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Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos displays a Kindle. (Ben Margot/BEN MARGOT/AP)
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos displays a Kindle. (Ben Margot/BEN MARGOT/AP)


Building a business on Bezos time Add to ...

Jeff Bezos – America’s 18th-richest man, according to Forbes magazine – has just bought himself a new watch.

Well, more like an expensive clock. It’s a $42-million (U.S.) timepiece that will be buried deep in the West Texas countryside and designed to run untouched for the next 10,000 years.

The goal of the 10,000 Year Clock project, as Mr. Bezos recently described to Wired magazine, is to get people to think long-term about things.

“My opinion is that human attention spans haven’t changed much over time. We’ve always been a fairly short-sighted species. But while our attention spans are staying roughly constant, our problems are becoming much bigger because of our past successes as a species. Our tools, our technologies now require us to step it up and have a longer attention span.”

The fact that Mr. Bezos, the founder and chief executive officer of Amazon.com has bankrolled the 10,000 Year Clock project is not entirely surprising given that he has a history of taking the long view on things.

He co-sponsored Long Bets, a forum for making and debating long-term predictions, and, in his first-ever report to Amazon shareholders in 1997, he warned that “because of our emphasis on the long term, we may make decisions and weigh trade-offs differently than some companies.”

With all of the noise around the impending initial public offerings of Groupon, Facebook and Zynga, it is tempting to think that great companies materialize overnight. But Mr. Bezos and fellow Seattle native Bill Gates would have us think differently.

In his 1996 book, The Road Ahead, Mr. Gates famously said, “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10.”

In fact, if you look at some of the greatest companies in the world, many got off to a slow start:

•Phil Knight started off importing Tiger brand (now Asics) running shoes in 1964 under the name “Blue Ribbon Sports.” It wasn’t until 1971 that he introduced the first Nike shoe.

McDonald’s was a single-location hamburger stand in its first decade. The Golden Arches didn’t first appear as its logo until 1962 – 22 years after the restaurant was opened.

•William Harley and Arthur Davidson built their first prototype for a motorized bicycle in 1901, but it wasn’t powerful enough to get up even Milwaukee’s modest hills. It was a full four years later – 1905 – that the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle was sold.

It’s amazing what you can accomplish given time. Take a business, for example, generating $500,000 in sales today. If that business grew 20 per cent a year for the next 20 years, it would be generating more than $19-million in annual sales in 2031.

That’s what you can achieve when you take the long view.

Special to The Globe and Mail

John Warrillow is a writer, speaker and angel investor in a number of start-up companies. You can download a free chapter of his new book, Built to Sell: Creating a Business That Can Thrive Without You.

Join The Globe’s Small Business LinkedIn group to network with other entrepreneurs and to discuss topical issues: http://linkd.in/jWWdzT

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Follow on Twitter: @JohnWarrillow

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