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Sophocles, one of the three ancient Greek tragedians whose plays have survived until today, once wrote that "success is dependent on effort." He also wrote that "profit is sweet even if it comes from deception." Sophocles never suggested that success goes hand in hand with profit, but he makes me wonder if there is a connection between those two after all.
Fast forward 2,500 years and his words remain relevant. In fact, they can accurately portray one of the biggest success stories of our times, the rise of Amazon.com (NASDAQ: AMZN ) . They also reflect on what is perceived as the biggest fiasco in finance history, the fall of Brazil's billionaire Eike Batista.
Does making it big mean making a killing? More importantly, what happens when you base your success on false promises? What do the man who's known for his patience and long-term thinking and the man who had hoped to become the wealthiest person in the world have to teach us about success?
Focus on what's important and bring investors around
In 2000, a pall of gloom hovered over Amazon. It was burning cash so fast that, according to analysts, not even occasional shots in the arm from investors could save the day.
"Amazon early this year managed to raise $690 million by issuing convertible bonds. But that money will last the firm only 21 months. Moreover, raising fresh funds will be more difficult if Amazon's operating losses continue to mount and its stock price continues to flag," Barron's reported at the time.
Not only did the Internet bookseller from Seattle not run out of cash, it also managed to turn things around and deliver its first-ever net profit by the end of 2001.
Over the past decade, the company's stock has performed impressively and returned more than 400% of its value. Today, Jeff Bezos is (in Warren Buffett's eyes) the best CEO in the United States.
When it comes to Amazon's success, focusing on short-term profitability doesn't do the trick. Amazon lost money during the past year. Last quarter, it fell short of expectations and posted a $0.02 EPS loss, since it once again put investments ahead of profitability. For the current quarter, an operating loss is expected to be between $440 million and $65 million, compared to $28 million in the third quarter 2012.
All of that doesn't seem to shake Bezos up, though. In fact, he tends to shrug off the negative figures in Amazon's bottom line as something investors should cheer for. He has somehow managed to convince everyone that little to no profits represent investments that will eventually pay off. Why? Because "when you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it," Bezos claims. Based on his core strategy, putting the customer first, inventing, and being patient is the way to go. Effort plants a seed. Patience sees it grow. And investors have learned to be patient alongside Amazon.
How to go from hero to zero
Over the past two decades, Eike Batista (also known as the Donald Trump of Brazil) was busy building a commodities and logistics empire only to see it crumble in the blink of an eye. At the age of 30, he was buying and selling gold mines. By the age of 55, Batista had founded five publicly traded companies and had a sixth one in the making, all under his EBX holding company umbrella.
In 2007, when the erstwhile billionaire announced the creation of OGX (NASDAQOTH: OGXPY ) , an offshore oil exploration and production company, he seemed ready to take over the world. He paid an arm and a leg for government offshore oil lease sales, leaving his competitors out in the cold. He lured executives and geologists away from Petrobras, Brazil's state-controlled oil company, creating a "dream team" capable of carrying through his ambitious plans ... or so he thought.
OGX expected that it would pump 50,000 barrels a day by the end of last year, and more than 700,000 by the end of 2015. Things didn't go as planned, however. The fields were basically duds, and Batista was left sort of up the creek. OGX had to give up further developments of its major oil fields. It missed a $45 million interest payment on bonds earlier this month, and now it's on the verge of biting the dust.
Batista once had the world at his feet. Unfortunately, he made promises he couldn't keep. One by one, investors eventually started running out on him. He will go down in the annals of finance history as the man who lost nearly $35 billion in less than three years.
There is no success without failure. Batista learned this the hard way. In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, he said that he'll rise again. When and if he does, will he have anyone standing behind him?
Bezos based his success on the premise that worthwhile investments require effort and patience. He managed to earn investors' trust – something that Batista will have to fight to get back.
What Bezos taught us
The lessons from Bezos make it clear that chasing short-term returns is folly, for both businesses and investors. The best investing approach is to choose great companies and stick with them for the long term. The Motley Fool's free report "3 Stocks That Will Help You Retire Rich" names stocks that could help you build long-term wealth and retire well, along with some winning wealth-building strategies that every investor should be aware of. Click here now to keep reading.