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Monday, February 20, 2012

Hsieh on Happiness and Zappos' Success

Zappos.com is often presented as the paradigm of branding success. In Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, Tony Hsieh, the company's CEO tells the story of  the creation and evolution of the distinctive company culture alongside a bit of his own life story. Of course, the only reason everyone applauds Zappos is because it has turned out to be a success, but it was on the verge of failure many times. Hsieh sank a lot of his own money into keeping it going when he could not find other companies willing to invest  in it. Hsieh does not focus on success as such but on attaining happiness.

 Hsieh's book reminded me of two others. One is Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and the other is Robert Kiyosaki's Rich Dad, Poor Dad.  Hsieh's account of his  parents' expectations for him generally fits the model that Chua presents for Asian culture. The goal was to go to Harvard and then acquire a PhD. Along the way, the child is not only supposed to earn top grades but devote time daily to practicing an instrument Hsieh's out of the box thinking was at work there to foil his parents' musical aspirations by recording himself and replaying previous practice sessions rather than actually practicing during the designated time. He makes it sound like they never caught on.

Despite the stereotyped expectations, though,  Hsieh's parents did allow him to indulge in his passions for business ventures, some of which failed instantly -- like a worm farm -- and some of which actually took off with great success -- like his mail order button business.  In that way, though they may not have taught him the "Rich Dad" lessons, they did let him find out for himself, and that is the education he gains in college -- not from his classes but his various ventures, like the pizza business he sets up.

He does graduate from Harvard and accepts a job at Oracle that pays very well but leaves him very bored. On the side he and and a college friend who also works at Oracle set up what becomes LinkShare, a business that they, ultimately, sell for millions.  Though his parents could not see the sense in leaving a secure position to start something new and risky, (which would be the "Poor Dad" kind of thinking)  in his case the risk paid off very well.  It is the same sort of approach that he carried over in starting other companies and in devoting himself and his personal assets to building up Zappos.

At the end of the book, Hsieh shifts his focus to discussing happiness. He says his goal in writing was "to contribute to a happiness movement to make the world a better place" (p. 239). Now that sounds utterly sappy, but the idea of fostering a certain type of culture is that you create a context in which such statements are acceptable. He also said that Zappos is about delivering happiness to the world" (p. 230). Hsieh believes that happiness can function as an "organizing principle" for businesses. While for an individual, passion and purpose combine to arrive at pleasure, in a business, those two goals combine for profit.  There is something that is undoubtedly appealing in that model, but I do not buy it altogether. There are many businesses that are far more successful than Zappos who developed different models for their own culture of success.

There is also the question of happiness that Hsieh brings up: "Most people go their lives thinking, When I get ___, I will be happy, or When I achieve ___, I will be happy" (p. 231).  There is the low level of happiness that fades as soon as the novelty of having that ___ fades, and one reverts back to a state of looking at what goal to set up next. Hsieh's own story shows that he feels happy while in pursuit of certain goals. When he finds the thrill is gone, he does look for new ventures. Though he has not admitted to getting disenchanted with Zappos, he has taken on a new challenge --trying to turn around a big part of Vegas, around the company headquarters. Perhaps he feels that fits into his stated goal of making the world a happier place in a more substantial way than wowing customers with service in delivering their shoes, accessories, and apparel.


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