Zappos Chief Says Culture Key to Success

Tony Hsieh describes path from pizza to e-tailing

It’s hard to imagine corporate America adopting Zappos’ quirky culture, which asks its employees to be creative and adventurous and actually encourages interoffice dating. But executives who would reject the shoe and clothing e-tailer as a role model would be missing the point.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, speaking at the 2011 American Magazine Conference, said the most important thing a company can do is have a strong culture and hire people whose values match its own.

“Our message isn’t, 'Adopt our culture,' but, 'Figure out what values you’re going to commit to,'” he said.

Hsieh, who wore jeans and rolled-up shirt sleeves, described getting rid of people who didn’t fit the culture, even at the expense of the bottom line.

As for companies that talk about work-life balance, he said, “The implication is that work sucks. For us, we think of it as work-life integration.”

Zappos also is famous for its customer service, choosing to invest heavily there instead of advertising. While other companies’ call centers are rewarded for keeping calls as short as possible, Hsieh said at Zappos, “we just set a new record for the longest phone call ever, which was eight hours and 27 minutes.”

Hsieh tried his hand at starting a worm farm and selling pizza, among other ventures, before becoming the successful CEO of Zappos. But it wasn’t entrepreneurship alone that motivated him.

“My parents wanted me to be a lawyer, a doctor,” he said. “The idea of making money was something that I viewed as the freedom to do my own thing. Being an entrepreneur was a way of rebelling against my family.”