Yes, Amazon was once the underdog

In 1997, Jeff Bezos spoke to a Harvard Business School class about his fledgling e-commerce company. He had founded Amazon just over two years before, and few had heard of it at the time.

When he explained his business plan to the group, they greeted him with skepticism. Most of their concern revolved around the competitive landscape that he faced, especially from national retail chains.

Specifically, those Harvard students urged Bezos to do the smart thing and sell his startup to Barnes & Noble. They reasoned that the huge bookseller—which boasted $2 billion in annual sales—could crush Amazon with its paltry $16 million in sales.

In fact, Bezos had recently met with Barnes & Noble’s CEO, Len Reggio, who proposed a joint venture. Reggio told Bezos that his giant chain was planning to launch its own online bookstore soon, implying that his company would destroy little Amazon once that happened.

Responding to the Harvard class, Bezos acknowledged the risk of persevering against a far mightier rival. But he told the students that he intended to keep improvising and plowing all his resources into strengthening his online presence.

He figured Barnes & Noble would dabble in the then-small online marketplace, but not fully commit to it or match Amazon’s relentless determination to grow.

Over time, Bezos was proven right. Reggio did not assign his best staffers to develop the website and put little attention and insufficient funds into making it successful.

Today, Amazon is growing rapidly with ever-expanding new product lines, including even a brick-and-mortar bookstore concept. Its stock market value is worth more than the top eight traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers combined.

— Adapted from Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, Tim Harford, Riverhead Books.