“We end up in a predicament, and we have basically two choices. On one side, we can sit around feeling guilty about bad decisions we have made; we can blame others (employees, the market, global events, or the rich), or we can deny the reality of the situation. In other words, we can avoid tackling the problem head-on. On the other side, we can see the predicament as an opportunity to take action and strike off in a new direction.” -Jim Baker
On March 11, 2020, CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, was faced with what author Jim Baker, refers to in his book, The Adventure Begins When the Plan Falls Apart: Convert a Crisis Company into Success, a “predicament.” This “predicament” was the World Health Organization’s declaration of COVID-19 as a national pandemic. On March 11, 2020 Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of Prune, a popular restaurant in New York’s East Village, encountered the exact same “predicament” as Bezos: the announcement of a worldwide pandemic, COVID-19. As of June 2, 2021, Amazon’s net worth is calculated to be $314.9 billion and rising. As of June 2, 2021, Gabrielle Hamilton’s restaurant located in the bustling East Village is closed. What accounts for the great disparity between the outcomes of these two businesses faced with the exact same unexpected global event, or “predicament”? The way Jim Baker sees it, the measures that the businesses took in the face of COVID-19 landed them on different “sides.” The “side” that the businesses, Amazon and Prune, found themselves on ultimately determined their success, or their failure.
CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos took two vital measures that allowed him to prosper during the pandemic. First, Bezos made quick smart decisions. For instance, recognizing the looming threat of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bezos swiftly vetted and hired 175,000 employees and increased Amazon’s supply of essential retail goods almost overnight. In doing this, Amazon was not only able to fulfill consumer demand due to an increased inventory, but with the help of added employees, the company was able to promptly manage the sorting, packaging and delivering of merchandise. The second crucial step that Bezos took was recognizing that Amazon’s past success did not ensure a prosperous future: Amazon had to adapt in the face of the external influence of COVID-19. For instance, as the consumer demand for items such as paper towels and hand sanitizer increased, Amazon decided to make these products a priority in deliveries rather than prioritizing non-essential items. Additionally, Alexa, Amazon’s smart speaker, was programmed to answer hundreds of questions regarding COVID-19, such as “Alexa, what do I do if I think I have COVID-19?”
Amazon essentially used the “predicament” of COVID-19 as a growth propellant to further their success: the company generated $75.4 billion in revenue during the initial three months of the pandemic. In other words, when faced with the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bezos took what Baker calls the “side” of opportunity through quick decisions and proving the value of his company by the means of acclimating to the ever-changing market.
Gabrielle Hamilton, owner of Prune, took a different “side” when challenged with the “predicament” of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hamilton took two missteps which led to the inevitable downfall of her business. First, Hamilton failed to understand that businesses must evolve to fit the shifting needs and preferences of customers. In a New York Times article, Hamilton states, “I cannot see myself excitedly daydreaming about the third-party delivery-ticket screen I will read orders from all evening. I cannot see myself sketching doodles of the to-go boxes I will pack my food into so that I can send it out into the night, anonymously, hoping the poor delivery guy does a good job and stays safe.” While it is understandable Hamilton took pride in and cherished the neighborhood atmosphere that her restaurant possessed, in the midst of a national shutdown, customers were unable to dine-in at restaurants, and were not looking to make friends with the couple sitting at the two-top next to them. Rather, customers wanted their food delivered to their homes and apartments while they were binge watching the newest Netflix series. It was up to Hamilton to fulfill this demand and, at least temporarily, readjust her business model. The second error that Hamilton made was believing that it was ultimately up to the customer to prove the value of her business. In her article she states, “I started my restaurant as a place for people to talk to one another, with a very decent but affordable glass of wine and an expertly prepared plate of simply braised lamb shoulder on the table to keep the conversation flowing, and ran it as such as long as I could. If this kind of place is not relevant to society, then it — we — should become extinct.” In stating that her restaurant should become “extinct” if it is no longer “relevant to society,” Hamilton is placing somewhat of a blame on the changing society for not proving the value of her eclectic and homespun restaurant to the cutthroat New York restaurant scene.
These flagrant missteps amongst the “predicament” of COVID-19 thus landed Hamilton and her New York eatery, Prune, on the “side” of failure. Today, even as the indoor dining capacity in New York City has reached 75%, Prune remains closed, not filling up with customers eager to dine, but with unpaid bills and debts, thirsting to engulf Prune entirely.
Although Amazon is a global multi-billion-dollar company and Prune is a small restaurant in New York, it is crucial to recognize that the size of the companies was not the only factor that determined their success or failure. Rather, the businesses’ success or failure had more to do with the mindset of each respective leader. While Prune feared the effects of change, Amazon saw change as an opportunity for growth.
Paralleling the advice that Jim Baker gives in his The Adventure Begins When the Plan Falls Apart with the disparity of success between Prune and Amazon exposes two questions that business owners must ask themselves in a time of adversity. The first being what “side” do I want to be on? Once you have determined this, you then must ask, “how will I get to this side?”