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Workplace fun is the shoe that fits at Zappos

Las Vegas Sun

- Monday, January 26, 2009

Workplace fun is the shoe that fits at Zappos

Parades, costume parties and close-knit colleagues thrust online shoe retailer to No. 23 on Fortune's Best Companies list

By Jeremy Twitchell

January 26, 2009

One look inside Zappos.com's headquarters in Henderson, and it's pretty clear what Fortune magazine saw when it debuted the company at No. 23 on its 2009 list of Best Companies to Work For.

A Dance Dance Revolution machine, free popcorn and free books greet visitors in the lobby.

However, the online retailer's relaxed, fun-loving and close-knit family atmosphere that has won over employees, investors and industry watchers alike runs far deeper than that. The appeal becomes clearer when approaching CEO Tony Hsieh working at his desk.

Hsieh doesn't have a corner office. He doesn't even have a full cubicle. His workstation, in fact, is indistinguishable from any of the other hundreds of employees in the building - except maybe for the rainforest decorations hanging from the ceiling and the giant inflatable monkey.

"The best way to have an open-door policy is not to have a door in the first place," Hsieh said.

It's a telling insight into the corporate philosophy that has helped Zappos grow from a shoe-selling Web site run out of an apartment to a 1,500-employee company that also sells clothing, accessories, cosmetics, home goods and anything else that grabs buyers' fancy.

Hsieh became a millionaire in 1998 at 24 when he sold his online advertising company to Microsoft. He sold that company not for the money, he said, but because it had grown so fast and wildly that he barely recognized it any more. In the final weeks, Hsieh said he came to dread just going into work.

"We didn't know any better at the time to pay attention to company culture," Hsieh said.

So when Zappos founder Nick Swinmurn approached Hsieh to help his company grow, Hsieh found an intriguing opportunity to take a professional mulligan and build the company he envisioned.

Hsieh said he joined Zappos with two big goals: reach $1 billion in sales by the 12th year (it reached that plateau last year - the company's 10th - on Christmas Day) and crack the Best Companies to Work For list.

He still recalls an interview he had with an overly serious applicant in the company's early days, who asked if Zappos had a goal to crack Fortune's other list - the one of the 500 largest companies.

"I remember saying that it was much more important and meaningful to make it into the Best Companies to Work For," Hsieh said.

Reaching that goal has required more than free meals, full benefits and a nap room (all of which Zappos provides). Hsieh adopted 10 Core Values to create a corporate culture, ranging from No. 1, "Deliver WOW through service," to No. 10, "Be humble."

Melissa Crawford, a customer loyalty lead, said the core values are what attracted her to Zappos and that she has adopted them in her own life.

"Oh my gosh, this is my home away from home," she said. "This is my life. It's changed my life ... Our culture is the best reason to work here."

To truly live by those values, Hsieh said, employees have to be free to be themselves. That means no call times or scripts for customer service representatives, regular costume parties and parades and decorations in each department.

The results are on display on the company tour that Zappos employees give on a daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day. Each department has its own theme and greeting for tour takers, meaning that in addition to the rainforest where company executives sit, there's a row of Elvis impersonators (sunglasses and chops included), a row of cheerleaders (pom-poms included) and a mysterious row known only as Area 52 (creepy voice-altering megaphones included), just to name a few.

The emphasis on individuality is one of the aspects that won over Jamie Naughton, a human resources employee who goes by the title Assistant Cruise Ship Manager.

Naughton worked for a staffing agency that helped Zappos hire staff when it moved to Southern Nevada almost five years ago. She had never seen the kind of positive feedback from placed workers as what the agency received from those working at Zappos, she said. It wasn't long before she joined them.

"It was a running joke that we would do anything to work for Zappos, even if it was sweeping floors," Naughton said.

Within weeks of joining the company, Naughton said, she had been tasked as an events planner, even though it wasn't really part of her job description, because it was something she was excited about.

"The most surprising thing about coming to work here is that there are no limits," she said. "So pretty much anything you're passionate about is possible."

Hsieh said that's why the company shies away from serious titles and uses parties, parades and decorations - to open up trust and communication between employees so that they won't be afraid to reach across job descriptions or bring customers in on the fun.

"We're not saying every office is better off with parades or decorated cubes," Hsieh said. "What we're saying is building a culture that is strong is crucial ... Really, at the end of the day, it's about alignment - everyone moving the same direction and working toward the same goal. For us, that goal is to have the absolute best customer service."

Culture is king at Zappos. In addition to the regular hiring process, applicants go through a second set of interviews to make sure that they're a good culture fit for the company. Performance reviews are divided in the same manner, and failing to fit in with the culture is treated the same way as failing to do work - it could be grounds for dismissal.

"We take a work hard, play hard approach," Hsieh said. "While we do have a lot of fun, we also have high expectations in terms of performance."

Zappos' family atmosphere was put to the test last year when investors asked the company to trim expenses and Hsieh made the difficult decision of laying off 124 friends.

He was buoyed, however, when heard of employees taking those who had lost their jobs out for drinks that day and throughout the weekend. Hsieh has kept in touch with some of those who left as well.

"That's probably not what you would typically find at other companies," he said. "Even though it was incredibly difficult to lay off people, it was rewarding to see that those bonds had formed."

Assistant Buyer Nicole Schamp, one of the designated tour guides, has had her own experiences that have led her to call her co-workers family. When she moved to Nevada for the Zappos job, she said, she had no one here and her co-workers became fast friends, helping her move in and paint her apartment.

When she decided she needed a couch, her bosses held an impromptu fundraiser to help her out.

"It's definitely my family," Schamp said. "I don't know anybody else that who would pull together to help someone like that."

And that is why, when you ask Zappos employees why they like their job, the free lunches, video games and nap room - things that would top the list at most jobs - probably won't even come up.

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