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Sun Valley: Buzz About Jeff Bezos’ ‘Big Brain,’ Bob Iger’s ‘Baller Move,’ Netflix’s Milestone on Day 3

SUN VALLEY, Idaho — Jeff Bezos had the Allen & Co. conference crowd transfixed on Thursday morning as the Amazon CEO spoke about the evolution of his company, what he looks for in leaders, and his ambitious plan to develop the world of outer space for the betterment of humanity.

Bezos was the headliner of Day 3 of the annual gathering of media and tech bigwigs in the Sun Valley Lodge mountain resort. The schedule also included a session with King Abdullah II of Jordan and his wife, Queen Rania, and Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

But Bezos was the session that everyone was talking about as conference attendees broke for lunch and afternoon meetings and recreational activities.

“He has such a big brain,” gushed one attendee.

The wide-ranging Q&A with former CIA director George Tenet did not touch on Amazon’s plans in the content arena, which was a disappointment to some of the media executives in the audience. Bezos’ passion for Blue Origin, the space technology development venture that he is backing with his personal fortune, came across loud and clear.

According to multiple sources, Bezos said his goal is to develop a technology infrastructure for space exploration and related programs that will allow other inventors and entrepreneurs to craft their own innovations. Bezos in the past has discussed the possibility of growing food and harvesting new forms of energy on other planets.

Bezos noted that he built Amazon on the back of existing technology and distribution foundations, from the then-fledgling World Wide Web to the transportation systems that deliver Amazon’s products. But those kinds of basic platforms don’t exist in the commercial realm for space-related ventures. He aims to change that and reduce the massive barrier to entry to space exploration in order to encourage people to invent businesses and applications in their garages and college dorms.

Bezos noted that he is devoting some $1 billion a year to Blue Origin, funds the he described as coming from his “winnings” from Amazon’s sky-high stock price.

Bezos also discussed the challenges of managing a company that grew from about 30,000 employees to nearly 600,000 in just a few years. Numerous attendees noted that he suggested managers evaluate new employees on “inputs not outputs,” meaning to look at the steps a person took to ensure success rather than the final outcome of any particular venture, because there can be so many variables along the way. Attendees were also struck by the depth of Bezos’ commitment to his company and the customers it serves.

King Abdullah II made a pitch to the influential crowd about the importance of Western countries welcoming refugees from war-torn regions. He noted that his tiny country takes in a huge number of humanitarian refugees every year, relative to the country’s size and GDP.

Other highlights from the Sun Valley scene on Thursday:

** Netflix’s Ted Sarandos breezed into the Konditorei cafe for a double espresso just a few minutes before the 70th annual Primetime Emmy Award nominations were announced. It was good thing he had some extra caffeine because the big headline was Netflix breaking HBO’s 18-year streak of leading the nominations pack. “I’m most happy that the nominations were spread out among 40 different shows,” Sarandos said later, after another visit to Konditorei.

** Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg were treated like rock stars by a clutch of local kids who snapped pictures of the Facebook leaders as they stopped in the cafe. Sandberg, sporting a gray T-shirt with an image of a lion, quickly dispatched a group of reporters waiting outside to question Zuckerberg (blue T-shirt, black jeans).

** CAA’s Bryan Lourd was in-country for the day, donning an Idaho-friendly denim shirt and salmon-colored jeans.

** Martin Sorrell may have been pushed out of his CEO perch at WPP amid allegations of misconduct, which he has strongly denied, but that has not dimmed his sales in Sun Valley. He’s been highly visible this week, no doubt wheeling and dealing for his new next-generation advertising venture.

** You can’t blame him for asking. Comcast chief Brian Roberts, on his way into the conference sessions early Thursday morning, urged reporters to “write about something else today” other than Comcast’s battle with Disney over 21st Century Fox and Sky. 

** Apropos of Disney vs. Comcast, several attendees made mention of what one described as a “baller move” by Disney chief Bob Iger to take his breakfast at a prominent front table with Fox’s Rupert Murdoch and Lachlan Murdoch and Rupert’s wife, Jerry Hall. “That was a statement,” said one Iger admirer.

(Pictured: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Dan Rose, and Sheryl Sandberg)

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