What’s the secret ingredient to Amazon’s innovation success? Working backward from what the customer wants.


Speaking at the MM&M Transforming Healthcare conference on Thursday, Shaun Qualheim, global life sciences solutions architect at Amazon Web Services, said the lessons learned from Amazon’s many innovations can be applied to any business, including pharma.


“We believe there’s value across industries, including in pharma,” he said. “It’s empowering others that helps you innovate. When you’re focused on others — the customer, the patients, the payers, the providers — that really helps you unleash that innovation. At Amazon, we start with the customer and work backward from there.”


The culture at Amazon helps to fuel its new ventures, from providing the web’s first free premium shipping in 2007 to Amazon Go, its grocery store without checkouts that tracks your purchases using computer vision, which opened to the public this year.


One tactic the company uses is writing a press release before it creates a product.


“Everything at Amazon has a fully created press release before we even start working on it,” Qualheim said. “Through that process of creating a press release that lays out all the details of what we expect to deliver to our customer, you can remain firm on the value to the end. [Other companies] go forward and create a product and then they throw it over the fence to the marketing department and say create something for this now. That’s actually the backwards process to it.”


Amazon’s culture is comprised of small teams – called the “two pizza teams” – that take full ownership of their projects from the beginning. Rather than its software developers creating a product and passing it on to another department for support, that product team holds on to its product for its entire lifecycle.

Companies that want to innovate need to create a culture that accepts risks and accepts failure — but not too many failures.


“You have to fail; if you’re not accounting for failure, you’re not inventing and you’re not innovating,” he said. “You have to have an organization where it’s understood that taking some risk is OK if it means you’re moving forward, you’re innovating, and discovering new things.”