book review: delivering happiness, tony hsieh, zappos CEO

June 7, 2010

in culture,talent

i first encountered zappos ceo tony hsieh’s thoughts on happiness when i stumbled upon his article how twitter can make you a better (and happier) person while researching a post about using twitter throughout the employee “life cycle.” his points from that twitter = happiness post stuck with me, as did his belief that companies can and should do more than merely profit. when i heard he was writing a book to expand on these ideas, i was quick to sign up to read it.*

BLOT (bottom line on top)

delivering happiness: a path to profits, passion, and purpose is one part autobiography, one part cliffhanger, and one part business book. it details hsieh’s youthful business exploits from his first worm farm (they died, or escaped) to on-campus pizza pioneering to…too many to detail. buy it, borrow it, or take it out from the library. it’s a quick read and one that’s bound to leave you more impressed by both hsieh’s and zappos’ achievements.

memorable bits

look, we all know hsieh’s a pretty remarkable guy. that’s confirmed in the book, where you learn he applied to brown, UC berkeley, stanford, MIT, harvard, princeton, dhap2cornell, and yale. i doubt he had a safety school or a need for one. he was accepted by all of these and chose harvard for the parental bragging rights. he then proceeded to not study and still excel. he’d be easy to dislike, given this and his whopping success, if he weren’t so darn likable, a terrific storyteller (making me more excited to see him live at BIF-6 in the fall), and a model employer. he winningly conveys his passion and conviction about how businesses should be run.

the first lesson comes via the book itself. because hsieh chose not to work with a ghost writer, the writing is personal and fresh, and not always what you’d expect. i got the feeling that he’s an experiential learner and that he was writing this book to see what it required and what he’d change the next time. basically, it’s how he approaches development: do-learn-do. (at times, there’s a “fail” thrown in the cycle.)

a large part of zappos’ growth and learning stems from flying by the seat of their pants, somewhat. (this same idea is part of jason fried’s, rework, which i’ve not read yet.) it’s the idea that a business plan and forecasting are nonsense. that they’re, at best, guesses. in delivering happiness, we see this business-planning-on-the-go in action—the cliffhanger part of the book.

it may seem sometimes like we don’t know what we’re doing. and it’s true: we don’t. that’s a bit scary, but you can take comfort in knowing that nobody else knows how to do what we’re doing either…so there are no experts in what we’re doing. except for us: we are becoming experts as we do this.

what makes in-the-moment business planning work is committing to your beliefs, even when that means making the tough call. at two junctures hsieh and his team make choices that keep zappos afloat and determine its culture. early on, hsieh sold his home and left himself nearly destitute to throw zappos a lifeline. later, when zappos was more established, hsieh severed its drop-ship business, which ran in conjunction to the delivery service most of us know. this risky move eliminated a guaranteed revenue stream, one that interfered with zappos’ ability to deliver a WOW! experience—their intended core competency. hsieh pushed ahead, partly to control the customer experience and partly to bolster the employee-leadership one.

the best leaders are servant-leaders. they serve those they lead.

trust between employee and leader is critical at zappos, and it lies beneath much of their culture and ways of working. unscripted and untimed customer rep calls and the publishing of uncensored employee stories in their culture book are some of the proof in that pudding.

toward the end of the bodhapok, hsieh transitions to a discussion about happiness theory. being a perpetual “why” asker, i particularly liked his notion that asking “why” repeatedly can drive you to a greater understanding of what delivers happiness. from a business angle, he outlines how happiness drives individual and organizational success through perceived control, perceived progress, connectedness, and being part of something bigger than yourself. his walking away from millions several times lends credibility to his argument.

as expected, there’s lots about zappos’ culture in the book. hsieh shares his growing appreciation for a strong company culture, beginning with stories from school through to a culture gone awry at linkexchange, and landing finally at zappos, where hsieh cultivates and nourishes theirs, largely by turning over much of the development and articulation of it to employees. readers will find plenty to take back to their office for discussion.

one knock against the book

although hsieh invites us “to be a part of a movement to help make the world a better and happier place,” delivering happiness mostly equates higher purpose with WOWing customers; developing passionate, inquisitive, and empowered employees; and building a thriving business.

there’s nothing bad in all that. most of us would gladly go work for zappos or a company like them. it’s simply that when i consider a higher purpose, i think of something that will dramatically alter the way we live. maybe i’m quibbling. perhaps, for example, if BP was following the “zappos way” they would’ve made the up-front investment in safety that could’ve prevented the ecological nightmare we’re facing. and the world truly would look different.

as i said up front, i’d recommend the book. and i’d love to visit zappos and learn firsthand more about what they’re doing there. heck, i’d love to work with them. how can you not love a company that has “create fun and a little weirdness” as one of its core values?

ultimately, if more companies operated at the same level as zappos, i think we’d all be happy(ier).


* in exchange for a free advance copy, i agreed to write this honest review.

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