Home » Book Review, Featured, General News, Headline, Marketing

The Story Behind Zappos’ Success Lies Behind Two Empowering Words: Deliver Happiness

7 June 2010 Ken Yeung No Comment

The Zappos.com team, Gloria Bell & Kenneth YeungIt was last year at the South by Southwest interactive conference where I first heard about Tony Hsieh (@zappos) and Zappos, for that matter. But over the next few days after Hsieh’s incredible keynote, I got a chance to chat with some of the Zappos team that were present and passing out playing cards as part of a contest Zappos was having. It only took the span of the conference to see exactly what the company culture was all about. It was from here that I started to pay more attention to the company over the next 12 months. More often I would hear Hsieh’s name pop up in conversation or perhaps even showing up at a conference, but the next milestone really hit when the company announced its acquisition by Amazon.com. From here, I needed to find out more information about the history about the company and just how did Zappos become so successful.

Delivering HappinessJust months before this year’s recent South by Southwest conference, I heard through Twitter that Hsieh was putting together a book. What would it be about? I wouldn’t know until a few weeks ago. And after reading on the Zappos site that they were giving out review copies to qualified people and bloggers, I jumped at the chance. And within a few days, I received a package containing a letter from the company and my very own copy of Delivering Happiness: A Path To Profits, Passion, And Purpose.

I don’t know what intrigued me more about this book…even before I read it, I had no idea about what Hsieh would say. Yes, he’s very successful as an entrepreneur but I didn’t know whether this would be a business book, autobiography or life lesson-style production. Turns out that it was a little bit of both and that worked out fine for me. All of the books that I’ve read in the past have had a different effect after being read – none are better than the other, but with Delivering Happiness, I was really interested in hearing what Hsieh had to say. After all, the environment of openness and “keeping it real” at Zappos is widely known and it’s respected for being a really great company. So once I started reading, I could tell it wasn’t one to use a lot of big words…in fact, it seemed almost “conversational”.

If you have a chance to pick up Delivering Happiness and start to read it, you’ll find that Hsieh concedes a few points in the very beginning. First, while it’s divided up into three sections: Profits, Profits & Passion and Profits, Passion & Purpose, it is by no means purely a business book where you, as a marketer or entrepreneur, should try and mimic. In fact, consider Delivering Happiness as something more like a journey through the mind of a business person – the success, the failures, tips, resources and tricks employed to get where he is today. A second concession made is that Hsieh admits it’s not meant to be “a comprehensive corporate history of Zappos” or any of his other businesses he’s been involved in. Lastly, this book is not written in formal english as you would expect any published book to be. I would probably dare to compare Delivering Happiness to being a really lengthy blog post authored by Hsieh, but with parts contributed by his friends, employees, and colleagues. As Hsieh put it, he did this because he wanted the writing to “reflect how I would normally talk”.

With this spirit of transparency set in place, I began reading Delivering Happiness and it was an enlightening book. It starts off with Hsieh’s life and how he first started his own business, at the age of nine where he tried to make money selling earthworms. The book continues on this path of describing Hsieh as hungry for business and finding ways to make money, but don’t get this confused with him being greedy. The picture being painted is of Hsieh being someone who always tried to think “outside the box” and was a naturally gifted to being an entrepreneur and not being one destined to be stuck in a cubicle working for someone. He wanted to become his own boss and in doing so, he’s gained some real experiences from this journey. Things that you’ll get to learn about Hsieh is how his heritage and family helped shape who he was and also discover the background behind his first triumph as a millionaire with LinkExchange when it was purchased by Microsoft for $265 million.

Fast forward and you’ll be treated to anecdotes spread throughout the book by Hsieh’s colleagues, many of whom were involved in some of the most pivotal and crucial parts of his life. Some of the business points you’ll gain from Delivering Happiness is Hsieh’s lessons in poker and how they could be applied to business, specifically in how to evaluate market opportunities, marketing & branding, financials, strategy, continuing education and culture. Other things you’ll find out is the humble start of Zappos and how Hsieh and his partners started their venture firm to then become full-time employees of Zappos.

But here’s where it gets really interesting. For about the first half of the book, you’re treated with tales about Hsieh’s life growing up and the trials and tribulations that he went through. In the second part of the book, you’re now talking about Zappos which has essentially taking center stage. In fact, while the book is still more conversational and less points are explicitly stated, by reading deeper into the story, you’re going to be able to look and see that whether he meant it to be or not, Delivering Happiness is a giant case study. Additionally, you can see how the fact that core values stems from the top of the company hierarchy and branches down to the very last person – so if the executive doesn’t believe in the company mission, then how will the lowest guy/girl on the proverbial totem pole? But in an interesting twist, Hsieh also shows that within Zappos, it’s a two way street – the company culture works in reverse so it can start from the janitor or the night watchman and matriculate up to the executive causing a whole new culture to exist. Thus, Zappos’ culture was created and how everyone is trained from day one…the team is empowered to strive to do just one main thing: deliver happiness.

We’ve all heard stories about Zappos and how they go far beyond their way to please their customers and this book goes to show you just why and how they do this. Just look at their core values (they have ten of them):

  1. Deliver WOW Through Service
  2. Embrace and Drive Change
  3. Create Fun And A Little Weirdness
  4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded
  5. Pursue Growth and Learning
  6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication
  7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit
  8. Do More With Less
  9. Be Passionate and Determined
  10. Be Humble

Never in any of their core values do you see anything that says “make more money” or “sell more widgets”. It’s all about the customer. Delivering Happiness is telling us that Zappos is in the customer service business. Hsieh even mentions that the philosophy at Zappos is that they’re willing to make short-term sacrifices like lost revenue or profits IF it will result in long-term benefits. Hsieh shows us in his book how he went and empowered everyone on the team to make decisions and help create a company in their vision. After all, happy and passionate workers make for a great company. Even when it came down to inevitable layoffs or announcing the merger with Amazon or even working against their own board of directors because they didn’t see any advantage towards being more customer-centric, Hsieh fought for his employees and the company culture. And they won.

Delivering Happiness is out in stores and on Amazon starting today. I recommend picking up this book to share with your team to help educate them on the importance on making people happy (in a good way and not because you’re a people pleaser). In the end, you make better business by treating your customers right and doing it in an honest, fun and with a little surprise. After all, Hsieh believes that every company should deliver WOW through service so why not start now?

Disclosure: Prior to writing this review, I received two free copies of Delivering Happiness from the Zappos company. I was not influenced or compensated for my review and these words are my own.

Ken Yeung is a interactive strategist, project manager, and tech journalist. He's currently a Strategy and Research Content Lead at Orange Silicon Valley. Previously, he was the Bay Area Reporter for The Next Web, the Editor-in-Chief of Bub.blicio.us and a correspondent for Network Solutions' small business blog. These words are his own and not of his employer.