At length, after a bit of business talk that maybe resembled a cousin of an actual breakfast meeting, Rutledge blurted out a question that had been troubling him: “Why did you buy Woot?”
For the uninitiated, the term “woot” is an expression of joy that sprang from online role-playing games, a portmanteau of “wow” and “loot.” Rutledge had bought the web address Woot.com in 2003 for $6,000, and the next year launched a site that sold stuff in a way no one had ever tried. Woot offered only one item per day, usually a gadget but maybe a wheel of cheese, and priced it so low that it oftentimes sold out in a matter of hours. When the items didn’t sell out, Woot put them in a Bag of Crap, a bundle that users bought blindly. Customer service pretty much began and ended with the suggestion that the customer put any unwanted or defective item on eBay.
Woot violated nearly every precept of retail. And it was wildly successful. Each weekday just after midnight Central Standard, a new item went up. It was an event. The site attracted a community of geeks who once flooded its discussion forum with 452 comments about a power adapter. At its height, Woot attracted 1 million daily visitors, to whom Rutledge was something of a rock star. By 2008, annual sales had eclipsed $164 million, and Inc. magazine named Woot the fastest-growing private retailer in the country (and the fastest-growing private company in North Texas). At that point, Amazon had already invested in the company. Then it bought the whole thing.
So there sat Bezos at the breakfast table, faced with a question for which he was apparently unprepared. Many painful seconds passed without an answer. Rutledge let the pause lengthen as long as he could bear it and was just about to tell his host to forget it, when Bezos finally spoke.
He looked down at his plate. Bezos had ordered a dish called Tom’s Big Breakfast, a preparation of Mediterranean octopus that includes potatoes, bacon, green garlic yogurt, and a poached egg. “You’re the octopus that I’m having for breakfast,” Rutledge remembers Bezos saying. “When I look at the menu, you’re the thing I don’t understand, the thing I’ve never had. I must have the breakfast octopus.”
Not until Rutledge had returned to Dallas and related the story to his anxious employees—now Amazon’s employees—did he realize just how absurd that explanation sounded. Before it can be eaten, generally, the breakfast octopus must be killed.