How Tony Hsieh and Zappos Delivers Happiness

June 6, 2010 § Leave a comment

Photo courtesy of Robert Scoble

For those new to the Zappos brand and Tony Hsieh, here’s a quick video about what they’re about.

Delivering Happiness opens with a quotation from the Matrix:

“There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.”
-Morpheus, The Matrix

Which really sets the tone for the book to be read: Tony’s account of his humorous, yet cautionary tale of race-car paced entrepreneurship. Fueled by youth, ambition and the need to be independent, he discovers what makes the engine really run: Pursuing happiness beyond material gratification.

Its been a pleasure to take a peek into the doors Tony Hsieh’s life and Zappos’ conception. Tony is one of my icons, and he’s the captain and head chef of the most famous online shoestore in the world.

I’ve never been given an advance copy of anything before. To see a UPS overnight shipment package on my table was a thrill indeed. As a full-fledged bookslut, this kind of happiness would register as “immediate pleasure” or “rockstar high” in Tony’s books.

I found much in common with Tony’s childhood, mostly because we’re both ethnic Chinese. Humorous description of the Asian-kid-growing-up experience:

“My parents were your typical Asian parents. My dad was a chemical engineer for Chevron, and my mom was a social worker. They had high expectatiojns in terms of academic performance for myself as well as for my two younger brothers.

The accomplishments of the children were the trophies that many parents defined their own success and status by. We were the ultimate scorecard.
There were three categories of accomplishments that mattered to the Asian parents.

Category 1 was academic accomplishments: Getting good grades, any type of award or public recognition, getting good SAT scores, or being part of the school math team counted toward this. The most important part of all of this was which college your child ended up attending. Harvard yielded the most prestigious bragging rights.

Category 2 was career accomplishments: Becoming a medical doctor or getting a PhD was seen as the ultimate accomplishment, because in both cases it meant that you could go from being “Mr. Hsieh” to “Dr Hsieh.”

Category 3 was musical instrument mastery: Almost every Asian child was forced to learn either piano or violin or both, and at each of the gatherings, the children had to perform in front of the group of parents after dinner was over. This was ostensibly to entertain the parents, but really it was a way for parents to compare their kids with each other.

Tony tells his entrepreneurial life experiences, often going into detailed biographical stories to make his point. It all helps to show what went into the creation of

“Take pride in your decisions and hard work but not your gifts. Celebrate your gifts, enjoy them, but don’t take pride in them.”
-Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO,

You might wonder if its lack of hubris, boyhood adventurism, or overextended risk-taking personality that drives Tony into taking business risks that started with worm farming (age 7), button making (elementary school), magic tricks involving dental dams (high school), burger joint (college), and web consulting (post college) before having considerable financial success with LinkExchange.

Jason Fried of 37Signals was right then, when he said that “making money takes practice, like playing the piano takes practice”.

What might be surprising to other businesses and businesspeople is how Tony never lived with a “where do I see myself/Zappos in five years” mantra. Jake Nickell, founder of custom T-shirt printer Threadless looks at business the same way, believing that letting their customers and the community decide what is best for them would be the way to go. This kind of customer-focused business model is an amazing way to stand out from the pack.

“I get all weak knee-d when I see a customer obsessive company. Zappos certainly is that.”
-Jeff Bezos

By exposing himself to random situations, and picking up valuable skills that interested him, he seemed prepared for the opportunities that came his way.

Tony also reveals the fallacy of seeking a job blindly for cash, right out of college.

“So Sanjay and I decided to interview mostly with technology companies. My goal was to find a high paying job. I didn’t really care what my specific job function was, what company I worked for, what the culture of the company was like, or where I ended up living.

I just wanted a job that paid well and didn’t seem like too much work.”

Tony’s eventual distrust of this blind focus on cash in fulfiling his happiness equation. This helped to bring the “legs” of Zappos to life, and what we know of it today. So really, Tony’s beliefs on happiness = Zappos company culture.

He calls it the Happiness Framework:
-Control over your own decisions
-Control over your career progress
-Being connected with those around you
-A higher purpose beyond money, profits, and being no. 1

This blending of a business book with a personal biography might not appeal to those who are looking for a straightforward and direct how-to business book. But then I couldn’t see how Tony would tell it in any other way, because its core message really is about not drawing the line between life and work. Being happy and successful in in life and work is a mutually beneficial equation.

“I’ve seen a lot of companies, and I’ve never seen a company culture like Zappos'”
-Jeff Bezos


More information on the book at the Delivering Happiness website

Available on Amazon


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