I had probably heard of this book when it first became available in March 2013, however it never made my “Read Now” list until I visited Las Vegas in late August 2013.
I was in town on my Honeymoon and really wasn’t considering taking any career advancing meetings during my week vacation until a former colleague mentioned a tour of Zappos and the Downtown Project. He had participated in the tour several months earlier as a member of Empact100 and said that I HAD to go.
The tour started in a downtown medium-rise office/residential building. We lounged in the office lobby until our set time, and when the clock struck the designated time our rainbow-colored-haired tour guide stood up and ushered us into an elevator.
She said we’d spend most of our time together in Tony’s apartment, the CEO of Zappos. It was actually three condos, consolidated into one living and working space. She prepared us to stay close and not to wander off as we snaked through the apartments. There was inspirational writing on the walls, books on almost every level surface, stuffed llamas, and a “jungle room.” The jungle room had live plants floor to ceiling, with a large plate glass window inviting the Vegas sun into the dim, ivy strewn space.
We finally made it through to a conference room, the desk + chair combos were on wheels so we could be mobile, “Flintstone” style. We were told to take a seat and gather round, most of our tour would be looking out the windows from this vantage point.
Our tour guide explained how Vegas was selected for the home of Zappos, and that the Downtown Project was a capital investment by Tony to increase the livability of the city to attract more creative and tech entrepreneurs, in addition to making the city more attractive to Zappos recruiting targets.
We talked about the culture of Zappos, how they instigated community interaction and tried to avoid the silos and cliques some companies create by isolating their teams. She said that Zappos employees filled several floors of the building we were now in and living there was almost a dorm experience. There was even an interactive resident bulletin-board site that advertised pot-lucks, leftover pizza, and upcoming parties.
We discussed the plans for the Downtown Project, referencing blueprints hung on the wall, and pointing out the window to structures already constructed. We talked about restaurants, grocery stores, Tesla car share programs, and first Friday events. The plans were impressive and exciting, they wanted to bring the best parts of the creative urban scenes of Austin, Portland, San Francisco, and New York to the desert of Las Vegas. The tour ended a block away at a creative coworking space and coffee shop called The Beat. We stood around a few extra minutes with our tour guide talking Portland and tattoos. Feeling inspired about the motivations behind the Downtown Project we talked in more depth about the Zappos culture and Tony Hsieh. The tour guide recommended the book, and a few weeks later, still feeling captivated by what little I knew about Tony, I bought and read the book.
The book isn’t long, and it’s written in an unpretentious style that is easy to read. The narrative starts with stories about Tony’s first experiments with entrepreneurship. I found the anecdotes easy to identify with, and even as the success of one venture grew into larger and larger opportunities, I didn’t feel that Tony was bragging (even though his first job after graduating Harvard was at Oracle and he sold an early business to Microsoft for more than a quarter million dollars), but merely showing that these rewards were in reach to those that worked hard and found work they enjoyed doing. Tony was also honest in admitting some of the mistakes he’s made along the way.
Once the story got to Zappos, the tension and pace increased. Zappos wasn’t an instant success, it was a roller coaster of stress and fundraising, investment and commitment. The narrative started offering more advice, questioning the conventions that held most companies and teams together. Zappos transitioned from a product company to a customer service company. As Zappos grew into the organization we’re more familiar with today, recruitment and training programs became more sophisticated and important to Zappos strategy. Cultivating an environment of learning and loyalty guaranteed a pipeline of internal candidates which continued to progress their way up the ranks.
The chapters continue to offer more advice to entrepreneurs when negotiating with investors, presenting a transparent blow-by-blow account of Amazon’s acquisition (marriage) of Zappos.
In summary, what I learned from Tony and this book is that life doesn’t stop with professional success (or deliver happiness) and that even a billion dollar acquisition doesn’t make you exceptional.