Pluses: Interesting, fast-paced story about the phenomenal growth of one of the most remarkable (and unconventional) online retailers in the world. Filled with worthy business lessons (and the occasional life lesson as well).
Minuses: Somewhat superficial, exploiting vastly overused concepts such as “passion” and “purpose,” and the author seems to be an evangelist for the current trend of “workplace happyism,” which, carried to extremes, may not necessarily be a good thing.
Details: Tony Hsieh (pronounced “Shay”) was only 24 in 1999 when he sold a company he’d co-founded, LinkExchange, to Microsoft for $265 million. Shortly afterward he signed on with the fledgling online shoe retailer Zappos as an adviser and investor who eventually became CEO. Within ten years, with a lot of hard work and no small amount of his own money, he had helped Zappos grow from next to nothing to more than $1 billion in gross annual merchandise sales. In 2009 Zappos was the highest-ranking newcomer in Fortune magazine’s annual roundup of “Best Companies to Work For.” That same year, Zappos was acquired by Amazon (or, rather, the two companies exchanged stock) in a deal that was valued at $1.2 billion on the day of closing.
The Zappos of today sells far more than shoes, but the company has retained its core values and larger mission, a point which Hsieh makes repeatedly in this book. These ten core values, hammered out after a year of brainstorming among employees, include but are not limited to: delivering a “wow” experience through customer service; embracing change; creating fun and “a little weirdness”; pursuing growth and learning on both a personal and professional level; team building and family spirit; passion; and humility. Hsieh goes to some length to expound on these values, incorporating the writings of other Zappos employees and principals where necessary. And at the end (spoiler alert) he reveals both his and Zappos’ “higher purpose”: delivering happiness to the world.
These days Hsieh, who stayed on as CEO of Zappos even after the marriage with Amazon, also does consulting to help teach businesses how to spread the happy virus among their employees. He seems serious about piloting a worldwide movement to make the world a better place through applications of the “science of happiness,” and he lays out his philosophy, as well as his story – and Zappos’ story, of course – in Delivering Happiness.
Accordingly, the unifying theme in this easy, breezy read is that of creating a corporate culture of happiness that extends far beyond the walls of the company headquarters. In fact, fans of the 1992 Barry Levinson movie Toys (starring Robin Williams, Joan Cusack, LL Cool J, and Robin Wright) may very well find themselves humming one of the movie’s songs, “The Happy Worker” to themselves as they thumb through this part biography, part-business wisdom book. (You are welcome to Google that song if you’re not familiar with it, but we refuse to accept responsibility if the tune stays in your head for the rest of the day and drives you slightly bonkers.)
Hsieh, who notes that writing a book was on his bucket list, says he wrote his parts of Delivering Happiness himself, without the help of a ghostwriter. He does a fair if somewhat superficial job, infusing the fast-paced story with appropriate hard-learned business lessons, and a few life lessons as well. At the end of the book, after the main narrative, he tacks on some sight bites featuring some of the findings from the science of happiness, including the obligatory reference to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Despite the superficiality of the writing, there are some good lessons sprinkled throughout the narrative – lessons that a seasoned entrepreneur or business might already know, but that are worth revisiting nonetheless. And new entrepreneurs, or those involved in startups, may very well find some worthy lessons in these pages. For example, when relating a tale of his former company, LinkExchange, Hsieh makes a good case for having a solid corporate culture, and supporting that culture by sound hiring practices. When LinkExchange reached a point in its growth where it was populated by employees who, he says, were motivated by self-interest rather than by “being a part of something new and exciting,” Hsieh learned the hard way what happens when a corporate culture that actually works is eroded.
Another hard lesson was learned at Zappos a few years later, when the firm decided to outsource fulfillment, with disastrous results. Lesson learned: Don’t outsource your core competency. Apropos of that, Hsieh also outlines the remarkable differences between Zappos’ call centers and those of most companies. Zappos is all about catering to the customer; accordingly, they don’t measure call times (their longest phone call was almost six hours long), and – hold on to your hat – they don’t upsell.
“We just care about whether the rep goes above and beyond for every customer,” writes Hsieh. “We want our reps to let their true personalities shine during each phone call so that they can develop a personal emotional connection (internally referred to as PEC) with the customer.” He speculates that a lot of folks might think it odd that an Internet-based company would be so focused on that old-fashioned instrument, the telephone, especially since only about 5 percent of the phone calls result in sales. But it’s one of the things that sets Zappos apart in an increasingly impersonal world, and it helps create an enviable level of customer loyalty.
Zappos, it turns out, does a lot of things differently from many companies, and one of the most remarkable (besides the company’s call center policy) is the almost unheard-of transparency with vendors. Many retailers treat their vendors more like rivals or servants, playing all sorts of games with them in order to squeeze out the lowest prices for goods or services. Zappos, as outlined in an essay on vendor relations (pp. 184-190), treats vendors as respected business partners. Their policy is to create “collaborative relationships in which both [Zappos and the vendor] share the risks, as well as the rewards.” Whereas the normal practice in retailing is to hoard information and use it as leverage to get more out of vendors, Zappos shares data on inventory levels, sales, and profitability with its vendors. This policy has reaped handsome rewards for the company, not the least of which is passionate loyalty from their vendors.
The arc of Hsieh’s own biography is pretty revealing in its own way as well. On one level it appears that he is staying true to the Zappos core value of being humble, by presenting himself as just another everyman entrepreneur who made a lot of mistakes, but whose success story can be emulated with a bit of hard work and a determination to embrace sound values. However, even a superficial reading of his story reveals that Hsieh is anything but a typical American entrepreneur.
Undeniably Hsieh was bright, but he had something that was perhaps more important going for him: a fierce entrepreneurial streak that was apparent from the time he was a youngster. For Hsieh, being in business and making a profit were passions, if not obsessions, from a very early age. This is something that is of course common to many entrepreneurs. But it’s also worth noting that in addition to other factors working in Hsieh’s favor, he was the right age, and was in the right place at the right time, for his success story to unfold as it did. Still, many readers will find his story intriguing, and may find something edifying in his blow-by-blow accounts of his various businesses’ growing pains.
That said, a few things keep this from being a five-dollar-sign effort. People who are a little burned out on self-help and business/motivational books may roll their eyes at some of Hsieh’s preaching, not to mention his heavy use of already overused terms such as “passion” and “purpose.” And in places it seems he tries too hard to be witty. For instance, he starts his first chapter with a quotation from Gandhi, and then writes, “I’m pretty sure Gandhi didn’t know who I was when I was nine…” That’s a pretty fair guess, since Hsieh was nine in 1984, when Mahatma Gandhi had been dead for 36 years. Of course the Gandhi reference was meant to be humorous, and in the same context Hsieh also mentions Thomas Edison, acknowledging that the latter is no longer among the living. Still, the joke seems to fall a little flat.
And then there’s that happiness hook. Delivering Happiness often reads as if it had been written as a handout to Zappos employees to keep that corporate-culture mojo going, and no doubt it has served that purpose. But it is also an upsell for Hsieh’s consulting business/world mission, though arguably a subtler one than that of many business or marketing gurus. For Hsieh and a few others, selling happiness, or the idea of happiness, is a lucrative enterprise these days. On the web page describing Hsieh’s corporate consulting services, the copy reads, “We use happiness as a business model. We’ll work with you to engage your employees, empower them to drive and sustain positive change, and produce a company culture that will fuel your brand.” The copy is framed by photos of smiling, grinning, clowning, or otherwise visibly happy workers (or quite possibly, stock photos of people posing as happy workers).
It’s difficult to fault Hsieh for taking every advantage of his acclaim as a young, successful, and endlessly ambitious serial entrepreneur. It’s equally difficult to fault him for riding the coattails of the whole “happiness” segment of the self-help industry, which drew much of its inspiration from the positive-psychology works of Dr. Martin Seligman, and in more recent years from pop-psychology authors such as Gretchen Ruben of The Happiness Project fame. (Rubin, by the way, provided one of the testimonials printed on the cover flap.) However, “workplace happyism” has its share of critics who have raised some legitimate questions about whether there’s something a little askew in the idea of manufactured or institutionalized happiness.
In general, of course, it’s a very good thing for entrepreneurs and business owners to do everything they can to create a positive work environment as well as a pleasant customer experience – and, of course, a great investor or shareholder experience too, if applicable. Sometimes it’s hard to juggle all of these interests, and there are times when, unfortunately, some may prevail at the expense of others. Even so, consistently striving to treat everyone fairly and deliver on promises is the best way to stay in business: no argument there. But how much responsibility does a business owner really have to make the workplace “fun?”
Maybe work doesn’t have to be drudgery, but there’s no denying that some workplaces lend themselves more to the “fun” model than others. And happiness – even workplace happiness – is generally a byproduct of numerous factors, many of which are within the realm of a business owner’s control, but some of which are probably not. The question is: to what extent can happiness be quantified and measured? Happiness – along with its cousins, satisfaction and contentment – are certainly worthy goals to which business owners should aspire, but is there a danger of becoming too obsessed with the process of creating workplace happiness, or of attempting to institutionalize such an intangible state of being? What’s next: mandatory happiness?
Moreover, while it’s good for employers to care about their workers as people, should they try to be everything to them? Team building and encouragement of workplace harmony – even workplace friendships – are fine, but should the workplace be a surrogate for the family? Maybe that is feasible for certain types of young, vital e-commerce companies, but what about other types of companies? And just on general principle, shouldn’t there still be a little work-life separation?
When one starts digging into these questions more deeply, the whole “delivering happiness” concept rings a little hollow, or at least reveals itself to be lacking in universal applicability for all businesses. Then again, it was probably beyond the scope of Hsieh’s book to discuss these muddying issues. Like so many business or other advice books, it’s best to take what you need here, and leave the rest. At the very least, Delivering Happiness is an easy and entertaining read, and most business owners and entrepreneurs who are at all concerned about customer service may find some inspiration in these pages, even if they’re not ready to sign up to be part of a mass “movement.” It may be overreaching to say that it is possible to actually deliver happiness to customers, employees, investors, shareholders, and vendors – but injecting a little bit of the fun factor, where possible and appropriate, surely doesn’t hurt.
Okay, everybody, all together: “I love my job, he loves his job…”
* Delivering Happiness is available in several print, audio, and digital formats.
Amazon link for hardcover print edition: http://www.amazon.com/Delivering-Happiness-Profits-Passion-Purpose/dp/0446563048
For more information about this book, about Tony Hsieh’s business and life philosophies, and for additional stories about people in business who are living these principles, as well as for information on joining “the movement yourself, see www.deliveringhappinessbook.com.
Based on this review, would you read this book?
The author of this review was provided the book by Capital Access Network, Inc. The views expressed represent those of the author and do not reflect those of Capital Access Network, Inc. nor its subsidiaries. Any opinions and/or advice expressed by the author do not imply endorsement by Capital Access Network, Inc. nor its subsidiaries.