Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh and business partner Jenn Lim are launching a happiness movement, one business at a time.
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Tony Hsieh and Jenn Lim are on a mission to make you happy.
When Business on Main’s “Cool Runnings” first profiled Zappos.com in 2009 — prior to the company being acquired by Amazon.com in a deal valued at over $1 billion — we knew Hsieh was on to something. What other CEO encouraged employees to be a little “weird” and provide “wow” service in all they do while delivering massive sales numbers?
Thankfully, Hsieh bottled up his business philosophies and practices for the public in his book, “Delivering Happiness,” which reached No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. To take it a step further, he formed the company Delivering Happiness with friend and business partner Lim to help others find their passion and turn it into a deeper sense of purpose — which, in turn, leads to profits, productivity and, above all, happiness.
Recently, they shared insights and advice with "Cool Runnings" host Antonio Neves in an e-mail interview that has been edited for length.
Business on Main: Most of the business community is familiar with The New York Times best-seller “Delivering Happiness.” But what is the Delivering Happiness movement?
Jenn Lim: After the book came out, we didn’t really know what to expect. It was one thing to hear from entrepreneurs, managers and employees, telling us they were inspired to make a change. But we didn’t anticipate the excitement we heard from people in the medical field, education, government, churches — and even parents and their 12-year-old kids — all writing to tell us how they were applying DH to their lives. Then, as the book was translated into different languages, we started hearing a similar response worldwide.
So we decided to evolve it into the DH movement — essentially a company with the cause to cultivate this community of people and inspire happiness in the world. Internally, we go by the acronym ICEE — we Inspire, Connect people together, Educate and provide meaningful Experiences. All things that we believe add to our collective equations of happiness.
Jenn, as CEO and chief happiness officer of Delivering Happiness, you spearheaded the book launch and now run the business on a daily basis. What advice would you give to new entrepreneurs on how to build awareness around their products or services?
J.L.: I think it’s essential to be true to yourself and know the fundamental reasons why you want to build that business — hopefully something beyond making money. Especially now, with information overflowing and easily accessible, people want to interact with companies that stand for something.
Because of that abundance of information, it also means there’s a lot of noise out there. So it helps to be authentic and original when building awareness, which naturally happens when you’re being true to yourself — as Zappos likes to put it, we’re all a little weird inside. All the better when we let it show.
Tony, you sold your first company when you were 24 and then Zappos.com in your 30s. How has your view of entrepreneurship changed in the last decade?
Tony Hsieh: One of my favorite quotes is that there are two types of business people: those who see money as a means, and those who see money as an end. In my early days as an entrepreneur, I was motivated a lot more by the idea of making profits. Today, it’s much more about having profits be the fuel to drive a greater goal and purpose in the company: delivering happiness.
Tony, you didn’t work in the corporate environment very long before forging out on your own. Where did you develop your sensibilities about company culture? And Jenn, you created Zappos.com’s famed culture book. What role can a culture book play in companies, regardless of industry?
T.H.: For me, it really was thinking about what type of people did I want to be around if I wasn’t forced to be in the same office with them. Who are the type of people I’d choose to hang out with even if we weren’t in business together? Over time, the Zappos culture has evolved, so it’s really much more a reflection of all of us at Zappos, not just me.
J.L.: What makes the culture book interesting is that it’s completely unedited. So when employees, partners and customers describe what Zappos’ culture means to them, we print it all — the good and the bad. It’s really an honest snapshot of how the company culture is doing, revealing areas that need work and things that are going well. Since we print one every year, we also get a sense if the culture is getting stronger or weaker over time. I think any company could benefit from that understanding.
You two partnered to create Delivering Happiness. What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are struggling to find a good business partner?
J.L.: It’s funny you ask since we were asked the same question at SXSW and we usually agree on most everything, but I think we gave opposite answers on this one.
For me, finding someone that kicks butt in business is only one side of the coin. The other comes from personal qualities and friendship. The longer I’ve known someone, the more I’ve seen him or her go through the ups and downs of life. If I can respect the way they handle that, it’s all the more likely I’ll respect their decisions when the business has its inevitable ups and downs, too.
T.H.: In general, I’ve found that it’s easier to start as a business partner with someone and then develop a meaningful friendship over time. Obviously, with Jenn it’s been the opposite since we’ve been friends for a decade now, and only recently launched Delivering Happiness as a company together. But the relationship that Jenn and I have definitely isn’t your typical friendship either.
During tough times, many companies look to cut expenses to maximize profitability. What other options would you recommend they look into?
T.H.: The reality of business is that at some point, you need to become cash-flow break-even or cash-flow positive — or else you’re going to run out of money. During tough times, you often do need to cut expenses, but the question is which expenses do you cut first? At most companies, it’s usually the expenses related to company culture and customer service that get cut first. At Zappos, those would be the last things to get cut.
Many entrepreneurs look at you as a successful businessman who’s sold two companies for major financial gain. What would you tell an entrepreneur whose sole goal is to build and sell his or her company?
T.H.: I usually ask people to think about what they would be so passionate about doing that they’d be happy doing it for 10 years — even if they never made any money — and that’s what they should be doing. By doing that, it’ll actually greatly increase their chances of making more money, because it’s their passion that’s going to get them through the tough times — and every business has its ups and downs. And their passion will rub off onto employees and have a ripple effect on customers and business partners.
What would you two tell business owners who are skeptical about adding “happiness” to their company culture and are more concerned about the bottom line?
J.L.: We’re pretty analytical people at the end of the day, so we’re not so much about the New Age let’s-all-sing-“Kumbayah”-and-we’ll-be-happy type of happy. If it weren’t for the research done on the science of happiness and the ways it has shown to improve productivity — and therefore the bottom line — I don’t think we’d be so interested in the topic.
But besides making good business sense, who wouldn’t want to make the world a happier place?
T.H.: There are plenty of studies that show a link between employee engagement and employee productivity. One of the best predictors of employee engagement is whether they have a best friend at work, or the number of friends that they have at work, which all goes back to one of the most important elements of happiness, according to the research: feeling socially connected.
Jenn, what can we expect from the Delivering Happiness movement going forward? Tony, what can we expect from Zappos.com for the remainder of the year?
J.L.: Our ultimate goal is building a movement, so we’re working on creating a sustainable company to fuel it. We’ll be rolling out different things later this year towards that end. We’re going to be launching an online store that will sell unique, inspirational — and cool! — products. We’ll also be rolling out a service arm to help companies create their own culture books unique to their organization, as well as workshops and tool kits on how they can apply core values and happiness frameworks to their culture.
T.H.: We announced a few months ago that Zappos will be taking over Las Vegas City Hall, which is located in an area of downtown Las Vegas that most tourists don’t know about. It’s a pretty exciting project for us because not only can we take the Zappos culture to the next level, it’s also an opportunity for us to help revitalize downtown Las Vegas and bring a sense of culture and community into a city that generally is known to not have either of those things.