By Susanne May
In memory of Tony Hsieh – former Zappos CEO and visionary entrepreneur, 1973-2020
I entered the old Las Vegas City Hall built in 1973, a building reminiscent of the futuristic Spaceship Enterprise, now the headquarters of Zappos. A friendly receptionist who looked like rave barkeeper from East Berlin said hello and brought me to the Zappos Culture Camp classroom. A wide array of folks – executives from large American insurance companies, entrepreneurs, and managers from across the world – trickled into the classroom, all of whom wanted to know how to harness and deliver the “Power of Wow” and “Happiness” to their companies. On my seat, a gigantic bag of chips, of course my favorite type. Zappos cares about the details and wants to wow in every moment of the client’s experience.
Over the next three days the Zappos Culture Camp introduced me to amazing insights that I now apply every day at May & Company. The famous Customer Loyalty Team, groundbreaking internal Holocracy Group, and Zappos onboarding and recruiting process all inspired the way I have built and maintain May & Company to this day. Impacting our company culture the most is of course how Zappos built and scaled their special culture around ten values, one of them “Deliver Wow through Service.” In the breaks I curiously walked around with my peers to explore the quirky office space and admired the multitude of books lying around everywhere. In-between we sat in a bucket of colorful balls in the HR department, which reminded me of when carnival is celebrated in Cologne. I thought this place is truly unique to have a culture centered around these playful values 12 months a year.
We were invited to the legendary “all hands meeting,” where Tony facilitated the exuberant show but left the employees the stage. Simon Sinek spoke as a special guest to inspire all the employees. Again, on my lips a “wow” flashed. I become aware of this and thought yes, Tony and his amazing Zappos team made us live their ten values through every moment of the camp.
Tony, an admirable entrepreneur in my eyes, inspired my journey as an entrepreneur, particularly how to build a business and a “do what you say culture.” He gave me one of my most important lessons as entrepreneur and I am forever grateful – culture is the key for everything.
Tony Hsieh left all of us with three takeaways for company culture as part of his legacy:
1. Clear values are essential. Values create the experience a company wants their employees, customers, and partners to have. At Zappos, values were co-created with all employees, not forgetting to include their personal values. After a company-wide value alignment, Zappos’ 10 values were rolled out in everything it does.
2. Culture is a feeling and an aligned governance system.They outlive goals, trends, and people and are inherent in a company’s operating system (data, processes, people, and policies). Zappos hires and fires by values and values are used as decision-based criteria.
3. Be bold as an entrepreneur and commit to a “do what you say” culture. See your company as a laboratory where you invent and test with your team best practices and mechanisms for the future while letting others learn from this experience. That makes people proud of their work and commits your clients and partners.
Tony passed away last week at the age of 46. I mourn his loss, yet will carry on his inspiration through our work at May & Company. We at May & Co. share the strong belief that a company has to be purpose and value-driven to be exceptional. A strong and aligned culture is an incredible asset to a company and its people. Tony shows that yes, it’s worth it to make culture a key priority for every founder and leader. Wow Tony, in deep gratitude and admiration.