Zappos: Can a Corporate Mission be Happiness?

Zappos‘ CEO Tony Hsieh delivered yesterday’s keynote speech at the SXSW interactive media conference to a packed and enthusiastic crowd of techies and new media mavens. The company has long embraced web technology for obvious reasons (they’re an online store): They have a popular set of topical blogs, and a wildly active Twitter presence used for company updates, customer service, and even internal communication among employees.
However, the most impressive part of Tony’s presentation yesterday was his emphasis on the company’s commitment to customer service, and ultimate corporate mission: nothing less ambitious than achieving that most elusive of metaphysical desires, happiness.

(graphic note-taking was done live during the talk by the amazing Sunni Brown)
Tony began his talk emphasizing the lengths the company has gone to in order to keep customers happy. They allow anything to be sent back for any reason for up to a year, no questions asked, they’ll chat on the phones with customers as long as needed, they’ll even tell you the nearest pizza place that delivers at 3am (though Tony asks that you not test them on that one). Tony also emphasized that despite the growing importance of new media, the telephone remains the most important tool for communicating with customers – going so far as to call it the company’s most important branding device. The company is also well known for surprising customers with overnight shipping and other goodies.
Secondly, Tony discussed the corporate culture itself, advising taking plenty of time to hire new employees, but wasting no time to fire those who do not contribute positively to the corporate culture. Employees are expected to be passionate – the company even publishes an annual “culture book” which is given to prospective hires to peruse while they apply. Even more interesting – Zappos offers $2000 during the first month of a new hire’s job to get that employee to quit (yes, you read that correctly). Barely 2% of new hires take the payout – ensuring that only people who see themselves as committed to meaningful work stay on. At the end of the day, all these ideas and more contribute to one of the most positive, creative, and proactive corporate cultures around. It’s obvious that a lot is going on if you check out their blogs and the various employee produced project you’ll find there.
Finally, Tony got downright philosophical with slides of Maslow’s hierarchy challenging folks to understand that regardless of what short term path we’re on (money, relationships, recognition) the real goal is always the same – to achieve lasting happiness. That’s the philosophy which guides relationships across the corporate culture and outward to customers and the world at large.
Say what you will about the “greenness” of a huge mail-order enterprise from a strictly environmental perspective, but when the really big picture is concerned, the ongoing enlightenment of Zappos is lasting and impressive.

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Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of has since grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.