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Begin with the end in mind
Jeff Bezos and the Value of Writing with Purpose
This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Great Founders Write. Sign up for updates.
Jeff Bezos and the Value of Long-Term Thinking
“What the hell is the point of this?”
We’ve all read blog posts, landing pages, or long-winded emails that have made us ask this question.
The writing is all over the place. Details are out of order. The writer pummels you with every half-baked thought in their cluttered mind. Worst of all, you don’t know why you should be reading it at all. You eventually (and rightfully) give up. You’ll never get that time back but refuse to waste any more.
This, my friends, is a failure to write with purpose.
Writing with purpose means beginning with the end in mind. It’s having a clear intention for both yourself and the reader. Few entrepreneurs have demonstrated such clear, purpose-driven writing as Jeff Bezos.
For nearly 20 years, Jeff Bezos—the founder and former CEO of Amazon—broke the cardinal rule of publicly-traded companies: he didn’t prioritize shareholder returns.
Amazon was a public company for nearly five years before it recorded a cent of profit: literally $0.01 per share in the final quarter of 2001. Despite making billions in revenue, it took until 2003—nine years after its founding—for Amazon to post a profitable year. Even then, the company distributed just $0.08 per share, a laughable return compared to competitors like ebay ($0.75 per share) Walmart ($1.81 per share), Sears ($2.24 per share).
Value investors like Warren Buffett dismissed Amazon as just another internet company, doomed to fail like so many did in the early 2000’s. In the eyes of skeptics, Amazon would never turn a significant profit. They would eventually shrivel up and go away.
But Bezos proved them all wrong. How?
By beginning with the end in mind.
Amazon’s success is not only a case study in disruptive entrepreneurship, but purpose-driven writing. Bezos kept investors laser-focused on his long-term strategy: Market leadership through low prices and exceptional customer service. He reinforced his company’s purpose every year in Amazon’s shareholder letters.
Unlike Buffett, who was famous for his clear and concise writing, Bezos sometimes rambled in his annual letters. For example, Amazon’s 2006 shareholder letter read more like a term paper. Bezos recounted the history of Amazon’s database technology and shared minute details of how it all worked. After 700 words of tech jargon, Bezos acknowledged, “I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m sharing all this.” That’s when he introduced the next stage of Amazon’s AWS business.
Despite his long-windedness, Bezos never let investors forget about the end goal. They weren’t optimizing for short-term profits, but long-term market leadership. He drove this point home, by attaching a copy of his first shareholder letter from 1997 to every shareholder letter thereafter.
In that first letter, Bezos outlined the long-term vision of Amazon—not as a bookstore, but as an everything store. He made his priorities crystal clear:
It’s All About the Long Term
We believe that a fundamental measure of our success will be the shareholder value we create over the long term. This value will be a direct result of our ability to extend and solidify our current market leadership position. The stronger our market leadership, the more powerful our economic model. Market leadership can translate directly to higher revenue, higher profitability, greater capital velocity, and correspondingly stronger returns on invested capital.
Patient investors were eventually rewarded. In Q4 of 2017, Amazon posted $1.86 billion in profit, more than the company made in the previous 14 years combined. In 2021, Amazon’s profits soared to over $33 billion—more than Walmart and eBay added together. Meanwhile, Sears, once the world’s largest retailer, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2018.
Bezos was famous for his rallying cry, “Today is still Day 1.” It’s a reminder to keep building and striving as if you were just getting started. But Bezos was just as focused on his end goal—the grand purpose behind Amazon’s strategy.
Whether you’re writing or leading a trillion dollar company, great founders always begin with the end in mind.
Writing with No Rudder
Nothing great is built alone. The best founders have the ability to rally support around their vision and purpose. They see the future so clearly and vividly, you’d think they’ve already been there. A powerful why is one of the strongest forces behind a successful startup.
But we often forget to identify a clear vision and purpose for our writing. We start writing without really knowing what we’re trying to say. And once we do find the point, we don’t edit our work to make it clear. The reader has to slog through lines of rambling just to understand why you wrote to them in the first place. It’s exhausting.
Writing this way is like trying to sail a boat with no rudder. Getting to your intended destination is all but impossible, especially in choppy waters. This isn’t just an inconvenience for your reader—it costs your company precious time and actual money.
Josh Bernoff, author of the excellent book, Writing Without Bullshit, calculated that poor writing costs American businesses more than $400 billion every year.
In his survey of U.S.-based knowledge workers, Bernoff identified the most common traits of bad writing:
Too much jargon
Not precise enough
Not direct enough
These bad writing habits all have the same root cause: writing without a clear purpose.
When we don’t know what to say, we ramble. Our ideas are all over the place. We speak in vague terms instead of specific details. We use big words to cover up our lack of understanding. We don’t give precise or clear directions. We use phrases like “What I’m trying to say is…” or “Long story short…” as if that makes up for wasting our reader’s time.
Better writing begins with the end in mind.
And there’s just one question you need to ask yourself to get started.
Why are you writing this?
With any powerful tool, careful aim is vitally important. Writing is no different.
Bezos had a clear purpose for every shareholder letter: To reinforce Amazon’s long-term mission of market leadership. But most of the time, your purpose is more mundane, like rescheduling a meeting. Big or small, you need to know what you’re trying to achieve.
Start every piece of writing by asking yourself, “Why am I writing this?” It doesn’t matter if it’s an email or a book. In fact, the shorter the communication, the more important the question.
I often write, “Why am I writing this?” at the top of my doc or email before drafting. When I hit a writer’s block, it’s usually because I have forgotten the purpose and I ask myself the question again.
Here are other useful variations of the question:
What am I really trying to say here?
What action do I want my reader to take?
What am I trying to achieve?
What emotion do I want my reader to feel?
If my reader only remembered one thing, what do I need it to be?
You can also find the purpose of your writing through freewriting. Just start writing to see where it goes. When I do this, I’ll typically find my real purpose somewhere in the middle of my ramblings.
But here’s where most founders go wrong: They fail to edit this first draft and send or publish as is. Your reader should know the purpose of your writing at the beginning of your work, not the middle or the end. The burden of understanding is always on the writer. (We’ll discuss editing in more detail in Section 3.)
Writing with purpose isn’t complicated, but it does take a few deliberate moments of thought before you share your work with others. For your readers, it will be considered time well spent.
Defining a Powerful Purpose: Write Like a Developer
Sometimes you need your writing to resonate on a deeper level. You aren’t just firing off an email, but trying to convince a superstar designer to join your team. Or maybe you’re creating the landing page for a brand new product that has the potential to triple your business.
When you need to define a deep, emotional purpose for your writing, don’t turn to visionary founders for inspiration. Talk to your software development team.
Software developers and product managers are masters of purpose-driven writing. They do it every day. You won’t find their work in Google Docs or on your blog, but in your task management system.
I’m talking about product user stories.
Before building a new feature, developers and product managers must explain why the feature should exist. User stories define a feature’s purpose, not just its function. Not doing this could cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars in wasted effort.
Here’s the standard template for a product user story:
As a [specific user], I want to [action] so that [definition of success] + [emotional and rational benefits].
As a shift manager [user], I want to see the time-off requests of all my employees at a glance [action] so that I can quickly create next week’s work schedule [success] without the stress and frustration of flipping back-and-forth between emails [benefits].
Notice what the user story doesn’t include: a description of the new feature. That’s because product managers (who often write the user stories) don’t want to prescribe what the engineers should build. Their job is to share the purpose of the project and let the developers come up with the best solution.
Product user stories teach us four rules about defining a powerful purpose:
Address a specific person, not the general public.
Focus on the person’s actions, not the features they’ll use.
Share a clear definition of success.
Describe emotional as well as rational benefits.
Remember: When you ask yourself, “Why am I writing this?” don’t just answer rationally. Search for an emotional reason why the reader should care.
You can use this user story template in all forms of writing. Let’s say you’re trying to recruit that superstar designer to your team. Your first answer to “Why am I writing this?” might be this:
Convince Chris Do to join our team as head of product design.
That’s just ok, but probably not enough to convince a world-class designer like Chris Do to join your team. You need a more powerful purpose.
Let’s use the product user story template and try again (we’ll switch the template to your perspective instead of the user’s perspective):
Why am I writing this?
Chris Do [user] will join our team as head of product design [action] so that he can design products that not only matter, but are wildly successful [success]. He will have the autonomy and support of a world-class team to bring his vision to life [emotional benefit] and could also earn significant upside in the business [rational benefit].
Specific user: Chris Do
Action: Join team as head of product design
Success: Design products that not only matter, but are wildly successful.
Emotional benefit: Autonomy and world-class team to bring vision to life
Rational benefit: Earn significant upside in the business.
When developing your powerful purpose, details matter. Get specific with your reader’s actions, benefits, and definition of success. Spend more time than you think you need to define your purpose. Then watch your writing flow with energy and focus.
Founders write for many reasons, each of which requires a different approach. In the next few chapters, we’ll explore three specific purposes:
Writing to inform
Writing to sell
Writing to teach and train
Let’s get into it.
This is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Great Founders Write. Sign up for updates.