A Technology Genius Charts the Path to Happiness

By Don Willmott

Today marks the publication of Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose, a combination autobiography, management manual, and self-help guide from Tony Hsieh, CEO of online store Zappos.com. I attended a thought-provoking Q&A session starring Hsieh last week, and after reading his book I’ve decided that when the soft-spoken Tony talks, I listen.

And why not? Here’s a guy who founded his first company, LinkExchange, in 1996 and sold it to Microsoft two years later at the peak of the dot-com boom for $265 million. (Hsieh was 24 years old.) He took some of that money to make investments in companies like Zappos.com and soon became its CEO. What could have been a run-of-the-mill e-commerce business has become instead an amazing laboratory for Hsieh’s highly unconventional management theories. The fact that he grew Zappos.com into a billion-dollar company in about six years and then sold it to Amazon last year for $1.2 billion (while maintaining its independence and unique culture) proves that he knows what he’s talking about.

Hsieh is perhaps best known for encouraging his 1,400 employees to have a lot of fun on the job while simultaneously going to any lengths – and cost- to give his customers what he calls a "WOW" experience that makes them¿happy. To get hired and to thrive at Zappos.com requires the drinking of a bit of Hsieh’s Kool-Aid, and he’s so eager to weed out people who don’t get the culture that he offers any new employee $2,000 to quit during the mandatory training weeks. Those who endure latch on to Hsieh’s ten core values to strive for success:

  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

Even if you don’t care about Hsieh’s life story or management philosophies, his thoughts on integrating your work life with the pursuit of your personal growth and happiness strike me as incredibly valuable, especially if you focus on core values numbers 2, 4, 5, and 9.

Hsieh believes that everyone’s ultimate goal as the title of the book suggests, is happiness. Getting there when at least a third of your life is devoted to your profession demands that your work not get in the way of your happiness but rather becomes a route to it. How? By achieving these four things as an employee, or providing these four things as a manager:

  1. Perceived control (knowing why you’re succeeding and getting raises¿or not)
  2. Perceived progress (constantly charting every forward step in knowledge or responsibility you achieve)
  3. Connectedness (actually liking the people you work with)
  4. Vision/meaning (feeling that what you’re working on has some higher purpose other than simply generating profits for someone else)

But let’s not get too Tony Robbins about all this. Remember that Hsieh isn’t all about group hugs or a workplace filled with toys and funny hats. His company makes serious money and grows consistently. Zappos.com is so intriguing to CEOs that the company offers tours of its Las Vegas headquarters (even to the general public), workshops, and management boot camps.

Is the pursuit of happiness a luxury that the workplace simply can’t afford in tough economic times? No, Hsieh would say. It’s a potential profit generator. Like other "best companies to work for" such as SAP, which always wins such awards, Zappos.com subscribes to the notion that maybe, just maybe, work should be about something more than just work. (Here’s three minutes of Hsieh in his own words., and you can follow him on Twitter.)

This is the moment when you peek over the top of your cubicle, look around, and give these concepts a bit of thought. Hsieh’s book is actually a quick read, but the ideas he shares about the meaning of work will linger in your mind.