By Mike Hoban
March 2012 Is the purpose of a business about “delivering happiness?” Can you really run a company with a core value like “Create fun and a little weirdness?” I know – it sounds like a helping of new age pabulum from the warm-and-fuzzy set. However, this company has revenues of about $1 billion, was sold to Amazon in 2009 for a figure north of $1 billion and was named #6 and #11 Best Places to Work in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
That company is Zappos. I recently finished Delivering Happiness, a book written in a somewhat quirky style by its CEO Tony Hsieh (pronounced Shay), a brilliant, resourceful - maybe a little geeky – thirtysomething retail iconoclast.
The book had been sitting on my shelf for about a year (it was published in 2010) and it turned out to be an interesting and provocative read. Zappos, of course, sells shoes and now clothing through its website and telephone sales channel and offers free returns for one year (they even pay for the shipping back). There was a lot of press buzz a few years back about the company’s practice of offering new employees $2,500 to quit after their initial two week training period to test their level of commitment.
I was also intrigued because my adult daughters are both huge Zappos fans/customers and the one daughter who is in the fashion industry has visited Zappos headquarters twice as a supplier and has spoken with Hseih. Many companies have vision and value statements that are inspirational or aspirational or both but have a gap between the stirring sentences that are framed on the wall and the actual practices that are day-to-day reality. Zappos advocates fun and happiness and it is a freewheeling, zany, playful culture.
Check out a typical Zappos 30-second short from YouTube. Zappos has also published something they call “The Culture Book” which is a collection of verbatim (no editing was permitted) statements from Zappos employees about what the Zappos values mean to them. (Another value: “Be passionate and determined”).
When my daughter visited headquarters she had to sit on a throne and have her picture taken and then on the office tour she was asked to carry a Zappos flag and as she passed the cubicles and offices all of the associates in them would sound their noise makers for her. She said it was high energy and wonderfully wacky.
I’m currently reading Isaacson’s superb biography of Steve Jobs and it strikes me how very different – culture wise – Apple is from Zappos, yet they both achieve spectacular results. Apple is intense, low forgiveness, “A-Player” only and no-nonsense and Zappos is, well, Zappos. Each has a distinct culture created by its founder that brings enormous value to the brand and to the band mystique. Both companies attract, develop and retain a certain talent which fits with its culture and mission and the successful Zappos associate would never fit in at Apple and vice versa.
The Zappos culture works for Zappos. It’s as simple as that and neither its culture nor its talent practices can be replicated somewhere else. There is not an easy organizational “me too” answer here.
An aside - Watching the Zappos videos I couldn't help noticing that no one appears to be over 35 years old. It will be interesting to see if Zappos associate still have water gun battles and fantasy costume days 15 years from now as the Zappos workforce ages. Tony Hseih believes in his heart of hearts that it’s all about delivering happiness. The book is a fairly quick read and it’s bound to provide you with some new perspectives about organizational life.
Mike Hoban is a Senior Consultant for Development Dimensions International (DDI).