This is why the way to happiness is a choice.
Some board members had always viewed our company culture as a pet project — “Tony’s social experiments,” they called it. I disagreed. I believe that getting the culture right is the most important thing a company can do. But the board took the conventional view — namely, that a business should focus on profitability first and then use the profits to do nice things for its employees. The board’s attitude was that my “social experiments” might make for good PR but that they didn’t move the overall business forward. The board wanted me, or whoever was CEO, to spend less time on worrying about employee happiness and more time selling shoes.
On some level, I was sympathetic to the board’s position. The truth was that if we pulled back on the culture stuff, the immediate effect on our financials would probably have been positive. It would have reduced our expenses in the short term, and I don’t think our sales would have suffered much at first. But I was pretty sure that in the long term, it would have ruined everything we had created.
By early 2009, we were at a stalemate. Because of a complicated legal structure, I effectively controlled the majority of the common shares, so that the board couldn’t force a sale of the company. But on the five-person board, only two of us — Alfred Lin, our CFO and COO, and myself — were completely committed to Zappos’s culture. This made it likely that if the economy didn’t improve, the board would fire me and hire a new CEO who was concerned only with maximizing profits. The threat was never made overtly, but I could tell that was the direction things were going.
It was a stressful time for me and Alfred. But we’d gotten through much tougher times before, and this seemed like just another challenge we needed to figure out. We began brainstorming ways that we could get out from under the board. We certainly didn’t want to sell the company and move on to something else. To us, Zappos wasn’t just a job — it was a calling.
In April, I flew to Seattle for an hourlong meeting with Jeff Bezos. I gave him my standard presentation on Zappos, which is mostly about our culture. Toward the end of the presentation, I started talking about the science of happiness — and how we try to use it to serve our customers and employees better.
Out of nowhere, Jeff said, “Did you know that people are very bad at predicting what will make them happy?” Those were the exact words on my next slide. I put it up and said, “Yes, but apparently you are very good at predicting PowerPoint slides.” After that moment, things got comfortable. It seemed clear that Amazon had come to appreciate our company culture as well as our strong sales.
I applaud Tony Hsieh’s emphasis on happiness in corporate culture, and like Tony I believe that happy employees lead to happy customers.
There’s a good reason why Happiness is the #1 book on Amazon right now.