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The Growth and Development of Online Commerce: Major E-commerce Companies

By Sammy J. Chapman Jr.

Major E-commerce Companies

Up to this point, the books under discussion look at the larger cultural, economic, and technological themes occurring during the dot-com boom. This next set of books examines companies during this period. While many companies collapsed during the dot-com bust of the early 2000s, a few survived and went on to thrive and become dominant. One of these companies, eBay, is the focus of Adam Cohen’s The Perfect Store: Inside eBay. Similar to other journalistic treatments of dot-com survivors, this book has a detailed focus on the company’s founder, Pierre Omidyar. Through Cohen’s interviews with Omidyar, readers learn that the eBay founder wanted to create the perfect store, where the auction process would create the perfect price. Omidyar felt that eBay should be a place where small sellers and collectors could create a community to pursue their passions. His view exemplifies the idealism found in companies during the dot-com era. In addition to talking to eBay insiders, the author also interviewed detractors, who see eBay as greedy, charging excessive fees and being insensitive to many small sellers on the site.

Another dot-com survivor, Amazon, is the subject of several books. Robert Spector’s Get Big Fast is one of the first journalistic accounts of the company, written in the late 1990s. It is set squarely in the dot-com period and highlights many of the events at Amazon during its first years. In Spector’s book, one can see the “Get Big Fast” narrative that Shiller and Goldfarb and Kirsch point out as a driver for these boom-and-bust cycles. Spector interviews some early investors in Amazon and finds that what motivated them was a belief in opportunity, not in profits. Importantly, Amazon brought the internet to the attention of much larger companies as a place to conduct business. Mike Daisey’s 21 Dog Years: Doing Time @, written a few years later, is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek memoir about working at Amazon as a customer service representative during the dot-com boom. This book focuses on Daisey’s struggles working at Amazon, highlighting his coworkers, and offers a counterpoint to many of the journalistic works that focus on Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. A similar work by James Marcus, Amazonia, covers Marcus’s time at Amazon as a book reviewer during the dot-com boom. Like Accidental Investment Banker, it offers an insider’s account of this period and how the dot-com boom affected the author. One can see the many changes within Amazon from its stock high, when the author became a millionaire, to the eventual crash. He gives his personal interpretation of the causes and aftermath of the dot-com events. These books offer personal accounts of how dot-com narratives were propagated on a personal level inside the companies.

However, for the society at large Doug Henwood’s After the New Economy offers a critique of many of the ideas and rhetoric presented during this period. The author worked on Wall Street as a writer of investment letters for several years and examines many proponents of the New Economy. His analysis points to the ideology at the heart of much of New Economy’s ideas and rhetoric and concludes that they never panned out. The author asks many questions of these ideas: Did technology make workers more productive? Was the New Economy egalitarian? What were the real issues with globalization and growing financialization during this period? The author’s conclusion is that the nineties never lived up to its techno-utopian narrative.

One major e-commerce company to survive the dot-com bust was Amazon. Brad Stone has written extensively on Amazon and Jeff Bezos and has produced two in-depth books on Amazon, The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon and Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire. Amazon cooperated with Stone, allowing him access to Bezos and Amazon insiders, and these books tell an engaging story of Amazon from its conception to Bezos’s announcement that he would step down as CEO in 2012. Like Spector’s book, Bezos is a major focus of Stone’s work. While Stone’s books may set the current standard for books on Amazon, earlier works, such as Richard L. Brandt’s One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of, sought to uncover Bezos’s strategies, which enabled him to grow Amazon into one of the largest companies in the world. Brandt suggests that Bezos was one of the first people to understand how to take advantage of the internet to grow a business.

Some recent books attempt to dissect Amazon’s business strategies. Written by former employees, Colin Bryar and Bill Carr’s Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from inside Amazon focuses less on Bezos and more on Amazon’s business model. Different from other books written by former Amazon employees, this is a guidebook to the management techniques that have made Amazon a successful company. Covering several recent product launches, such as AWS, Kindle, and Prime Video, the book details Amazon’s product development process, hiring, and use of metrics to measure performance. Another book that gives insight into Amazon’s strategy is a collection of Bezos’s annual shareholder letters and interview transcripts, Invent & Wander: The Collected Writings of Jeff Bezos. The first part of the book contains Bezos’s shareholder letters, focusing on Amazon’s business strategies. The second half consists of interviews with Jeff Bezos and has a more personal tone, discussing his life and work. The book encapsulates Bezos’s business philosophy and makes an excellent companion to Stone’s two books and Working Backwards.

Several works about Amazon’s workforce and working conditions have been written in the last few years. Alessandro Delfanti’s The Warehouse: Workers and Robots at Amazon focuses on the conditions for warehouse workers at Amazon’s fulfillment centers. Based on Defanti’s interviews, this book gives a detailed look at how workers interact with automated systems inside of Amazon’s warehouses. The author highlights the digital surveillance of workers and Amazon’s anti-union activities. He concludes that Amazon will always need human labor but speculates that, at some point, the workforce will rebel. Seasonal Associate by Heike Geissler is another book by a former Amazon employee. Unlike the books by Marcus and Daisey, this work does not strive to be a nonfiction narrative, but more of a stream-of-consciousness telling of Geissler’s experiences working in an Amazon fulfillment center in Germany. This book, describing the plight of labor inside Amazon fulfillment centers, is reminiscent of the social problem novels of Upton Sinclair. Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century also highlights Amazon’s seasonal employees. Bruder looks at the lives of workers who live in RVs and travel between Amazon fulfillment centers as temporary employees. The author explores the employees’ working conditions and lack of retirement income and the effects of the 2007–8 financial crisis. In a more general context, Sarah Kessler’s Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work looks at the plight of contingent and independent contract workers that provide services through online marketplaces such as Uber and Taskrabbit.

Though outside of the United States, Alibaba is a major e-commerce company based in China. Founded in 1999, it now dominates the Chinese market. Liu Shiying and Martha Avery’s Alibaba: The Inside Story behind Jack Ma and the Creation of the World’s Biggest Online Marketplace focuses on Jack Ma and his founding of the company. As with Stone’s books about Amazon, this book’s central character is the company’s founder. Also detailing Ma’s founding of Alibaba, Duncan Clark’s Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built looks at Chinese government policies in the 1990s that encouraged the growth of Alibaba. This work gives context to the Alibaba story by describing the larger social and economic changes that occurred in China in the last twenty years. Ying Lowrey’s The Alibaba Way: Unleashing Grassroots Entrepreneurship to Build the World’s Most Innovative Internet Company is a detailed study of the entrepreneurial aspects of Alibaba. It offers case studies of how small businesses and individuals use the Alibaba platform to create startup companies. This book seeks to understand Alibaba’s impact on small companies and the Chinese economy.

While several books cover Alibaba, not many cover e-commerce from a broadly international perspective. Porter Erisman’s Six Billion Shoppers: The Companies Winning the Global E-Commerce Boom is a notable exception. Focusing on emerging markets, it details the activities of companies operating outside of the United States, including the major markets of India and China. The author is optimistic that e-commerce will play a large and growing role in emerging markets around the world.

Other e-commerce platforms that have received book-length treatment are eBay and Craigslist. Ken Steiglitz’s Snipers, Shills, & Sharks: eBay and Human Behavior offers a different approach to understanding a major e-commerce company by analyzing buyer and seller behavior on eBay’s platform. In 2007, when the book was written, eBay used auctions to buy and sell on the platform. However, more recently auctions have become less important to eBay’s business model. This work provides an important, deep, and technical description of auctions and would make a suitable textbook for studying them. Using data from eBay, Steiglitz analyzes different bidding strategies through mathematical analysis. Interestingly, when this book was written, Amazon and eBay were quite different platforms than they are today, now that eBay has adopted many of Amazon’s characteristics. While Amazon and eBay have grown more alike in the last few years, Craigslist has remained distinct. Jessa Lingel’s An Internet for the People: The Politics and Promise of Craigslist is based on her research on digital culture using qualitative methods. Drawing on interviews with Craigslist insiders, it shows that the company has stayed rooted in its values of free expression by not profiting from users’ personal data.

Most of the online marketplaces discussed in this essay focus on buying and selling goods. However, one company that uses its platform to buy and sell services is Uber. Mike Isaac’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber is an inside look at a company that has had a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs. The story of Uber exemplifies many of the characteristics of companies operating on online platforms, such as dynamic pricing for customers, employing contingent workers, and using technology to disrupt existing industries. Uber, specifically, disrupted the taxi business and food delivery.

Underlying many of these e-commerce platforms is the payment system PayPal. PayPal became a major player in e-commerce by enabling financial transactions during the fast-growing period of the late 1990s and 2000s. Jimmy Soni’s The Founders: Elon Musk, Peter Thiel and the Company That Made the Modern Internet: The Inside Story of Paypal documents the founding of PayPal. As the title suggests, the book focuses on the personalities and the stories of the founders of PayPal.

Works Cited

Works Cited