Last Thursday night, Amazon CTO Werner Vogels joined a small group of technical folks from cloud and commerce related First Round portfolio companies for dinner at Double Crown. It was actually kind of a funny story how it all happened--as we turned a calendar mixup by a European entrepreneur that he knew (Time Zones and invites don't mix well) into a conversation. After getting to spend some time with Werner, I'm really not surprised at all how willing he was to sit down with us. He's a very outgoing and friendly guy--striking the imposing but jovial figure of someone that would be the first to toast you at an Amsterdam beer hall (or lift up over his head and throw out any rifraff causing trouble at such an establishment).
Werner is intensely focused on not only getting customer feedback, but also on how Amazon can better support innovative startups. He commented on how rewarding it was that their cloud efforts have enabled lots of new businesses to get up and off the ground--ones that would have otherwise taken a lot more investment.
This focus on customers is one of a number of things that Amazon does that is consistant with lean startup principals. He admitted that many of their new initiatives are absolutely the minimum viable product--without many of the bells and whistles that many other companies would include as part of a launch of new products. That's a function, he noted, of small teams able to work relatively independentantly of each other--so while large in size, Amazon can often appear more nimble than other companies.
Setting up this dinner made me really appreciate the full scope of the vision of Amazon. To have one company be a major player in or have obvious designs on eCommerce, cloud, music & entertainment, hardware, advertising, e-mail and discount local deals is really impressive in its ambition. It was hard to keep our dinner small as there were very few companies in our portfolio that couldn't benefit from a relationship with the company in some way.
What I also learned from this event as well as our recent NYC area First Round portfolio employee happy hour is how valauble it can be just getting the people we invest in to talk to each other. We strive to provide a lot of "structural" value, and what that often means is providing the platform for the community to connect with and learn from itself. Several of the lead techs present commented on how nice it was to be able to share ideas with others putting together similar stacks and going through the same sorts of issues as they were--as many were doing this for the first time.
I hope we can do this sort of thing again with other bigger companies looking to get in person feedback from customers and potential partners, but regardless, we're definitely going to look for more ways to get the technical folks from our portfolio together more often. I'm sure it works just as well for other functions as well--marketing, sales, etc.