Delivering Happiness, by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, describes his early entrepreneurial life and the founding of Zappos.
When it comes down to the most professional aspect of the text, Hsieh discusses the central role customer service plays in the progression of his business. In delivering happiness to the customer, Hsieh finds substantial success.
Early on, Hsieh had to change and improve Zappos in order to accomplish this deliverance of happiness. Some of these changes are much more tangible, such as picking the right location and method of shipping product so the customer receives it as soon as possible. Other changes, however, are much more ethereal and revolve around what many would view as a peculiar culture found within the Zappos office.
Zappos was very progressive for its time in its development of an uncommon, over-the-top fun, friendly, and yet still incredibly productive office atmosphere. The culture is so progressive that Hsieh is often invited to speak about the nature of the Zappos office and he even encourages and permits tours of the Zappos headquarters located in Las Vegas, of all places. Hsieh writes that Zappos’s “Culture Book is available to the general public” and that it “always blows [his] mind—people are asking to read the Culture Book of someone else’s company. When’s the last time you’ve heard of anyone requesting to read [an] … employee handbook (outside of … someone in HR)?”
Similar startups emulate the design, and Delivering Happiness can act as a guide to developing an office culture which makes “work” fun and rewarding for everyone.
However, the founders and employees within young, hip startups are often not aware of a number of laws and regulations which work to protect the employee and employer. The nature of a growing, fun startup encountering the sensitive nature of human resources can be extremely thorny.
One of the more controversial bits in the book is found when Hsieh describes what originally set him and his co-workers to develop their idea of culture. He writes that “to keep our culture strong, we wanted to make sure that we only hired people who we would also enjoy hanging out with outside the office. As it turned out, many of the best ideas came about while having drinks at a local bar.” Ignoring the fact that a lot of their “best ideas came about … at a local bar,” there is something concerning about the statement that a company should only hire people they want to hang out with outside of work.
Hsieh is able to reconcile such a desire in a very thorough Culture Book. The book works to describe the nature of the company and how one should act in the office as an employee of Zappos. But this desire for making work fun that one may forget that business should still be business. A code of conduct desiring its employees to “create fun,” have “a little weirdness,” “be adventurous, creative, and open-minded,” and so on treads a fine line between what is and is not appropriate in the business place.
A recent example of an employee having too much fun can be found if one looks at the recent controversy stirred by Matt Van Horn, VP of Business Development at Path. Van Horn gave a presentation at South by Southwest Interactive festival in March entitled “Adding Value as a Non-Technical No Talent Ass-Clown.”
The title alone of the presentation really should start to send shivers down the backs of the management of HR at Path. Unfortunately, his attitude and word-choice during the presentation were far from professional and would surely violate all sorts of conventional business handbook rules. During the presentation, Van Horn noted that when he originally applied to Digg, a social news website, he sent pictures of attractive then-fellow classmates at the University of Arizona in swimsuits. He made a number of sexual and other inappropriate remarks as well.
Van Horn’s attitude is a product of the young, trendy startups. Tech startups particularly in the Valley tend to be pretty casual and risky in their office behavior, an attitude exemplified by Hsieh and his in-office and out-of-office antics. Hsieh would drink a lot with his co-workers. He would also hold massive parties in which his co-workers would attend. He writes that “several hundred people showed up for my New Year’s party. There was a line from the elevator to the entrance of the loft” in one particular incident covered in the book, the fire department was called to his penthouse apartment because of an over-ambitious fog machine at 3:00 AM.
As a business leader or representative of human resources, there should always be a line drawn somewhere so that people can have fun but also avoid inappropriate behavior. Hsieh created a fantastic culture and one that fosters success for his business, but that success has only been made possible from the positive aspects of culture which deliver happiness.
This commentary was written by Mathew Simonton of Xenium HR.