One of the most popular business books of the past few years is Discovering Happiness by Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh (pronounced “shay”). It spent 27 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, turned the once shy Hsieh into an internationally sought-after speaker, and propelled online retailer Zappos into one of the most admired companies in the world. I hadn’t had a chance to read the book until now. As a longtime entrepreneur and a leader of organizations it struck a few big chords with me. It was also generally a very easy and enjoyable read.
Hsieh’s retelling of the early months and years of Zappos paints a vivid picture of what startup life is like. It’s scary, chaotic, unpredictable, and death-defying. And that’s best case scenario. It’s so crucial for budding entrepreneurs to learn about the common startup journey we all go through. It helps them gain perspective and realize that they’re not alone and that being on the brink of failure is far from actual failure. Imagine how comforting it is for a first-time entrepreneur to know that their having to lay off their one and only salesperson in order to regroup from unexpectedly lackluster sales is nothing compared to Zappos-sized setbacks. One example is the desperate round of layoffs Hsieh and his team had to do in 2000 as the dot-com bubble was bursting and Zappos was running on fumes. Just a few years later Zappos sold to Amazon in a mega deal worth $1.2 billion. Knowing this story may help that first-time entrepreneur realize that difficult times are just small chapters in the life of a company and better days are ahead if they just hang in there.
Every successful person and business great has gone through the early nightmares. Actually the nightmares never end no matter what stage of growth you’re at, but that’s for another time. Despite how special your parents made you feel growing up or how well-educated and well-financed you are you’ll be no exception. You will fail and you will fail a lot. It’s ok. There’s no other path to success so embrace it and get damn good at handling change and setbacks and disappointment.
This first big takeaway from Discovering Happiness is also great for everyday people to know. It helps consumers understand what it really takes to bring their favorite products and services to life and it helps employees appreciate how incredibly difficult it is to keep their paychecks coming. I wish more employees could empathize with the crippling anxiety their owners experience as they wonder if tomorrow will be the day the doors close for good. Similarly, I wish more consumers could understand the literally hundreds of moving parts that need to come together in order to create, fund, develop, produce, market, sell, distribute, service, and deliver that delicious hamburger to their table or that exciting video game to their home. Maybe they’d be more willing to pat a great store manager on the back or hold off on denouncing an entire company if their package shows up a day late. “If They Only Knew” would be a great title for a book about entrepreneurship.
Another poignant takeaway from the book is the importance of having a clear and compelling mission. Zappos decided early on that they weren’t just going to deliver the best selection of products but, much more visionary than that, they would deliver the best customer experience the online world had ever known. Mission accomplished. Just 15 years since founding, their customer service approach is legendary and a case study being taught in business schools everywhere.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, Delivering Happiness teaches us that company culture isn’t just essential, it’s everything. Your company’s culture is the foundation upon which everything else is built. For that reason, it needs to be seriously considered and solidified at the outset of a venture. Of course it will evolve over time but the beginnings of a strong culture should be present on day one. Too many startup entrepreneurs neglect culture and focus instead on other crucial early tasks like developing product, building team, and designing brand. All of those things are incredibly important but they all fall by the wayside without an environment that puts a premium on character, promotes positivity, rewards greatness, and helps people grow. What ends up happening in an environment like that is people fall in love with their jobs, extraordinary products get built, customers fall in love with your company, and the world around you gets inspired to be better. A strong company culture is nothing short of magical and has the ability to impact lives like nothing else. The thought alone sends chills down my spine.
There are other powerful takeaways from Delivering Happiness, but, understanding the startup environment, choosing a clear and compelling mission, and building a great company culture are in my opinion the three most powerful. Bravo to Tony Hsieh for leading an inspiring life and for giving us a glimpse of what it takes to achieve greatness.
I highly recommend Delivering Happiness to anyone in business, thinking about going into business, or just interested in a harrowing tale about one team’s dream to deliver happiness to the masses one shoe box at a time.