Remodeling the Happiness Store

Tony Hsieh is the charismatic founder of Zappos, the online shoe and commerce platform. In 2010, he authored Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose. It is part memoir, part business history, and part philosophical treatise. Hsieh famously wrote it in a few fevered weeks. The book was an immediate best-seller. Hsieh, who had recently sold Zappos to Amazon, was widely admired as a business guru and entrepreneurial genius. He made hundreds of millions and was still a young man, only in his 30s. The book is forth-right, funny, and unusually candid in what worked and what did not in the rise of Zappos.

Zappos, seven years ago, was widely recognized as a superb place to work. Hsieh’s book helps to explain how he understood organizational culture as brand and how he went about building a unique culture. “Create fun and some weirdness” Zapponians stated. I visited the Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas a few years ago. It was fascinating – from entry-way to HR to training to communication. The folks who worked there very much believed in the system, which placed customer service and human relations at the very center of the business enterprise. Happiness, Hsieh argued, can create great business culture and profits.

In late 2013, Hsieh announced that he was going to replace the traditional organizational structure at Zappos with a holacracy. There is no pyramid structure in a holacracy. Instead, teams (known as circles) make decisions, with the aim of making an organization flatter, more responsive, and more effective. It is not about happiness or oddness. Rather, it empowers these informed circles of workers with pursuing the company’s mission. Many at Zappos tried it and then rebelled. Hsieh has remained committed to the holacracy despite high employee turnover (a third of all those formally happy workers left). Zappos has left the list of best places to work. In fact, the business press has been fairly consistent in its criticism. The jury may still be out on the long-term future of the holacracy and Zappos, but signs are not promising. We can all be confident that few new business leaders will be rushing to recreate their own new holacracies.

Recently I took a look at Hsieh’s Delivering Happiness to gain some insight into the company, Hsieh and the story. Why was he so successful with Zappos in its early days and not today? Admittedly, by most business measures – income, wealth and prestige – Hsieh will always be considered extremely successful. But I see the longer arc of Zappos today as much a cautionary as an exemplary tale.

Hsieh is thoughtful, reflective, curious, and keen on grounding his work with meaning. He is an entrepreneur who wants to make money and to make a difference. He cares. Hsieh is talented and an unusually gifted promoter. He was also able to create, borrow, build and sell businesses multiple times, and to do so as the tech boom was reshaping the business landscape. Comfortable with risk, Hsieh invested (bet?) all of his money on his businesses at various times. He learned from poker, he wrote, as well from his errors.

Looking at the story with the benefit of hindsight, Hsieh was able to bring together a couple of characteristics at just the right time and in the right place. Putting customer service at the center of the business always makes sense. However, I believe that it will only fuel fast organizational growth when other factors are at play. There are plenty of customer focused organizations, like my local dry cleaner, that are not raking in revenue. What happened with Zappos was its focus and rise in a particular environment: the speedy transformation of retail to on-line shopping. Hsieh also brought great insight and curiosity to the table, enabling him to create a company and a company culture that stood out. This is no small feat.

But the strengths of organizational building are not the same for organizational transformation. I think that the many ways in which organizational culture takes hold and shapes people, decisions, and actions are often under appreciated. When we try to make people behave differently, though, we come to appreciate just how powerful culture can be and how it limits change. It is always much easier to create culture anew than it is to change an established culture. This, in a nutshell, is what Hsieh has had difficulty realizing. A holacracy might or might not be an effective strategy for an online retail business. It might nor might not be a good system for any number of businesses. However, it will always be painful to try to change an organization to a new way of thinking.

Some organizations are created with an ongoing change mentality. However, I cannot think of any that have a change mentality and put their employees first.

I believe that the strengths that Hsieh brought to business creation – comfort with risk, innovation, thinking out of the box, eagerness to change – are not skills that help with changing organizational culture. He has vision, ambition and drive, exactly the skills needed to start a business and take it to the next level. Hsieh is interested in passion, in being real, and in finding a higher purpose.

My key takeaway from Zappos is not about organizational culture, or change, or finding happiness at work. Instead, it is all about the importance of situational leadership.

David Potash

Truth Stranger Than Fiction

I remember Wonder Woman when it showed up on television in the 1970s. Lynda Carter was cute but the series did not really resonate with me. I found it just a bit odd, kind of old-fashioned. I had no idea just how odd – or fascinating.

Jill Lepore, in The Secret History of Wonder Woman, explains the origins of the comic book and provides many good reasons for its strangeness. Her book has sold millions for very good reason. Sure, there’s sex, intrigue, drama, secrets and the excitement of comic books. The content is extraordinarily interesting. Lepore has done much more than report it, though. She tells a tale, raises questions, and gives us a narrative of talent and contradiction. It is really engaging popular cultural history at its best.

The story of Wonder Woman is actually the history of William Moulton Marston and his extended family. Marston was a polymath, a talented and gifted man with massive psychological issues. A mother’s boy who graduated from Harvard in 1915, paid his way through while writing screenplays, Marston also earned a law degree and a doctorate psychology. He invented the lie detector test (asking a subject questions while examining their systolic blood pressure), and bounced around Hollywood for years. He was a failure in higher education and, in many ways, harnessing his abilities for financial gain and stability. What saved him were the women he was able to bring into his life. He married to Elizabeth Holloway Marston, a hardworking, smart and highly competent woman in her own right. Olive Byrne, another smart and talented woman, was also a part of the family. Marston fathered children with both women, who maintained an elaborate fiction. Women were central to his home and professional life.

Lepore draws out the idealist circles in which Marston and his circle moved. Margaret Sanger was Olive Byrne’s aunt. John Reed was a friend at Harvard. Free love, feminism, women’s rights, psychology and science were recurring themes in the Marston milieu. All factored prominently in the creation of Wonder Woman, a product of the World War II environment. The comic strip Wonder Woman was immediately popular. Marston, sadly, contracted polio and died at the young age of 53. After the war and without his drive, Wonder Woman faded from the popular consciousness, only to be looked at anew in the 1970s with the rise of women’s liberation.

Woven throughout this complex history are idiosyncrasies, kinks, and strange coincidences – from Olive’s bracelets to Marston’s fascination with bondage. He did not acknowledge it but anyone reading Wonder Woman comics did. She and other women were constantly being chained, gagged, bound or otherwise constrained. It’s a strange narrative for a mother’s boy.

Beyond the anecdotes, what The Secret History of Wonder Woman does very well is highlight the many connections of intellectual and cultural change and production. Few successful things happen in a vacuum. Smarts always makes a difference. And sometimes it helps to be kind of odd, too.

David Potash

Surprised Stranger in a Strange Land

One of my favorite movie scenes is from the 1939 Alfred Hitchcock thriller, The 39 Steps. Our hero, Richard Hannay (ably played by a dashing Robert Donat), is fleeing from police and spies. He darts into an auditorium, where he is mistaken for the featured speaker and led to the dais. Hundreds of eyes are upon him and the crowd grows restless. Without knowing the topic or the audience, Hannay launches into an impassioned speech, stringing together platitudes and general observations. He senses what the crowd wants and they are charmed. Hannay wins their support, just as he is whisked away by the police.

I thought of Hannay-Donat often while reading Rachel Dewoskin’s memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing. It is a very entertaining book, well-told, with a most improbable story line. Dewoskin plays a role – American woman in Beijing – in her daily life and on television. She is committed to the role, but at the same time she knows that she is living a performance.

foreign-babes-in-beijing

Dewoskin is the daughter of a well-known American sinologist. She spent much of her childhood traveling in China, and after graduating from college, decided to take a job in Beijing working for an American public relations firm. She knew little about PR, but at age twenty-one, she wanted to see something new. China in the early 1990s, just as it was opening up new economic opportunities to the west, was an ideal opportunity for an American with Chinese language skills. Dewoskin started work, found a place to live, and began to explore and keep a journal.

She describes her day-to-day work existence with engaged bemusement and humor, particularly as she worked diligently in trying to figure things out. China can be a terrifically difficult culture to navigate, and at that period, she was a pioneer. Very little made sense. Every interaction, especially with friends and colleagues, was influenced by culture and protocol. Only through the benefit of time did she realize her errors and false assumptions. The language posed constant challenges. She notes often that she was never quite sure she understood what others were saying. Adding to it, just about everyone can be a bit of a fool in their early 20s.

Propelling an interesting journey into the absurd, a man she met at a party encouraged Dewoskin to audition for a role on Chinese television. Dewoskin had acted in college so thought of it as a bit of lark. Much to her surprise, she was cast as a lead in the soap opera “Foreign Babes in Beijing.” Playing the role of Jiexi, a sexy American who is able to snare a Chinese man, Dewoskin became a star and an unwitting vehicle by which Chinese culture worked through issues of western women. The soap was a multi-year smash. Overall viewership was more than 600 million.

After several years of acting, making friends and growing up, her adventures invariable come to an end. Dewoskin made her way back to the United States. Several years later, her notebooks became the source of this book. She is now a writer.

Dewoskin does not make grand sweeping arguments in Foreign Babes. Nor does she try to prove points about Chinese culture. Instead, she describes and recounts with a keen appreciation of people and detail. She is smart and thoughtful.  The result is a very interesting account of an intelligent and resourceful woman doing something unexpected in a foreign world that she struggles to understand. It’s an apt description of many immigrant stories – only this one is told from a different perspective.

David Potash

Serendipity, Fiction, and a Home Away

A friend in publishing told me that every book finds its audience.

If so, the journey taken by Laura McBride‘s We Are All Called To Rise to me is worthy of sharing.

ZappotopiaIt has been a full summer of work. In need of a vacation, Las Vegas emerged as a surprising choice. It is not expensive to fly there and lodgings are affordable. So despite the 100+ heat, we set off to the Nevada desert in August. It turned out to be a successful trip – and not because the heat is dry.

Away from the casinos and the Strip, Las Vegas can be unexpectedly surprising. Zappos, the internet shoe and clothing company, has its headquarters in the former Las Vegas City Hall. It is a wildly successful company with a  particular culture. They give “factory” tours in Vegas, explaining the Zappos story. Zappos knows a great deal about customer service. In fact, they describe themselves as a customer service company who happens to sell shoes.Container Park Visit them and you will bear witness to the power of a vision fully implemented. Zappos culture is impressive to contemplate. After taking the tour, I was wondering: “How did this end up here?”

A few blocks away is the Downtown Project. The brainchild of Zappos founder Tony Hsieh, the Project is an outsize attempt to revitalize a neglected part of the city. Hsieh purchased cut-rate property and hand-picked vendors and firms to energize a 60-acre tract. It features restaurants, shops, new companies, and public art. Fueled by optimism, technology and caffeine, the jury remains out as to its sustainability three years on.

Container Park is at the heart of the Downtown Project. An attractive small outdoor shopping center made of shipping containers, it has good food, cold drink, and effective air conditioners. Walking around in daylight without a purpose in daylight makes little sense. Scurrying on the shady sides of the street, aided by apps and a smart phone, led to iced coffee and barbecue. Replenished, I looked at the outdoor playground, the public art and the heat rising of the concrete, and again wondered, “Why here?”

Nearby in the project is a small bookstore – The Writers Block. Talking with the owners, who received backing from Hsieh, I learned that it is the only independent bookstore in Nevada focusing on new books. It is an attractive and Writers Blockthoughtfully curated bookstore. It also had a familiar urban feel. It turned out that the The Writers Block is the creation of the forces who managed the Superhero Supply Store in Park Slope, Brooklyn. I used to live in Brooklyn. I knew Superhero Supply well. For profit stores with a not-for-profit and not terribly secret back-half, the Writers Block and Superhero Supply mix retail with space and support for writers, especially children. It is an intriguing concept originally promoted by Dave Eggers. The Writers Block opened less than a year ago. Like the larger Downtown Project, it is still very much in start-up phase.

So there I was, in a new and different but still somewhat familiar space, thousands of miles away from home, trying to make sense of a downtown that wasn’t fully realized in a city keen on constantly reinventing itself for tourists. There seemed only one reasonable course of action: ask for a good book to help me understand Las Vegas.

I expected nonfiction. Instead, they recommended, McBride’s We Are All Called To Rise. McBride teaches English at the College of Southern Nevada. She is known in the community and had done a reading at The Writers Block. It is her debut novel. Told that it liked by the critics and is selling well, I bought the book.We Are All Called to Rise

We Are All Called To Rise is not about Las Vegas, but it is grounded in the lives of those who live and work in Las Vegas. McBride tells several distinct and related, stories in the book, weaving together a narrative about loss, family, and making meaning. Sentimental but still hard-headed, it is an impressive work of fiction. She is particularly strong on survivors and the impact of trauma. McBride cares about her characters. It is an excellent read.

May your next read find its way to you with an equally interesting journey. I give thanks – to vacations, to company tours, to online shoe shopping, to urban spaces, to independent bookstores, and to the power of coincidence. Many of these resonate in McBride’s world, too.

David Potash

Her Sister’s Keeper

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, a recent novel from Karen Joy Fowler, is an endearing disruptive read. Narrated in the first person by Rosemarie Cook, an inveterate talked who starts in the middle and loops with little regard for chronology’s strictures, the book engages and challenges. Good novels worm their way into how we think about people and the world – and We Are Completely Beside Ourselves does a wonderful job of it. Fowler is a very talented author.We are all completely besides ourselves

Fowler does not so much have a plot as a concept, and it could be something of a surprise for those not paying close attention. A traditional nuclear family (father, mother, son, daughter) raises an orphaned baby chimpanzee as one of their own as a psychology experiment. The chimp, Fern, is the same age as the younger daughter, Rosemarie.  The experiment ends after five years – the chimpanzee is suddenly sent to a “farm” – and the family suffers trauma and disintegrates over time.

Rosemarie, who has a terrific voice and a real way with words, tells us this story. Irreverent and deeply moral, Rosemarie’s coming of age is more than a journey to adulthood; it is about what it means to be fully human. Those interested in literary analysis will find numerous thoughtful references. Themes of doubling and twinning themes are woven throughout. Fowler’s skill unfolds these questions with a light, yet penetrating touch.

Well worth your time – and I would be surprised if you would want to visit the monkey cage at the zoo after reading it. When it comes to our ethical responsibilities to animals, no easy answers are possible. Some things, though, are simply wrong.

David Potash

Baudelairian Commute

Monday's Chicago clouds

 

The clouds were beautiful Monday morning driving to work. Raking sunlight infused color into a sky that opened broadly. As I sat in traffic on the Kennedy Expressway, I took this photo and thought of Baudelaire’s poem The Stranger –

Tell me, enigmatical man, whom do you love best, your father, your mother, your sister, or your brother?

I have neither father, nor mother, nor sister, nor brother.

Your friends?

Now you use a word whose meaning I have never known.

Your country?

I do not know in what latitude it lies.

Beauty?

I could indeed love her, Goddess and Immortal

Gold?

I hate it as you hate God.

Then, what do you love, extraordinary stranger?

I love the clouds… the clouds that pass… up there… up there… the wonderful clouds!

(Louise Varese translation)

My introduction to the poem came through  Ulrich Baer’s Remnants of Song: Trauma and the Experience of Modernity in Charles Baudelaire and Paul Celan. More than a hundred and fifty years on, it’s a poem that can still seduce and shock. Baer, NYU professor and talented literary critic, uses it as a leaping off point to interrogate key issues of modernity. Questions of freedom and alienation may seem relevant when trapped in stop and go traffic. My thoughts, thought, were about attentiveness, our engagement and awareness of our surroundings. We live in distracting times and there is always another image, another experience, just a click away.

Conscious of this, I clicked a photo myself, wondering if others were looking and considering the wonderful clouds.

David Potash

Fame in Familiar Flavors

Bat Masterson used to be famous. A gunfighter, lawman, buffalo hunter, pugilist, gambler, boxing promoter, and newspaper columnist, Masterson was a man’s man from the Wild West who lived the latter half of his life on Broadway in New York City. He killed several men, was involved in countless brawls and lawsuits, and lived a life worthy of fiction. One of his younger New York friends, Damon Runyan, thought so – he created the character “Sky Masterson” thinking of Bat. Sky would later achieve a different kind of fame as the lead in the musical Guys and Dolls.  Theodore Roosevelt was equally enchanted. When President, Roosevelt arranged for a federal sinecure for Masterson.Bat Masterson

Robert K. DeArment is probably the world’s expert on Bat Masterson. His latest work, Gunfighter in Gotham: Bat Masteron’s New York City Years, chronicles Masterson’s life but focuses on his time on the Great White Way. Masterson’s New York City was very much Runyon’s: a small district around Times Square filled with types. Masterson did have exploits, but were they worthy of our collective attention? His prose was nothing special; nor were his opinions, causes, or arguments. He was not a leader and he left no exceptional mark on his environs. He was a friend and a colleague to many and a dangerous enemy to a few.

Thinking of Bat Masterson brings to mind other celebrities famous for being famous, a category now enshrined in popular culture. We often think that the rise of the fake celebrity is a recent phenomena driven by the internet and social media. In reality, it is a part of modern life and has been for decades.  We regularly think about, read about, and write about popular figures whose actual claim to fame is, at best, tenuous. Our fascination with fame is as much about us, the public, as it is about the object of our attention, the celebrity.

Those famous for being famous often share similar traits. They actively seek to maintain their celebrity. That kind of fame does not just happen – it requires ongoing work. And if you doubt me, consult with Kathy Griffin. Also, these kinds of celebrities tend to embody characteristics that are taken to an extreme. Masterson’s hyper-masculinity stands as a provocative counterpoint to the hyper-femininity of the Spice Girls or the Kardashians.

As for Masterson, DeArment’s volume provides more than I would ever care to know about the man in print. I will hold judgement about meeting Masterson in person – I think that he would have been a heck of an interesting fellow to meet at the bar.

David Potash

Skeuomorphs – Much More Than Clicks and Faux Paneling

My son, an avid Kickstarter, recently received a brilliant new piece of technology, the Pebble watch. Internet and Bluetooth ready, this wristwatch  customizes with a slew of apps, with more on the way, and talks with your smartphone. It looks pretty cool, too.Pebble Watch

How does the watch tell time?  A variety of ways and traditionally with two hands and a dial.

When objects consciously reference other objects or design, it’s called a skeuomorph. It is most common today when new technology includes older technological features, most likely to make the change more comfortable. Pay close attention and you’ll find skeuomorphs all around – and they have been with us for a long time.Ford Country Squire

Check out the Ford Country Squire, the classic suburban station wagon. Built first as a “woodie” with wood sides, the car retained stick on wood paneling for decades. Horrendous and wonderful – but mostly horrific if you were assigned the far back on a road trip.

The real rise in skeuomorph design came with the digital world. We don’t recognize bytes and code. Skeuomorphs are the bridge to analog and authenticity. They are the backwards-looking matrix that allows for digital notepads, turntables, building blocks and calendars. Look on your desktop for digital wood and digital leather. Smartphones click like a mechanical camera when taking a photo. Apple was famous for its skeuomorphic designs.

Ironic use of skeuomorphism is common and can be effective with the right touch. I sometimes have my smartphone ring, not beep, chime or gong, and it often leads to smiles. It is a way to have our new technology cake and eat it, too. The difficulty comes into play when skeuomorphic design is neither ironic nor thoughtful. Skeuomorphism can be lazy. Why should a computer screen look like a typewritten page on a yellow legal pad?

Evaluation of skeuomorphic design has to acknowledge intent. If the desire is for authenticity, failure is certain. “Authentic reproductions” always fall short and ring false.  If a design deceives with integrity, it stands a fighting chance of success.

And fake wood paneling is always in bad taste.

David Potash

This Bud’s For Bud – Buddenbrooks It Ain’t

Tabloids satisfy our curiosity of the famous while delighting in their miseries. The fall of the wealthy, after all, is often sad and sweet. Consider the story of the Busch family. Bitter Brew chronicles 150 years of family lore and the brewery they used to control, Anheuser-Busch. It is a tale of egos and excess spanning more than a hundred and fifty years. The author William Knoedelseder pays attention to the business but his heart is in the personalities, drama, and scandals. Not hard to figure out why – the family history is chock full of philandering, emotionally bruising conflict, excessive consumption, and deeply flawed people sitting atop an extraordinarily profitable enterprise.Bitter Brew

One of many St. Louis breweries operated by German immigrants, Anheuser Busch stood out in the years after the Civil War thanks to the leadership of Adolphus Busch. Married to the daughter of Eberhard Anheuser, a wealthy manufacturer, Adolphus was the first to pasteurize beer, to ship beer in refrigerated railroad cars, and to build an integrated distribution network. Adolphus created new beers, too, including Budweiser, a premium beer with national marketing behind it. The quintessential American success story, Adolphus was a benevolent potentate in St. Louis, famous for his extravagant lifestyle. He threw massive parties, lived in a castle, and died just before anti-German sentiment swept through America as World War I erupted.

A solid heir, Augustus A., weathered the war and Prohibition. His son, August II, led the brewery through the Great Depression and World War II, as well as multiple marriages and innumerable mistresses. His first son from his first wife, Augustus III, was born in 1937.  August II married again, to a beautiful 22-year-old Swiss blonde who would provide more children and a measure of stability. Passionate about his brewery, his pleasure and the trappings of the role, August II had all the traits of a Bourbon king.

Girls, cars, and guns were always present and often trouble. At age twelve August III took several rifle shots at some neighborhood girls. He favored fast cars and pretty girls, just like his father, and he, too, had multiple marriages. The battles between the two men over the years for control of the brewery is reminiscent of  a Jacobean drama done as a television miniseries. There was no easy transfer of power. It was ugly and mean, with threats and lies.  After several attempts August III gained control of the board and forced his father out. Deposed CEO’s are often given severance packages. August II’s face-saving gift was control of the St. Louis Cardinal baseball team.

History repeated itself with August IV, a playboy drawn to weapons and women. August IV was bad news for many around him. A pretty young woman bartender died after accepting a ride in his Corvette. No charges were pressed, even though August IV left the scene of the accident and claimed that he could not remember what had happened. He spent much of his time partying and bedding countless women, eventually marrying as his role at the company solidified. The marriage did not last. Through all his mistresses and misadventures, family money and connections kept him protected – or minimized the damage. Later in life another girl died under mysterious circumstances at his home.

The apparent reason for the takeover of the business by a Brazilian conglomerate was August IV’s lack of attention and substance abuse problems. Knoedelseder paints a picture that the family’s longstanding interest in personal gratification and horrible interpersonal dynamics made it inevitable. He does not argue the point, though. Clever advertising and good fortune can only take a company so far. Infidelity, mistrust and greed compromise the best strategic plans.

Knoedelseder’s sharply drawn portraits are based on serious research. The narrative is tight and the tone carries just the right mix of objective reporting and lurid fact. Missing from the history, though, is message and meaning. No catharsis emerges from the fall of a family without greatness or heroism. Like bottle of Bud, the Busch family lacks substance and taste.

David Potash

With A Little Wine, Please

For me to write about Eric LeMay’s Immortal Milk, Adventures in Cheese, a snack was essential. I rustled about in the fridge. There was a little bit of waxy gouda left from a stop at Whole Foods. It was fine, but not really enough to warrant much prose. The havarti had gone bad, but tucked behind some pepperoni was a chunk of super sharp cheddar. A bit pedestrian, perhaps, for it was not organic and from New Zealand. I limit my Whole Foods silly cheeses. The cheddar still had a bite that enthused me.

Enthusiasm is the correct sentiment, too, for rarely have I read a short book about anything that is so completely run through with enthusiasm. LeMay does not babble and he does not go on and on and on. He does, though, incisively and with great humor, walk us through a series of adventures in and with cheeses. Fromage in all its variations is a passion that he and his wife share. They celebrate cheese and cheese making. They are humbled and exalted, and all for immortal milk, cheese.

The couple visits cheese makers, cheese fairs, cheese mongers and the cheese obsessed. Cheesophilics, I believe they are called. They taste aromatic cheeses and cheeses that make them gag. They learn a bit along the way, but this is not a didactic book. The goal is simply about enjoying and learning more about the endlessly complex world of cheese.

How does one recommend such a book? If you only read one book about dairy products . . . .  Looking for something out of the ordinary about food? . . .  Have I got a cheese book for you!

The book is worthy of a hearty recommended, too, and not just for the cheese. It is very much about love and care. LeMay conveys curiosity and good will in a manner that just makes you know that he is earnest without being a bore, a good man to share a drink and a piece of cheese. He’s also very adroit with language.

Come to think of it, it’s been some time since I’ve shopped at Murray’s. They always had a good suggestion or two.  Enjoy.

David Potash