Tag Archives: zappos

Delivering Happiness: Book Review

I received an advance copy of Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose by Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos. I am posting the book review today because it’s also the official release date of the book! It’s also the day before my birthday, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with this review.

I saw Tony speak at a keynote for the SXSW conference in 2009. The key components of that talk have stuck with me ever since. He basically argued that companies should act more like people. Since they’re made of people, they need to act more holistically while considering more than just revenues. His company, Zappos, has the goal of delivering WOW experiences through service. Basically it’s to make people happy through unbeatable customer service.

I was glad to see that Tony decided to distill that talk (and much more) into book form a little more than a year after his SXSW talk.

The book is mostly a narrative about Tony’s path to becoming an entrepreneur, angel investor, and eventually CEO of Zappos and getting bought by Amazon.com. I say this book is mostly narrative because about halfway through it starts becoming something else. The narrative is funny and quirky, something I’d expect from a guy whose company has a core value of “Create Fun and a Little Weirdness.” He talks about buying worms for a worm farm, then starting a mail order button empire as a kid, which led to selling pizza in college and then creating LinkExchange (which I totally remember using) while working for Oracle.

I feel that Tony and I share a lot in common. I also had many schemes for making money before I had a real job, like selling rocks and doing yardwork, selling Dell coupons on eBay and signing up for random online offers so I could get gift certificates to sites like CDNow (I think Amazon.com bought them). Tony writes about quitting Oracle when he felt his LinkExchange was too good of an opportunity to not devote his full time to, and quitting Microsoft when his company was sold, not waiting for his stock to vest (and losing lots of money in the process):

I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I knew what I wasn’t going to do. I wasn’t going to sit around letting my life and the world pass me by. People thought I was crazy for giving up all that money… I had decided to stop chasing the money, and start chasing the passion.

Having recently resigned at my own (fairly high-paying) job at Microsoft, I feel the same way. Reading this book was a lot like reading about my own life, at least until the part where he figures out what he does after qutting (I’m still figuring that out, myself).

The narrative section goes up to about the point where Zappos finally ends up getting an important loan and relocates to Las Vegas. After that, the book takes a turn and starts feeling more like a business book. Tony starts including lots of email memos to show what was communicated to the employees at certain points, like when the company had to lay off some employees or when they were sold to Amazon.

Different Zappos employees start writing entire sections like “Vendor Relations by Fred.” This makes the book feel much more fragmented and difficult to follow. The book becomes less about Tony and more about a shared experience. The problem is that it’s riddled with asides, lists, email memos and more. There’s really no organization towards the end of the book and it feels very much thrown together. While the lessons at the end of the book might be useful, I feel as though there could have been two separate books. One from Tony’s perspective that stays as a full narrative, and another book for business people on how to make sure their company’s culture doesn’t poison its employees.

Delivering Happiness is a good book. I believe in its author and in the principles contained within. While I feel it could have been organized better, I still think everyone should read it. It’s an extremely quick read and very entertaining most of the way through. I hope that Tony Hsieh’s message of the importance of company culture reaches more people, and that people have better work experiences as a result.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book. My review is an honest opinion of the book.

Contest rules!
I’m also holding a contest because I got an additional free copy of the book to give away. If you want to win it, retweet this tweet and follow me @hungtruong (so I can DM you). I’ll randomly pick someone to send the book to once I get enough entries (after a day or so). I can only ship to the US; sorry about that!

Bloggers: Get a Free Advance Copy of “Delivering Happiness” To Review!

I had a conversation with someone about how I still have a blog, and that it’s totally old school to write one. I mean, everyone’s microblogging, etc now, right? Well I guess I’ll have the last laugh because bloggers can get a free advance copy of “Delivering Happiness,” that Zappos guy’s book. Just go over here and tell them you blog like an old man.

A lot of the stuff from Tony Hsieh’s talk from SXSW is still permeating my brain. Like company culture, building a product that matters, etc. So I’m looking forward to reading this book, either if I get it for blogging, or if I buy it when it eventually comes out. I already have it on my to-read list on GoodReads.

On Customer Service and Giant Companies

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For a long time, I’ve been a pretty cost-centered consumer. By that, I mean that I mostly cared about how much things cost. This makes sense if you’re poor or really care about getting a good deal. Recently at SXSW, I considered the concept of customer service as explained by Tony Hsieh, the Zappos guy. Random thought: crap, I still need to finish my epic SXSW post!

Tony argued that by focusing on customer service and, a step above that, customer happiness, you could grow your business based on word of mouth and repeat business. This makes sense for a retailer. It’s pretty wonderful how successful Zappos has become just by treating the customer like a king.

Lately I’ve been working on projects that rely on software written by other companies. This concept is not new. I’ve been very frustrated by interacting with systems that don’t work well. Thinking back to the Zappos talk, I wonder if the customer service (and happiness) concept couldn’t be translated to giant software companies.

Web apps are cool because they are relatively easy to build and the users are the most important part of them. They create much of the data and interactions between each other. Web apps have the potential to be highly scalable. What often ends up happening is that a small number of engineers work on an app that millions of people use. This is the case at places like Facebook and Google. Facebook’s job site currently states that it has less than 200 engineers and just a few days ago announced it had reached 200 million users. That’s a ratio of about 1 million users per engineer. I’m sure Google has similar insane ratios.

What do these ratios mean for “customer service?” Basically that it doesn’t exist. And this leads to great frustration when I have an issue with the software. For example, I needed to rename a Facebook Page for work because there was a typo in the name. I filled out the contact form. Never got a reply. I did check the FAQ and yes, it stated that page names are not changeable. But why the hell not? It’s just a record in a database. The problem isn’t really that the name isn’t changeable; it’s that I get the feeling that no one is listening to me.

I also had an issue with Google Apps and their gadget within Sites not working in IE. This is a pretty obscure error but upon inspection of the Google forums (which are actually kind of useful), it appears others have the same issue. But even though multiple users have complained, the Google spokespeople are happy to claim it’s an edge case and dismiss it by giving out urls to help articles that don’t resolve the issue. Again, it seems like they don’t care.

I also had a problem with Google Forms being extremely volatile and absolutely not working correctly. I was literally wondering if anyone had run any kind of QA on the software before releasing it. Simply put, the software was not ready for deployment. Who could I voice my opinion to? No one, because Google is a faceless giant who doesn’t care what I think.

And they shouldn’t care, because this user frustration is not hurting their bottom lines. For every frustrated user there are a thousand who aren’t frustrated. Those users will probably just go away and avoid putting more strain on Google’s massive infrastructure. Good riddance, right?

I can’t imagine there is a good solution to the problem of too many users and not enough support. Forums help, but they can’t completely solve everyone’s problems, especially when the problems exist in bugs in the software. I wish companies would pay more attention to their “customers” when they had real issues with their products. But these companies are just way too massive to give personalized help.

I imagine that some day there will be a massive backlash against this style of software design. Internet scale companies have a way of alienating users and making them feel as though their opinions really don’t matter. They take a “we know best” approach and make blanket decisions that will be good for 99% of the user base. When users protest a redesign of Facebook in aggregate, they might wield more power, but how influential are they, really?

I guess open-source software might be able to fill niches where these giant companies fail. Case in point: WordPress, which I’m using to write this blog post (but who knows where my blog will reside in the future?) is thousands of times better than Google’s Blogger. My theory is that after Google bought Blogger, they moved it to their servers and promptly stopped caring about features, usability and general quality. In my opinion, Blogger is an anachronism. It sucks hard. WordPress, on the other hand, has been constantly improving thanks to contributions from volunteers. This is also probably the reason that WordPress kicked MovableType’s ass.

So open-source software is quicker to improve and react to user needs. But how do you open-source social software that relies on network-effects like Facebook? I guess a decentralized model would work. Maybe a social network based on a protocol instead of a website. Does that sound a bit like twitter? Maybe, but probably not enough. For now, we’re still stuck accepting that we’re lowly users, unable to affect the status quo of applications owned by giant companies who don’t care what we think. Unless, of course, we are employed by those companies and really want to make a difference…