“Delivering Happiness” is the mostly biographical book by Tony Hsieh that details his life so far and his exploits in building Zappos. Zappos is the world’s largest online shoe store (though now does fashion as well), and has been acquired by Amazon. It’s operating as an independent entity, and the reasons for that are made obvious at the end of the book.
Hsieh writes well, and the book is engaging and quite funny at times. He starts by framing his life in the expectations of his Asian parents, and details his early entrepreneurial successes and failures and his schooling. His early work at Oracle quickly gets pushed to the side as he and friends strike out to create their own businesses, with the first largely successful one, Link Exchange, making him a very young millionaire after its sale to Microsoft.
With money no longer a concern, Hsieh details his days of being an angel investor and his time incubating companies in San Francisco. Detailing the rave culture (and its subsequent decline into more commercialism), he uses the concept of PLUR – peace, love, unity and respect – to explain how he came to have a belief in the idea of a culture and its importance in providing the framework to a work environment, and the idea that work shouldn’t just be a place that you go every day, but a family with whom you serve others in an effort to engage in your passion while also defining your purpose and hopefully making profit along the way.
The latter portion of the book is spent detailing the core values of Zappos, and each of their ten values is explained with anecdotes from particular employees. Hsieh makes no effort in hiding his mistakes or the fact that the company has not always been the perfect place to work, and it seems he is genuinely pained when he has to make tough economic decisions that result in layoffs. Detailing the culture in exquisite detail though does have its drawbacks, and it seemed to me to be a bit cultish. The story of a woman whose husband died placing a call to her manager before another family member struck me in particular. I can understand wanting to be close to co-workers and having a sense of purpose, but I get a little worried when people do this to the extreme that they would call a manager before family when their spouse suddenly dies.
Still, it’s hard to argue with Hsieh’s results. Growing Zappos from nothing to a $1 billion a year (in sales) company in ten years is an impressive achievement. He garnered an acquisition from Amazon in all stock to allow the company to operate in the same method it always had, thereby protecting the culture that he worked so hard to achieve. Hsieh’s stress on placing the service aspect of the business first – service to customers, vendors, and employees alike – does show that people can gain passion and purpose while also pursuing profits.
Having attended a high school whose motto was “Men for Others” and a business school whose motto was “Where business is taught with humanity in mind”, the lesson of service to others is not lost on me. Hsieh shows that it works, and works well, and perhaps if more people followed his example the idea of “having a case of the Mondays” would vanish from our collective consciousness, and “capitalism” – the word – as it exists today might not have so many negative connotations.