Stubborn on vision, flexible on the details

We have all seen Jeff Bezos’ great quote on being stubbornly flexible at Amazon:

“We are stubborn on vision. We are flexible on details…. We don’t give up on things easily. Our third-party seller business is an example of that. It took us three tries to get the third-party seller business to work. We didn’t give up.”

Whether you’re building a business or your own career, a long-term focus creates the most successful outcomes. And this requires two things:

  1. You need a clear vision of where you want to go and the values that will guide you towards that place.
  2. You need to be opportunistic (aka flexible) when it comes to all the details of how to get there.

Looking back on my personal journey, I realize that I was firm on my vision (being an entrepreneur), but flexible on how to get here.

As the oldest son of two pharmacists in Germany, I was expected to follow my parents’ footsteps – at least in terms of having a steady, long-term and successful career. But I always knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur. First, I tried to commercialize my parents’ hobby vineyard; then I tried to import cars. Neither were too successful.

I was all set to begin a solid, executive-level job at a German telco in 1999, but it just didn’t feel right. I still wanted to build a business, and at that time there were tremendous opportunities around the Internet. Literally overnight, I decided to pass on the corporate job, telling my would-be employer that I needed to figure out the Internet thing. I co-founded JustBooks, which was bought by AbeBooks, which was bought by Amazon – all in all, an incredible entrepreneurial journey of 8 years from start to exit.

It’s (relatively) easy to have a vision. Some of the details might evolve over time, but once you reach a certain level of maturity, you most likely know what you want to be as a business or in your career. But getting there is the hard part.

What is a good opportunity and what’s a distraction? When should you stop banging your head against the wall and move on? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to these questions. It ultimately comes down to good intuition. When building a career, you need this intuition to answer these questions. And when building a business, you need to hire leaders with good intuition to scale that decision making in the company.

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