. Ignore 98% of what you hear in analyst calls, and just ask yourself how the company performs in the four key areas above.

Part of me wishes I had something more profound to say in this last of my editor’s notes. Yes, at the risk of burying the lede, I am stepping away from this glorious perch soon after this issue hits the stands—and after the happiest and most rewarding career at Fortune I could have ever imagined. To say that I have loved this place and my colleagues is the greatest of understatements. The work done by these truly gifted and dedicated journalists will shine for decades to come.

That work, indeed, that honest, authoritative, and sharp-eyed storytelling, has been the mission of Fortune for the past 91 years—during my tenure as well as in the eras of the 18 top editors who came before me. It’s our mission, and it fundamentally makes business better. 

Which brings me to the second part of this goodbye. As I thought about where we, as a society, stand today, I found myself returning again to the lessons above—and asking where we could make the world better, meet an unmet need, treat people well, and empower customers. My mind turned to a place in which we business editors seldom dwell: government. Government, after all, melds too easily in people’s minds with politics—and politics is an ever-nastier place to journey these days.

But an audience of readers who care about business also ought to care about one critical aspect of government—and that’s how we choose it. In the wake of the presidential election this fall, that act—selecting who we want to govern us, to spend our tax dollars, to keep the lights on and keep us safe—has gotten harder. As of this writing, close to 400 bills have been introduced in 47 states that would place new restrictions on the way people can vote or reduce access to traditional voting options such as mail-in ballots, drop boxes, or early voting, according to the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law. In 12 states such bills have already been signed into law. “There has never been this aggressive an attempt to restrict voting in America,” says Wendy Weiser, who directs the center’s Democracy Program.

It sounds too obvious to say, and yet the message is routinely forgotten: Want to sell more stuff? Make it as easy as possible for a customer to buy it.

The intensity of the effort is being driven by unfounded accusations that the presidential contest was somehow “stolen,” though every postelection investigation and judicial court has found otherwise. The net effect, says Weiser, is that it will be harder for tens of millions of Americans to vote in coming elections. Far less noticed, she says, has been the spate of legislative assaults on the business of running elections themselves: Efforts to use technology to modernize the voter registration process—and make it more accurate—are being rolled back. “In the business world, nobody would manage such a system by having all their customers send in pieces of paper that then have to be checked individually, require thousands of workers to decipher handwriting, and inevitably make mistakes,” says Weiser. “That would never fly in the private sector.” Yet that’s what we have now in many jurisdictions.

Voters, of course, are the government’s customers. So elected officials should do everything they can to make voting more convenient, not less; easier, not more burdensome.

Most business leaders already support such a goal. In our new poll of Fortune 500 CEOs, 81% of respondents agree with the statement that “everything possible should be done to make it easy for every citizen to vote.” Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean of leadership studies and a professor of leadership practice at the Yale School of Management, says there’s good reason for such support: “For the free enterprise system to endure,” he says, “people have to feel they have ownership in the system. The electoral process has to be seen as a system that is fundamentally anchored on free and fair competition.”

The same principles, that is, that make for a strong market-based economy.

This article appears in the June/July 2021 issue of Fortune with the headline, “The drivers of success.”

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