Yes, nice guys can finish first. This is the overarching theme of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s new book Delivering Happiness, a Path to Passion, Profits, and Purpose. Released today (I was given a free, preview copy), Delivering Happiness chronicles the rise of Zappos from a half-baked notion to multi-billion dollar pinnacle of high touch customer service.
The book is presented in three sections. In the first section, Hsieh recounts his personal story, including his early childhood and nascent entrepreneurial adventures, including a misguided effort at worm farming. The details of his somewhat haphazard education at Harvard, and his kismet kissed co-founding of LinkExchange (ultimately sold to Microsoft for $265 million) are downright fascinating.
As befits the CEO of a company built on a wide-open corporate culture, Hsieh is remarkably candid about his successes, failures, and fortunes throughout, and this first section is the strongest in the book. He writes in a breezy, accessible, invigorating style that makes Delivering Happiness the rare business book that is also a genuine page turner.
As a long-time Zappos customer, and admirer of Hsieh and his customer-first mantra, I thought I had a handle on this tale. But, I was shocked by the number of times that Zappos narrowly averted ruin in its early days. Hsieh and his co-founders’ went to truly extraordinary lengths to keep the company alive, including housing employees in their homes. Each harrowing near death of Zappos makes you cheer that much louder inside when the company eventually succeeds on a grand scale.
The middle section of the book is devoted to Zappos’ legendary corporate culture, especially its 10 core values. Hsieh is refreshingly candid in his admission that the core values were not created soon enough, and were partially developed as protection against the cultural malignancies that plagued LinkExchange. While Hsieh cautions that Zappos’ core values are not a playbook that can be copied by other companies (because they both shape and reflect the unique culture), you can’t help but wonder why more companies don’t try to adopt his concepts of building long-term value through the short-term smashing of middling customer expectations.
While interesting as a concept, the inclusion of employee stories to accompany each of the 10 core values unfortunately slows the momentum built in the book’s first third. The personification of the principles helps clarify how they are utilized day-to-day, but the shifting tonality that stems from multiple contributing authors inexorably weakens the focus and urgency of Delivering Happiness.
The third section of the book covers Zappos’ sale to Amazon.com (for $1.2 billion), and the founding of the Zappos Insights program (where companies can receive training on Zappos’ customer and culture-centric methods). This component is most noteworthy for Hsieh’s admission that the Zappos board of directors was unhappy with his metamorphosis toward long-term success at the expense of short-term profits. The word-for-word reprinting of Hsieh’s emails to employees regarding the Amazon acquisition are also priceless.
The book concludes with a few pages about the science of happiness, and how personal and business happiness can be inextricably linked. Hsieh acknowledges that the study of happiness is a personal hobby, and while his passion for the subject is apparent, a clear theme or call to action is largely absent.
And ultimately, that’s the challenge with Delivering Happiness. In parts, it’s one of the best business books I’ve ever read, but most of those are the elements that are driven by a narrative and timeline. And in truth, an entire book devoted to Hsieh and the history of Zappos would have been a terrific read.
And, a book devoted solely to Zappos’ philosophies and core values would also have been a terrific read.
But instead, we have a little bit of each, and unfortunately, 1 + 1 does not equal 3 in this circumstance. It doesn’t really feel to me like one book, but rather like parts of three books fused together.
A Lot of Lessons in Delivering Happiness
There are some excellent takeaways in Delivering Happiness, especially around the thin line between success and failure, how to treat business partners and vendors, and ways in which Zappos continues to build a family-like culture among hundreds (perhaps thousands) of employees. My favorite is the “Face Game” whereby every time an employee logs on to the Web, he or she is presented with a photo of another employee, and a list of names. Whether or not the employee guesses the correct identification, the bio of the team member is shown, building familiarity in the ranks. Brilliant. Also, the discussion of Zappos’ talent development and nurturing program (called Pipeline) is detailed and fascinating.
But ultimately, I finished Delivering Happiness wanting more. A lot more. A playbook. A mission. A mantra. Perhaps Hsieh is just too unassuming and humble to kick us in the collective ass in the pages of his book, or perhaps he’s saving the tough love for the next one. Either way, reading Delivering Happiness will convince you that there is a better way, that success and happiness aren’t mutually exclusive, and that Tony Hsieh is a special person. Did Delivering Happiness rock me to my core? No. But the stories and nuggets of insight make it well worth the purchase price and then some.
Note too, the partnership between Delivering Happiness and Livestrong (they are trying to raise $33,333 to fight cancer). Donate just $33, and get a copy of the book, and an entry into a trip to NYC. Also, the official Web site at www.deliveringhappinessbook.com will be morphing soon to an online community where readers and others can share their stories and work together to create and spread happiness in the workplace and beyond. See you there.
(Tweet this review and you’re automatically entered to win a free copy of Delivering Happiness, courtesy of the author, and me)