[Here’s a book review I wrote in 2010 that is still relevant today (circa September 2020), so I’ve now added it to my blog, Prof Bruce]
For the first three quarters of my advance copy of the book Delivering Happiness (Hachette Books, June 2010) by Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh (pronounced ‘Shay’), I felt like this was going to be the 3rd book I have ever read that, if I could have, I would have been its author. The other two are: The Cryptonomicon (a rip roaring WWII adventure story with a contemporary connection written by Neal Stephenson) and Home from Nowhere (a journalist’s view of the poor planning decisions made since WWII that have practically ruined our urban spaces, by James Howard Kunstler). But alas, the last quarter of the book changed my mind.
It was as if all the core values that Hsieh credits for the extraordinary growth of Zappos.com, an online shoe retailer with practically zero sales in 1999, $1.6 million in 2000, $8.6 million in 2001, $32 million in 2002 and > $1 billion by 2008, were just shibboleths waiting to be tossed aside at the first sign of recession.
In November 2008, Zappos.com announced across the board HR cuts of 8%. Remember this is a company that had just crossed the $1 billion threshold in sales and it was a point in time when the recession had just been officially recognized and declared. Here you have a CEO and a company that set out ten core values—providing WOW service, embracing change, being a fun place to work and a little bit weird, being creative, open minded and having a sense of adventure, promoting growth and learning amongst employees and as an organization, having honest relationships not only between staff members but with customers and suppliers too, creating a positive team environment and a family spirit, doing more with less, being passionate and, lastly, being a bit humble—deciding to use the recession as political cover for layoffs, just like a lot of other large companies were doing at the time.
If the book had stopped at p. 190, I would have written about Zappos.com’s marvellous corporate culture and how it was intrinsically linked to their remarkable growth—with all ten of their core values being ones that I believe could benefit most organizations—both for-profit ones and not-for-profits alike. But on p. 191, Zappos.com starts to behave like any other bottom-line driven corporation—trying to maximize short term profits so they can get the highest price possible in a sale of the company that would, in fact, take place the following year— Zappos.com was sold to Amazon for $1.2 billion in 2009. I see the hard-hearted hand of Sequoia Capital (a Menlo Park, California VC firm) behind all this.
Most of these bloodless VCs only want one thing—to maximize their shareholders’ value. For other stakeholders like hard working, passionate, laid-off former Zappos.com employees—tough luck. (Just in case you think this is an American phenomenon, it is not. CEOs of major Canadian corporations like, say, a major telecommunications firm, have been known to under-invest in their networks as well as lay off many employees to goose short term profits and their stock price to (try to) get the best price from a sale of the company. If, as CEO, the only strategy you can come up with is to sell the company, you need to resign and let someone else with more imagination and guts take over.)
I found Jeff Bezos’ YouTube video about the Zappos.com acquisition much more authentic and important and I would recommend you view it if you have 8 minutes and 10 seconds to spare: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-hxX_Q5CnaA.
Bezos modestly tells us that he only knows five things:
These are the values that Jeff brings to Amazon plus the involvements he has elsewhere and they create a value proposition and a business model that are hard to knock off.
I think these five things that Jeff shares with us will have greater longevity than the ten Zappos.com core values. Of course, my views may be shaped by my Canadian values that stress peace, order and good government over the American view that the pursuit of happiness is the sine qua non of life.
Nevertheless, Delivering Happiness will go into the bibliography for the course I teach at the Telfer School of Management called Entrepreneurialist Culture and others. I just wish I didn’t feel let down by the creeping notion that somewhere in the brilliant story of Tony Hsieh and Zappos.com, there lies, at its heart, a hidden hypocrisy.
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Image source, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Deliveringhappiness.jpg.