You know when people ask if you should read the book before you see the movie? Well, that’s kind of how I felt upon reading Tony Hsieh’s new book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, his personal account of helping develop and become CEO of successful online retailer Zappos.
The book is divided into three parts. The first is a look back at Hsieh’s childhood, wherein Hsieh shows signs of drive, business-savvy and entrepreneurship from a young age, setting the stage to become a successful business owner before turning 30. The second part of the book focuses on his life as CEO of Zappos and the inner workings of Zappos’ famous corporate culture. The third part of the book recounts Zappos’ Amazon buyout, bringing us to present day and Hsieh’s new role as a public speaker on the topics of culture and values. Hsieh concludes the book by driving home its central theme that, basically, as long as you do what you’re passionate about, everything else will fall into place.
Does It Deliver?
I had the pleasure of seeing Hsieh give an incredible keynote at SXSW in 2009, so I was excited to read the “book version” of the speech – and learn even more about the inner workings of the company made famous for its unique culture, superior customer service, and innovative use of social media. In person, Hsieh is a dynamic speaker, with the ability to captivate audiences and clearly convey the passion he feels for running his business, giving his customers that “wow” feeling, engaging his employees and, of course, delivering happiness.
… And yet, something gets lost in the translation to paper.
The book falls flat in storytelling and short on expectations. Perhaps it’s his decision not to use a ghostwriter that works against his pursuit to truly convey the entire story to his audience. While his decision to do so is brave (he admits that he is not a writer, but makes no apologies for it) and consistent with his mission to maintain transparency, it is also distracting. He has a tendency to “tell” rather than “show” – a cardinal sin in any English writing course – and his overuse of cliché acts as filler to distract from the lack of any real emotions he might convey.
In fact, it is only through the employee anecdotes – placed throughout the section about core values to illustrate how employees incorporate these values into their lives – that the reader finally gets a true feel for the culture. At one point, Hsieh himself even mentions that his employees’ stories are among the biggest crowd-pleasers at his speaking engagements…which is why it’s disappointing that of the countless stories Hsieh claims his employees could tell about their experiences at Zappos, only a handful of these stories appear in the book. Sure, Hsieh tells plenty of his own stories, but he relies so heavily on hackneyed phrases to describe significant events that his stories lose any unique perspective and distract from the details that his audience truly craves.
We never find out, for example, what made him decide to create a formal set of core values, when he fought so long to stay away from something that once seemed “so corporate,” or how he came up with the unlikely decision to pay new employees $2,000 to quit. And it remains a mystery as to why some things with which so many other companies struggle – mainly, letting employees use social media as both a job seeker and customer engagement tool – comes so easily to Zappos. The whole concept of using Twitter to recruit and retain employees is all but glossed over – which is surprising in light of the fact that Zappos basically set the bar for using Twitter for business purposes.
If you’re looking for a rags-to-riches memoir of a company that came into its own, you won’t find it here. (Compared with other companies, the obstacles Zappos has had to overcome seem relatively mild.) Nor will you find a comprehensive business book explaining how to better your corporate culture.
While Hsieh talks at length about the things that make Zappos such a unique culture, he says very little about how Zappos’ actually got to that point. What’s missing are the details of the growing pains the company went through to get to that point. Even for a company that seems to get everything about culture and internal communications right, it’s hard to believe some of those lessons weren’t learned the hard way. What you will get is an overview of life at Zappos and, in that, several tips and new ideas for creating or strengthening your own corporate culture (and possibly the urge to apply for a job at Zappos).
Ultimately, Hsieh seeks to inspire the reader to pursue his or her passion, and, were Hsieh a better writer, he might come close to achieveing that. But he falls short of of properly conveying the level of passion he so adeptly shows in person, and thus, fails to say anything on paper that truly resonates with audiences. My advice? Skip the book, look for Hsieh at a speaking event, and see the live version instead. You’ll get your money’s worth.
Disclosure: I received a free promotional copy of Delivering Happiness.