Editor’s Note: The following guest post was written by Cyan Banister, the founder and CEO of Zivity, a venture-funded adult content site that invites users to interact with models and photographers. Banister is also an active angel investor.
In just over a month, my friend (and Zappos CEO) Tony Hsieh will be launching his new book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose (you can pre-order it here). Reading a preview copy of the book led me to think back about the first time I met Tony, and what an impression it made on me.
You meet a lot of people in your life. Think about it for a moment. How many people do you think you’ve met? Count up all of the social events, work, airplanes, school and checkout counters. Out of all of those people, think about who you really remember. Think about those people and then pick out the most memorable five people of all and trace back the steps to where you first met.
We sometimes forget those moments until prompted, but I truly feel those are some of the most precious moments in our lives. They are like birthdays. Tiny sparks of joy and connection that sometimes you get the immediate hunch will last a lifetime. That’s how I felt when I met Tony Hsieh. I’ll never forget it and I’m going to guess I’m not alone.
Like meeting Tony, I’ll never forget my first Zappos experience. I was working at IronPort and a coworker liked my shoes and asked me if I ordered them from Zappos. I asked what Zappos was and he said proudly, “Only the greatest shoe store online. You can order as many shoes as you like and they’ll send them overnight. You try them on and send back the ones you don’t like. No questions asked.” This sounded too good to be true. It wasn’t. I now own at least 15 pairs of shoes from Zappos and even though I had the option, I never sent anything back.
So, on one of my trips to Defcon, I decided it was time to put on a pair of those shoes and take a tour of Zappos. I had left IronPort, which had an amazing culture, but it wasn’t a consumer company. It was an enterprise company hellbent on winning and never sleeping. There were cultural aspects of IronPort I knew I wanted to take with me, but I knew I needed to learn more. I had heard about Tony and Alfred and I hoped I’d like them, because I hoped we could be friends and that we could learn from each other.
I arrived at Zappos and received my first smile. The front desk is a bit of a celebration. There’s a popcorn machine, library, seating area, Zappos gear, music and just a lot going on. I arranged my tour with Tony directly and I expected him to outsource that to someone else in the company, but he came out to show me around personally. He picked up a Zappos themed tour flag that he carried the rest of the journey.
Tony was curious about my background and when he found out that I ran worldwide support for IronPort, he immediately took me to meet all of his support managers and he let me ask them any question I wanted. We talked openly and I was floored. In the 30 minutes we spent together, I learned so much about how Zappos delivered amazing service. I toured HR, engineering, marketing, purchasing, the break room, the nap room — everything.
I asked Tony, “How do you hire so many happy people? How do you hire so many smiling people?” and he responded, “I only hire people who smile.”
After the tour was over, Tony asked me about my favorite books and then he picked up a Zappos bag and put two books inside, the Zappos culture book and Made to Stick – why some ideas survive and others die. He told me those were his favorite books.
Then, the moment I’ll never forget happened. He took everything out of my hands and he and Alfred Lin walked me to my car carrying it. They put it in the car and took me to lunch. The CEO and COO of Zappos carried my bag. The CEO and COO of Zappos carried my bag! I repeated it over and over in my head.
To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to start Zivity anymore. Part of me really wanted to work at Zappos. Part of me really wanted to be part of the team that expanded that culture from 200 to 1000 employees. However, sadly, I didn’t live in Las Vegas and couldn’t. I settled for a lifelong friendship with Tony and Alfred. Not a bad deal.
After the Amazon acquisition of Zappos, I wondered what Tony would do next. A lot of CEOs say they’ll stick around and I believed he would, but I figured he had other fun things up his sleeve. When I found out it was a book, I was excited, but I wasn’t sure I’d have a lot to learn from it after two tours (I went back again!) and years of getting to know him and Zappos.
I was wrong. What I didn’t know about Zappos was what I didn’t know about Tony. This book is raw and it is a slice of who Tony is and why Zappos is. You learn about little Tony and his family. You follow him from childhood to modern day Tony and you learn about worm farms, mail-order businesses, pizza, quitting jobs, poker, raves, hikes up mountains, epiphanies and you get a strong sense of why Tony joined Zappos.
There’s a great analogy in the book about his worm farm and his first fortune he made from selling Link Exchange to Microsoft. He bet both “farms” and on one he lost his worms and the other was valued at over 1 billion dollars.
What I also didn’t realize about Zappos was how many times it almost died. Many people see success and they just focus on that, but they don’t always realize the hard work that goes into it. Zappos took over 10 years to get to where it is today and almost went out of business no less than 5 times along the way. Following along with every pitfall in the book is like watching an Indiana Jones movie. You know everything is going to turn out great, but you never know where there’s going to be snakes.
What makes Zappos great are its employees and the culture they created. You hear a lot of people talk about how important employees are and how they are their core asset, but I’ve never seen them live it like Zappos. It is inspiring and infectious, but it didn’t come right away. As a matter of fact, it was quite an evolution. Their culture was a constant iteration and I think they’ve found something they want to stick with for a while. Their brand promise has gone through many changes:
1999 – Largest Selection of Shoes
2003 – Customer Service
2005 – Culture and Core Values as Our Platform
2007 – Personal Emotional Connection
2009 – Delivering Happiness
The Zappos boxes used to say “Delivering Service” but now they all say “Delivering Happiness”, because as you’ll see in the book from customer testimonials, their culture bleeds over into each and every customer interaction and it is their true competitive advantage. People love Zappos and Zappos makes them happy. Every box is a unit of happiness. The experience from beginning to end is how each and every experience should be or is how you want it to be when you ride a plane, purchase a ticket, call your cellphone company, order food, etc.
In the beginning of this post, I asked you to think about five memorable people. Now I want you to think about every service you’ve ever interacted with. I want you to think about five that were really memorable and made you happy. If you have a moment, share those stories in the comments. If you don’t have a story, share five services you wish could be improved.
The book is a call to a higher cause in businesses. To align your passions, profits and purpose. To discover what happiness truly is and to make products, work, life and everything you touch something to remember forever.
When I started Zivity, I tried to build a dollhouse. A perfect replica of what I knew in the past. I applied what I thought I learned from Zappos and I failed. We ended up over hiring and letting people go. Reading this book helped me to finally forgive those mistakes, because we figured it out before it was too late and we still have time to get it right.
What I didn’t realize until I read the book was that my company wasn’t completely defined by our employees and customers, but also by our 1500 contractors (models and photographers). I focused all of my efforts in the wrong area. I worked hard on trying to build a culture internally and a community externally.
Inspired by Delivering Happiness the Book, we’re putting together our own culture book. These will be raw testimonials, unedited of what Zivity means to them. Whenever anyone asks me again what Zivity is, I’ll tell them what I think it is and then hand them the book (which may start out as a pamphlet, who knows). I want Zivity to be truly transparent and I want to be able to always know who we are and what we stand for. You can have a community, but is harder to have a strong culture. Our passion, profits and purpose are all aligned, but our culture was not.
If you get a chance, I hope you can read the book and given this blog is read by entrepreneurs (new, experienced or hopefuls), technologists, employees of services and web enthusiasts, I hope that you’ll join the higher cause as well to create amazing varieties of diverse cultures and lasting services that outlast you.