Book Review: Delivering Happiness

I have been learning about Tony Hsieh and his enthusiastic embrace of new ideas for the past few years, but I had never really considered reading this book until it was recently recommended to me. What I did know about his life—that he is an advocate of a flat organizational hierarchy called Holacracy and is…

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I have been learning about Tony Hsieh and his enthusiastic embrace of new ideas for the past few years, but I had never really considered reading this book until it was recently recommended to me. What I did know about his life—that he is an advocate of a flat organizational hierarchy called Holacracy and is dedicated to the creation of a vibrant and dynamic Las Vegas downtown—certainly piqued my curiosity, and made me want to learn more about his philosophy and how he thinks about business. Delivering Happiness does just that.

The Making of an Entrepreneur

Like a lot of business books written by people that run or have run companies, the author walks us through his early life and first business experiences. These stories set the tone very early with the three characteristics that define Hsieh. One, he is very intelligent, and was put in a position to succeed via traditional path. He went to excellent schools growing up in the Bay Area, studied Computer Science at Harvard, and excelled in these settings. Two, he nevertheless has a real drive for experimentation and has no desire for safety. A prototype of the entrepreneur, Tony was selling a variety of products all throughout his childhood. Worms, buttons, pizza, since pre-adolescence he’s been creating businesses and making sales, and he has walked away from stability multiple times in favor of the next engaging opportunity. Three, he is radically people-focused. He has a great curiosity about others, and this combines with his intelligence and entrepreneurial inclinations for a fascinating set of motivations for a business person.

Creating the Mindset that Feeds the Culture that Builds Zappos

Tony Hsieh actually isn’t the founder of Zappos, but rather the first substantial investor who would eventually step in as CEO. This book tells that story, and though bits of the company’s history are interesting, they tend to follow a pattern that you see with other companies’ stories as well—scraping by for years until the big break hits, and some elaborate footwork to keep control of the company at key points. What makes Happiness  more valuable than these other books are the differentiating factors that Hsieh brought to Zappos but developed previously.

First, his first company LinkExchange scaled very quickly after Hsieh launched it with some friends. Within three years, they were able to sell for hundreds of millions of dollars, and along the way he learned the importance of culture. Having built the company with friends and existing relationships, Hsieh knew that these early colleagues shared similar values. When the company grew to over one hundred employees, though, he belatedly realized that he had lost the culture.

Years later, while investing in Zappos but before he assumed direct leadership, he spent much of his time in San Francisco hosting parties, trying to get all of his friends and co-investors to live in the same apartment building, and building a group of people living and working in complete harmony with one another. Creating a similarly communal and wholly invested environment then became his goal with Zappos. He moved the company to Vegas to keep a tighter team; he offered people early severance pay after their training, encouraging them to leave if they weren’t a good fit; and he became dramatically open in communication, even printing his emails and correspondence throughout this book. All of these steps created the conditions with which he could then pursue a radical focus on customer service, which has become one of Zappos’ calling cards.

Second, Hsieh emphasizes his focus on opportunity recognition, honed in years of playing competitive poker after the sale of his first company. From that full-time hobby, he learned the importance of picking the right table. No matter how good of a player he was, he could greatly improve his performance by picking the right opportunity. Which partly explains why he ended up committing to Zappos so strongly: it was an incredible opportunity to bring a new set of products to the online commerce space in a big way, to grow quickly as the industry itself was growing. It took several years of developing the business and the luck of a bad enough climate to drive others out, but the quality of the opportunity eventually bore huge success.

Throughout the book, there are interesting examples of Hsieh’s priorities (rave parties, Red Bull, hiking Kilimanjaro) played against the story of Zappos’ dramatic growth. There are still lots of interesting logistical pieces about how he built that business, and I found the specifics of how he came to certain decisions particularly interesting, such as negotiating a buy-out of their VC investors by Amazon. Nevertheless, the real value of Delivering Happiness is the focus on developing a powerful company culture and the effect that has.

Should you read this book?

This is one of the most enjoyable books I have read recently from the perspective of the founder. You get a sense of joy from Hsieh’s writing, and the overall affect is inspiring. He creates the feeling that you too can live with great purpose, if you are able to bring the combination of courage and enthusiasm. His advice is likely extreme for some situations, but I think many people responsible for organizations and decision-making could benefit from a reading.

Terence O’Neill is the Entrepreneurship Librarian at Michigan State University, where he works to connect entrepreneurs to resources that will better inform their business decisions. Through a background in libraries and community education, Terence has worked to support business and innovation internationally and throughout Michigan.

Have a book you want reviewed, or another comment? You can reach Terence at [email protected].


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