Book Review: Delivering Happiness, by Tony Hsieh

When I think of examples of companies known for successful adoption of social media tools, a few names always come to mind – Dell, Radian6, Freshbooks… and Zappos.

(On a related note, all of those companies have gained a reputation for good service via social media – a topic for a future post, perhaps…)

So, when a colleague remarked that she was enjoying a book that charted the course of Zappos so far, I promptly added it to my 2010 reading list.

Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose traces the story of CEO Tony Hsieh from his childhood through to the present day, in his own words. While the book isn’t an autobiography per se, the majority of the book tells a chronological tale beginning with tales of how Hsieh managed to avoid practicing four musical instruments every day (he would play tape recordings of himself practicing) and ending with the acquisition of Zappos by Amazon in mid-2009.

More than a simple tale, though, Delivering Happiness is full of useful business tips and insights. A few that stood out to me:

  • The company employs a ‘pipeline’ system to career management, clearly structured so that any employee has the opportunity to become a senior leader within seven years of joining the company.
  • Zappos requires that employees complete specific courses in order to be promoted to certain levels, creating a clear path to advancement.
  • The company has implemented a “skill sets” system, with a small bump in pay associated with improving each of the skill sets. Pay rises are thus tied to skills growth.
  • An idea for recommending good business books led to the Zappos library with over a hundred books, some of which became required reading for employees.
  • The company launched a monthly newsletter named “Ask Anything,” in which employees could do exactly that, to create transparency around the business for employees.
  • The levels to which Zappos empowers employees to focus on customer service would terrify a lot of the more staid, bureaucratic companies out there. There are no call centre scripts, and reps are permitted to do things such as upgrade customers’ shipping requests for free as part of regular business.

These are just a few of the nuggets hidden within Hsieh’s story. To make things even better, the book is written in a very informal, easy-to-consume style, and is made all the more personal by Hsieh’s frequent admission of his own mistakes. I think it was primarily due to this that I plowed through Delivering Happiness in just over a week.

It’s not all roses, of course. While it’s one of the most revealing parts of the book, the section on Zappos’ core values comes across as a little self-aggrandizing. The book also seems a little top-level from some perspectives, as it fails to draw a conclusive line between the firms’s growth and its customer service focus (Hsieh himself admits that growth only took off when the selection of shoes increased, not when the customer service focus began). It feels like there’s more to be heard there, and the “other side” (that of the prior board of directors) is only given lip service.

Still, these are minor gripes about a thoroughly engaging book. As I mentioned, I tore through it in short order and will probably do so again fairly soon. Overall, Delivering Happiness is a fascinating tale of the first chapter in the life of Zappos, and demonstrates a focus on employees, culture and customer service to which we should all aspire.

Highly recommended.

Dave Fleet
EVP Digital at Edelman. Husband and dad of two. Cycling nut; bookworm; videogamer; Britnadian. Opinions are mine, not my employer's.