Worms, Raves, Poker, and Culture - Book Review: “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh
How does worm farming + raving + poker playing = Zappos?
What everyone knows about Tony Hsieh is that he’s the Zen Master of Culture at Zappos, a wildly successful shoe website that was just sold to Amazon for $1.2 billion - not bad for 10 years work. I think what most people don’t know is how Tony got there. What’s great about this book is that we get an honest account of a successful entrepreneurs’ childhood, upbringing, failures, and successes - all told to us by Tony himself.
Tony didn’t just show up as CEO of Zappos out of nowhere. In fact, he began his career as a 9-year old worm farmer. That didn’t go so well, so he started a newsletter - that failed. By middle school he was running a mail order button business which did quite well and gave Tony all the milk money he wanted. He got a job as a computer programmer in high school, and in college he started a food business.
After college, Tony quickly realized that working for The Man wasn’t all that exciting, even if The Man was Oracle. So, he and his buddies got together and started a small company called LinkExchange, which they sold to Microsoft less than 2 years later for $265 million. That was a LOT of milk money.
He became a start-up investor after that, investing in more than 20 companies. One of them was a small start-up called Zappos, whose founders had this nutty idea for selling shoes in the internet. At the time, that was a ridiculous idea - Zappos needed a drop-ship model, and most shoe companies just didn’t have the ability to do that. Shoe suppliers wouldn’t sell product to Zappos either because they weren’t a brick and mortar store.
With Zappos, Tony had lots of issues and obstacles to overcome, and it didn’t take long before Tony took Zappos under his wing full time and became CEO.
What I really love about Tony and Zappos is that it’s actually a very typical “overnight success” story that was 10 years in the making. Several times, the Zappos team was staring at bankruptcy and failure - they were literally making decisions on a monthly basis to continue operations. Tony and the gang simply believed that it would work, and via pig headed determination, it finally did.
The last 1/3 of the book dives into the fabled Zappos culture and, finally, what happiness really is. Personally, I think that culture is a very hard thing to define and describe. Tony does the best he can by allowing several members of his team to contribute to the book and describe culture in their own words, and he discusses several ideas, such as the Culture Book. Tony loves poker, and draws a lot of similarities between poker and business and culture. He also loved the rave scene and it’s easy so see how that scene became foundation for the ideals behind the culture of Zappos years later.
I don’t know how many answers are here for readers seeking to duplicate the unique culture of Zappos in their own organizations. For me, it’s hard to answer for myself the question “Is Zappos successful because of their culture, or does Zappos have a unique culture because of their success?” I think the only way to really answer that question is if Tony applied his culture to other things. How cool would it be, for example, to see a Zappos Airlines? Or a Zappos lawn care service? Personally, I think Tony could take Delivering Happiness to the ultimate level by starting a multi level marketing company with “Ambassadors of Happy” spreading happiness throughout the world with products designed to make people happier. Wow - I said a form of “happy” four times in that last sentence, and now I’m even happier. Just said it twice more - I’m on to something.
Tony digs into the meaning of happiness and what it is at the end of the book. He approaches it from a scientific point of view, so if you get real excited about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and Happiness as a Fractal, then you’ve come to the right place.
As an entrepreneur myself, I think the thing that Tony has shown me the most in “Delivering Happiness” is that money isn’t always going to make you happy. When Microsoft purchased LinkExchange, they gave Tony an additional sum (millions) to just “hang out” for a year. Guess what - that didn’t make Tony happy or fulfilled, so he actually quit and gave that money back to Microsoft. At Oracle after college, Tony’s job was ridiculously easy and high paying for his age, and yet he walked away from it because it wasn’t fulfilling him.
“Delivering Happiness” is a good, honest account of how a failed worm farmer became the Culture King. I really enjoyed reading it, and I think you will too.
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