December 7, 2020

Across the globe, many are still reeling from the shock of the unexpected death of American internet entrepreneur and former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh last month. Apart from being known as a tech wunderkind, the 46-year-old was a dreamer who forked out US$350 million to transform and revitalise downtown Las Vegas. He also loved to party and threw extravagant parties where he served his own specially concocted drink—shots of Fernet.

Hsieh’s rise to stardom started in 1999, when he and his friend Alfred Lin co-founded an investment firm called Venture Frogs. Later that year, he decided to invest in an online shoe retailer, rebranded it as Zappos, and eventually became the CEO. Beyond profits, the Harvard alumnus did everything with heart and purpose—and sought to positively transform the lives of those around him. A former journalist, Cathy Brooks, once remarked how Hsieh was the one who inspired her to start her dog day-care business, which has now become a flourishing enterprise.

Although Hsieh’s life has been cut short, the late iconoclast leaves behind many valuable insights on how to lead—here are five tenets to live by. 

Build a great company culture  

According to Hsieh, one of the main factors that separated great companies from mediocre ones was their company culture. And a strong company culture can be determined by its environment, core values and purpose. When considering what your company’s corporate values should be, consider using your own personal values as a guideline. Think about what’s important to you as a person, and apply it professionally. Hsieh often emphasised that “if you get the culture right, most of the other stuff like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand will just happen naturally on its own.”

Hire for culture fit

Apart from conducting a round of interviews to ensure that the potential candidate has the proper skill set, Zappos also assesses if the person is a good culture fit. Case in point: for applicants in Las Vegas, Zappos will offer a pick-up service at the airport, and how polite and nice they are to the driver will play a part in them being hired. 

Candidates will also be asked questions based on each of Zappos’ key values. For instance, since one of the company’s values is to “create fun and a little weirdness,” job-seekers are queried on how “weird” they would rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10. While the actual number does not actually matter, it is how interviewees approach the question. To Hsieh, intelligence was not the most distinguishing trait. Many smart applicants were passed on simply because they were not a culture fit. 

Your customers are your biggest promoters

As a business owner, your customers are king. After all, they are the ones that generate revenue for you. At Zappos, customer satisfaction is of the highest priority, which explains the many positive customer reviews and how the team consistently goes the extra mile to make their customers feel special (like conversing with a shopper for almost eight hours). This excellent rapport and service have garnered them a loyal following and almost 75 per cent of their orders are from repeat customers. In addition, their customers have become their best marketing tool by word of mouth. Instead of paying advertisers, Hsieh would spend it on improving the customer experience, so eventually they would become living testimonials for the brand.

Trust your employees 

As a leader, Hsieh was not an advocate of hierarchy and gave employees the autonomy to make decisions, since they interacted directly with the customers. For a period of time, he even adopted a rather unorthodox management philosophy, where no one reported to anyone or were given titles. He also believed that it was essential to trust his employees and keep communication lines open. Hence, managers were encouraged to build rapport with their teams. Show more care and help your staff out with personal issues as well, because according to Hsieh, “People don’t leave companies, they leave their managers. Hsieh was well-known for his benevolence in helping others; even Tony Hawk commented that he was “generous with his time and willing to share his invaluable expertise with anyone.”

Integrate work and personal life 

While many companies and bosses are increasingly championing work-life separation or work-life balance, Hsieh disagreed with both notions. Instead, he believed in work-life integration since that was the only way his employees would find lasting happiness and genuine purpose at work. Since most of our time is spent at the workplace, Hsieh felt it was important for staff to enjoy their time at work. When people work in a place where they can be themselves, they become more passionate about their job and form genuine friendships. Hsieh added that being the same person in the office and at home helped to cultivate true creativity, which was the principal driving force behind Zappos’ phenomenal growth.