The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google

“It may seem unlikely that Amazon will one day lose its way. It will. Business mimics biology and, thus far, the mortality rate is 100 percent. The same is true of the Four. They will die. The question is not if, but when, and by whose hand?”

We may find the end of any of the big four tech companies hard to imagine, but there was a time before each existed and so there will come a time after each ends. Although far from author Scott Galloway’s emphasis, the reminder that all companies meet their (un)maker is a good example of the obvious-once-you-read-it commentary offered throughout The Four. Where Galloway does spend most of his time is in explaining who these four companies really are. Sure, we know Apple makes us stuff, Amazon delivers stuff to us, Facebook helps us share stuff, and Google helps us find stuff. But what these companies really are and how they became these things goes beyond the stuff-based descriptions.

Amazon wants to be your book dealer, clothier, grocer, office supplier, and just about everything provider to be sure. To get there it has to become the most ruthlessly efficient logistics and delivery company imaginable. Amazon is not going after mom and pop. Wal-Mart took care of them. Amazon has FedEx, DHL, and UPS in its sights. How is Jeff Bezos going about getting there?

“The wealthiest man in the twentieth century mastered the art of minimum-wage employees selling you stuff. The wealthiest man of the twenty-first century is mastering the science of zero-wage robots selling stuff.”

As for Apple, we could be forgiven for thinking they are a hardware company. Devices like iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks are indeed well-built, but becoming the Apple we know now, a lifestyle company, required it to get closer to its customers. Enter the Apple store, the first of which opened in May 2001. When the iPhone arrived six years later, Apple controlled every aspect from product development, to manufacturing, to point of sale. Given that Apple stores make about $5000 per square foot, that is quite the point of sale.

Which leaves us with the two Benjamin Button companies, Facebook and Google. Unlike an iPhone or the sneakers bought from Amazon, Facebook and Google age in reverse as they leverage network effects to become more powerful the more they are used. The second and third keys to success for these companies are the fact that billions of users decide that convenience outweighs privacy and buy into a corporate stratagem convincing users that Facebook and Google are helpful platforms run by good people and not what they actually are, growing media monopolies. So, let’s all watch Sheryl Sandberg lean in and Google preach about not being evil and ignore the fact that our searches, likes, and other personal data are monetized to the benefit of a small number of tech elites.

Humorous, irreverent, and insightful, The Four is a highly readable analysis of the dominant corporations of our time. Too often, we lose sight of the fact that they are, in fact, corporations bent on market dominance. Galloway does his best to remind us of this fact, but are we interested in listening?