Tag Archive for 'business'

Zappos: Happiness in a Hopeless Place, A Love Story

This may be the only time I time I title a post after a Rihanna song. It’s not exactly like I’m saving to see her in concert anytime soon, but her music is hard to avoid, and it is catchy. As they say, when in Rome. That is what they say, is it not, my friends, countrymen, and well … Romans?

No, that’s not a savvy business opening about the highly regarded billion-dollar company. Nor is it the classic scene-kid, hipster opener. Be that as it may, I gave you Rihanna and Shakespeare (sort-of) in one paragraph. Plus there are hints of what’s to come. This is not going to be the typical Zappos write-up, folks. It’s more of a personal take, but I hope it’ll still be informative in its own way. 

There are more significant reasons for the title beyond the Rihanna tie-in. Part of it relates to Jason Calacanis’s opening comments about Zappos in this video:

(If you’re only going to watch one or two videos in this post, hold off on this one, but this is a good video to watch after you’ve finished reading and want to learn more about the business side of Zappos.) 


As Jason explains, CEO Tony Hsieh made the once boring shoe business seem cool and turned the oft-dismissed customer service position into something desirable and joyous. Those kinds of dramatic reversals get my attention, but was it all just hype? I was curious enough to pick up Tony’s book Delivering Happiness.

Technically Tony Hsieh did not found Zappos. Nick Swinmum did that in 1999, but Tony is the guy who turned the company ethos into the defining attribute of Zappos. That’s why Tony’s book is such a revealing glimpse into what makes Zappos so special.

After all, there are lots of online fashion vendors, but there is only one Zappos. Why is that?

In his book, Tony explains that the company’s success is due to its core values and its sense of purpose. Zappos does not exist just to make money. “Zappos is about delivering happiness to the world,” he asserts.

When I first read the book, I was a little skeptical. That’s a clever slogan, but how is it different from all the other self-serving things that business leaders or celebrities say about their endeavors? After all, don’t most companies have a list of core values and grand mission statements that have very little to do with how they operate on a daily basis?

Still, I kept hearing things about how Zappos was different. Maybe a closer look was merited.


In Delivering Happiness, Tony mentions that Zappos prints an annual Culture Book where employees freely share their thoughts about the company and its core values. The employees’s comments are not edited, and this Culture Book is freely available to anyone who requests it. (You can get your own copy here.)

OK, that’s a little different.

Eventually I received my own copy. I was expecting mostly polished marketing prose with a few choice employee quotes, but the book is almost entirely comprised of quotes from employees, vendors, and customers of Zappos interspersed among photos of Zapponians socializing or doing zany things.   (The word “Zapponians” is an official company term used to showcase the unique denizens of Zappos: http://blogs.zappos.com/tags/zapponians.)

Even more surprising was how often the company’s core values showed up in playful graphical arrangements. It’s almost as if these core values aren’t meant to be buried with their brothers at the bottom of a bureaucrat’s filing cabinet. They are placed front and center, challenging observers to measure the company’s success against the values it claims. Here they are :

1. Deliver WOW Through Service

2. Embrace and Drive Change

3. Create Fun and a Little Weirdness

4. Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded

5. Pursue Growth and Learning

6. Build Open and Honest Relationships With Communication

7. Build a Positive Team and Family Spirit

8. Do More With Less

9. Be Passionate and Determined

10. Be Humble


When I re-read Delivering Happiness to prepare for this post, I realized that the book is sort of an origin story about how the values of Zappos came into existence.

Tony establishes transparency right from the start when he admits that he’d rather be grammatically incorrect than write in such a way as to distort the way he normally talks. He talks about how he discovered his passion for creating memorable experiences for others and how he’s come to value creativity and humility. Even the way he quotes sources as disparate as Ghandi and Winnie the Pooh serves to reinforce the core values he identifies behind Zappos.

There is something inspiring about people, about institutions who are devoted to more than the obvious. After all, when was the last time you remember thinking, “oh hey, you do everything possible to get more money, power, and sex? How very original and inspired of you!”

In contrast, idealists by their very nature encourage the belief in a higher purpose. If these types will fight for ideals, then maybe there really are ideals worth fighting for. But let’s be honest, idealists make it tougher for the rest of us to justify our more complacent ways.

I want to be an idealist,  but I’ve experienced enough to know that life doesn’t always work out as we hope it should. And so, peddlers of purpose like Zappos have to get past my cynical side before they have a chance at my heart. I’m not the only one like that.

I’ll tell you how I tested the ideals of Zappos in just a moment, but first allow me to make to make a quick reference to the United States. There is a connection: Zappos claims to be a values-driven company, and the United States is considered by many historians to be the first country that came into existence not because of ethnic ties but because of a shared set of values.

When the Founders risked their lives to declare that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” the world took notice. A Declaration of Independence aimed at the world’s most powerful king who strove to control the lives of the American Colonists was indeed a bold and heretofore unseen gesture.

Eventually the novelty of the Declaration wore off and cosmopolitan observers started to  wonder why a nation formed around the inherent freedoms and rights of mankind also sustained the institution of slavery.  Did these Americans really believe their rhetoric? Some of them did. They proved as much by fighting for their ideals, when it would have been more convenient to do otherwise.

That’s what I wanted to find out about Zappos. Would they actually live up to their ideals when it might be easier to do otherwise? Early research suggested that they already did.

The company offers free shipping both ways and a 365-day return policy to make it a better experience for those uncertain about buying online. They have 24-hour support, 7 days a week, and they prominently display their phone number on their site, even though burying it several links deep would reduce call volume, which would translate into less money spent on support.

In 2009, Zappos finally made the list of Fortune’s 10p 100 Companies to Work For. Back then they came in at No. 23. Now they’re No. 11 on the list, so they must be doing something to keep their employees happy.

Still, I had to find out for myself if they were the real deal, so on May 29th I called Zappos for the very first time with an unusual request. Here’s what happened:


I’m fairly certain that the Zappos employees were never trained on what to do if a caller requests to do a song over the phone. (If they do train in such matters, I’d really like to read the policy that explains how to handle the situation!)

Besides, if Zappos employees were trained just to maximize profit, I don’t imagine the song would have happened. At the very least, Kimberly would have put me on hold to check with her manager, but to her credit she went along with my request in a good-natured manner and performed beautifully in an unexpected situation. That’s what can happen when you train based on values rather than policies.

Kimberly was adventurous, creative, and open-minded and was willing to do something a little weird in the pursuit of fun. She more than embodied the company’s core values.

It is also worth mentioning that I called in the early evening, about the time when West-Coast callers would be getting out of work and calling. More than likely, Kimberly already went through a wide range of calls by the time she got to me, but she still sounded friendly and engaged.  I bought this bag to say thanks.


The Zappos call was the first time I’ve discussed the concept behind my upcoming short. I’m a little nervous about it. If it doesn’t get a good reception, I probably won’t have the heart to do another project for a while, so the song wasn’t just a silly exercise. It was me taking a risk in sharing something that has a strong personal significance to me.

Sure, there was a chance to gain some publicity, but there was also a chance that I’d fail miserably and feel really foolish. I took a risk because I figured Zappos might really believe in the values they claim. Needless to say, there’s not another company in the world with which I could imagine doing an impromptu song with a customer service rep.

I actually did two songs with Kimberly. The second one I did was about my sister who is getting married. I was undecided about sharing the second song. I thought about just sharing it with my sister. I don’t mind looking foolish, but I don’t want to do something to cast a bad light on her. Plus I didn’t want to do something that felt like I was using her wedding for personal gain.

I wrestled with this for a while, but then I figured I would include it because it might help others. The societal impulse to purge anything personal from our professional interactions makes me a little sad. Isn’t it more honest to acknowledge the people who inspire us to be the best versions of ourselves than to pretend that we only care about profit margins and growth rates while working?

(Update: Now that the wedding is over, I’ve added some photos that I took of my sister during the wedding and the build up to it. The photos are another way to nicely accent the personal side of a company like Zappos and this post. To entirely separate the business side of things from the personal is a very bizarre modern tendency, one that causes unnecessary problems for both sides.)

Corinne by the lake where Sean first proposed. The swans were also there when he proposed. 


Also, why does everything we do in public have to be perfect? I lost some of the joy of photography when I felt like I should only share photos that were of a certain professional quality. I spent unnecessary time trying to finesse casual shots so that they might be acceptable to critics, and I started taking less photos as a result.

Fortunately, a few talented photographers helped me realize that it is OK to share the occasional snapshots along with the more polished one. If others can’t distinguish between casual shots and professional work, then to hell with them.

I do not consider myself to be a great singer, but I do enjoy singing. In regards to the song about my sister, I sang in an earnest way about someone who means a lot to me. Besides, I’d like to think that my little song embodies some of the Zappos values. Specifically it is honest and relationship minded, and it engenders a family spirit. With that said, here is the song:


I didn’t explain as much in the video, but a large part of Na-Na & Water Bottle involved improvising a song based on whatever was randomly discovered while scrubbing through radio stations. It makes perfect sense then that a tribute to Na-Na & Water Bottle would involve a randomly selected Zappos support representative.

After the song, I ordered a purse that I thought my sister would enjoy. (Don’t tell her. The wedding is not until June 16th. Maybe after that I’ll post pictures!)

Corinne and Sean by the lake. 


When Kimberly realized that the purse was for my sister’s wedding, she arranged for expedited shipping, so I got the package in less than a week from when I placed the order. I’ll admit it: they wowed me.

After I hung up with Kimberly, I remember being in a better mood than usual. I walked around and hummed to myself random bits of music. The Zappos team had succeeded in delivering happiness to me even before my package arrived. 

This story almost didn’t happen though. Prior to writing this, I had shared the videos with Sean, one of the leads at Zappos. The company had treated me with consideration, plus I was uncertain about how the videos would be received, so I figured I wouldn’t post them if the Zappos people hated them.

Sean responded promptly, surprising me with her enthusiasm and a refreshing lack of business formality that normally comes from manager types. So far so good. But, there were legal concerns. Oh.

Corinne and the wedding photographer get some shots before the wedding.


Sean agreed to check with the legal department to see if anything could be done to alleviate those concerns. After a few days had passed I figured that they weren’t going to allow the videos to be posted. This was going to be another almost for me.

I know a little something about almosts. So many of my relationships and my endeavors have been almosts. It almost worked out with her and her and her. That project was almost good enough to win, to get selected, to get off the ground. Almost. They do take some of the fight out of me, those ever-present almosts. I don’t know how many more of them I can take before I stop trying.

Every indication was starting to suggest that the Zappos videos would be another almost. What if the same thing happens with my short comedy?

The maid of honor, my other sister Parthena, helps Corinne get into position. 


That very thinking led me to Monsieur’s, an upscale seafood restaurant in Baton Rouge, just one day before I started writing this. Being alone, I treated myself to an $80 lunch.

I’ve never had an $80 lunch before; I’m not usually an extravagant guy, but things have been, shall we say challenging, of late. Also Monsieur’s makes excellent oysters. And Bloody Marys. And bread pudding. Etc.

That day, I came very close to doing something I would have regretted. I wasn’t in a completely hopeless place, but it was pretty close. Then, I got another email from Sean after lunch. She said that I could use the videos if I removed the Zappos logos. Doable, I thought.

Corinne and Sean share a dance. 


Then it hit me: Zappos had gone above and beyond in the pursuit of my happiness, so why couldn’t I try a little harder to ward off the negative emotions that haunted me?

So that’s how a billion-dollar company helped me to do the right thing. Thanks to Zappos this story has a happy ending.  At least for now, but the rest is still unwritten.

Closing thoughts


Visit www.deliveringhappiness.com to learn more about the practices that Zappos uses to spread happiness. It’s like they say, “We truly believe that together, we can change the world.” Maybe we can, Zappos. Maybe we can.

Corinne and Sean share a kiss at Fenway. They took me there for a tour on my birthday. 


It takes me a little longer to write the kinds of posts I prefer to write, and sometimes my schedule gets complicated, so I can’t promise to have new posts available on a consistent schedule . That’s why I encourage you to sign up by email. You can do that by clicking here.

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As always, thanks for reading and God bless.


Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged: A Tribute

I once read a critique of Atlas Shrugged that slammed Ayn Rand’s masterpiece for its unpolished prose.  That’s like reading Emily Dickinson and wondering when the explosions will manifest.  If you read Atlas Shrugged in search of flowery phrases, well you’re reading the wrong book there kemosabi.  The book’s appeal is in the heroic treatment it gives the builders and entrepreneurs of an otherwise corroding civilization.  

That’s right.  Atlas Shrugged is a critically acclaimed work of fiction that celebrates business people.  Shocking, right?  I mean, everyone knows that business types are evil, don’t they? It’s so obvious.

Just look at movies like Erin Brokavich, The Verdict, Michael Clayton, The RainmakerWall Street or the vast majority of pop culture that features business people.  Even Lost, one of the most innovative television shows ever made, features an evil industrialist.  Whoa, the industrialist is the bad guy?  No way! Didn’t see that one coming, guys!

Maybe I’m missing an obvious reference, but prior to Atlas Shrugged, I think we’d have to go all the way back to a book like Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables to see a similarly heroic take on the entrepreneur.

As a quick reminder, Les Mis begins as Jean Valjean, a former convict, steals silverware from a kind bishop.   After the bishop discovers the crime, he graciously allows Jean Valjean to escape another prison term.  In exchange, the bishop asks Jean Valjean to promise that he will live an honest life from this point onward.

The narrative skips ahead a few years, revealing that Jean Valjean has indeed kept his promise.  He has become respectable and made his town wealthy thanks to a new manufacturing process he invented for his factory.

Back in Victor Hugo’s time, folks actually appreciated those who brought jobs and wealth to their towns. That’s probably why Hugo uses Jean Valjean’s business accomplishments to suggest that he’s become a model citizen.  In contrast, today we gather up our collective pitchforks  to hunt business people as if they were freakish monsters worthy of death or at least heavy regulation.  With attitudes like that, is it any wonder that the U.S. has the second-highest tax rate in the world?

That anti-business animosity is present even in Atlas Shrugged, and Hank Rearden, one of the heroic entrepreneurs in the novel, struggles to overcome it.  He’s a businessman who has figured out a way to make a metal that is stronger than steel, and he puts all of his energies into building a great company that manufactures his new material.  His competitors cannot deliver anything of comparable quality, so instead they pay off government bureaucrats and give lots of speeches.

Since we’re on the subject, I do admire great orators as much as the next guy, but I’m more impressed when speakers prove themselves to be people of action.

Speech-minded reader, you could do worse than following Teddy Roosevelt’s example.  He too gave speeches, but his speeches were not the sum total of his efforts. They were merely the structural supports.  It’s why he could boldly admonish his listeners to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Anyway, many people in Rearden’s society have come to feel entitled to the profits of his business, even though they have done nothing to help it grow.  Ayn Rand calls them the looters, a ravenous mob not unlike a zombie horde.   Seeing an opportunity to expand power, the government satiates the looters by raising taxes and placing more onerous restraints on Rearden and industrialists like him.

Rearden’s competitors use their government contacts to negotiate loopholes for themselves.  That’s Ayn Rand’s way of acknowledging that businesses are not immune to corruption, but that big government tends to enable rather than curtail it.

Cruelty in Perfection – William Hogarth, 1751


As the novel progresses the government bureaucracy becomes more intrusive and many entrepreneurs decide that it is no longer beneficial to stay in business.  Rearden tries to stay afloat, but as the government takes over more industries it becomes increasingly more difficult to do so.

From the beginning, the novel’s speechmongers had clamored for more government control, but contrary to their utopian claims, society does not improve.  Since no one has an incentive to work hard, the workers opt to do the bare minimum or to drop out of the system altogether.   Gone is the potential to profit from manufacturing parts or excellent service, so machinery deteriorates and accidents increase.  

As the general population becomes more apathetic, the government realizes that it must use force upon its own people to compel them to work.  The doom of civilization lingers, but a few resourceful entrepreneurs like Rearden mount the resistance.

Atlas Shrugged was published back in 1957, but it feels so contemporary: In our world, entire nations and politically connected corporations ask others to finance their profligacy insisting that they’re too big to fail.  Our American government comes down hard on businesses, except those who have contributed heavily to certain political campaigns.  For example, one of Obama’s biggest campaign contributors was Goldman Sachs, a company that did quite well in the subprime-mortgage dustup.

Let’s not forget that the S&P recently downgraded the U.S. credit rating.  That didn’t even happen in the Great Depression ladies and gentlemen, and the very politicians who spend our money at unprecedented rates look us in the eyes and tell us that the government is not the problem.

Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat – William Hogarth, 1746


The problem, as they see it, stems from the people who protest the government’s encroaching appetite.  Indeed Ayn Rand has become a prophet of our times.

Now please don’t misunderstand.  My goal in writing is not to suggest that businesses can do no wrong.  On the contrary, businesses are run by people, and people come in all sorts of varieties, some good some bad.  If we agree that proper governance helps sustain society, then it follows that some limited government oversight in business can also be useful.

Not every Ayn Rand enthusiast would agree with those presuppositions, so allow me to defend them by quoting from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, an influential pamphlet during the American Revolution.

Paine writes,”For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform, and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver.”  In other words, if we were all perfect we wouldn’t need government; We would naturally live in harmony with each other.

Since that is not the case, we need a system of laws to preserve the social fabric that allows for civilization.  Businesses too need some regulation to ensure fair play, to prevent unethical business types from doing anything to make a quick buck.

Besides, without even the most limited amount of regulation, porn shops and drug dealers would be everywhere.  Do you really want to live in that kind of society? I don’t.

With that said, we need to get rid of this harmful notion that every societal problem is due to the nefarious machinations of conniving, greedy businessmen.  By and large, successful businesses make things better, not just for the stockholders and their employees but also for their customers and their communities at large. 

If they didn’t, why would people continue to work and buy from them?  Remember, businesses don’t have standing armies to coerce participation. Governments do.

Then there’s the whole notion of being able to advance based on merit.  We take that for granted, but it wasn’t always a given.

Imagine what it would be like if your status was almost entirely dependent upon the family to whom you were born or to which you joined in marriage.

Not so keen on the medieval way?  You could always live la vida loca like the Soviets did, by bribing government officials just to increase your odds of survival.     I’d say the oft-maligned businessman is starting to look downright friendly in comparison.

You wouldn’t know it from popular culture, but a lot of folks actually have strong affectionate feelings toward businesses.  I’m one of them.

Working for Canon has expanded my technical abilities, increased my confidence, and brought more stability to my life.  No charitable outreach has done the same for me.

Plus, Canon equipment is among the best in the market.  All my recent freelance projects have been shot with Canon gear, and I wouldn’t go that route if I didn’t have the highest respect for Canon engineering.

Don’t just take my word for it though.  Visit Canon USA’s Facebook page, and you’ll notice that the vast majority of comments are positive, effusive ones.  But why stop at Canon?  You’ll find similar things if you check out the feedback for companies like Apple, amazon.com, IKEA, Chick-fil-A, Volkswagen, Target, Whole Foods, Starbucks, Zappos, Walt Disney, and the list could go on and on.

These are all businesses that have made life better for millions of people,  and you don’t make life better for millions of people by merely focusing on profit.  That is a foolish anti-business fallacy.  You get there, first and foremost, by being useful, even delightful, to others in an excellent way.

In Atlas Shrugged, it is the bureaucrats who compromise and sell out to advance themselves.  Rearden, in contrast,  sacrifices prestige and short-term wealth so that he might produce something truly exceptional.  To aim for anything less even when the entire world encourages you to do so is not to be fully alive, Ayn Rand suggests.

Like Hank Rearden, the entrepreneurs who produce excellent, profitable businesses are heroes of our modern world, but when was the last time a movie, a music album, or a novel conveyed as much?  Atlas Shrugged is one example, but we need more.

In the book Microtrends, author and researcher Mark Penn tells of a recent survey he ran where an alarming number of kids expressed interest in becoming snipers when they grow up.  He speculates that data spike is due to the attention snipers get in news coverage, movies, and video games.

Now you tell me, would you rather have a society full of aspiring snipers or entrepreneurs? Do you want your next creative project to inspire the next Columbine shooter or the next Steve Jobs?

The Delivery of the Keys – Pietro Perugino 1481–1482


If you chose the latter options, then maybe it is time for you do something about it.  Reading Atlas Shrugged is a good place to start (you can listen to it as an audiobook if you prefer), but if you don’t have time for that, would you at least stop suggesting that every business person is evil?  Can you stop relying on the government to solve all your problems?

While you’re at it, don’t be content just to consume. Produce. Give back.  Building a great and virtuous business is as good of a way as any to do that.


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