[YS Learn] 4 key lessons startups can learn from Zappos for high team productivity

Zappos’ culture and its story of great customer satisfaction and experience is a tale for all to learn. But what are the key lessons startups can learn from the ecommerce company?

When you think of a clothing and shoe store, the first examples that may come to your mind are sports apparels like Puma and Nike. But what defined Zappos was its ability to take on industry giants. 

Founded in 1999 by Nick Swinmum, who launched it along with Alfred Lin and Tony Hsieh, Zappos is legendary for its culture and growth. In 2015, a Forbes article had stated that the company had earned revenues to the tune of a whopping $2 billion. 

While the company was acquired by the Seattle-based ecommerce giant Amazon in July 2009, Zappos’ journey and push to ‘delivering happiness’ serves as a guidebook for team-building and startup culture everywhere. Its customers and its employees are loyal, and that has been the case since its inception.

How does the startup manage to do that? The core essence, as many pointed out, is that Zappos generates a following within its customer base by being loyal and holding on to their word and delivering it. 

For Zappos, happiness is an everyday phenomenon. The company’s core culture is focused on ensuring that every team member is happy. Why? Because the team believes that only a happy employee can make the customer happy. 

In the book Delivering Happiness, Co-founder Tony Hsiech says, “I made a note to myself to make sure I never lost sight of the value of a tribe where people truly felt connected and cared about the well-being of one another.” 

He also adds: “If you get the culture right, most of the other stuff – like great customer service, or building a great long-term brand, or passionate employees and customers – will naturally happen on its own.” 

Image credit: Ahamed

Some of the key things Zappos does right to ensure its growth and success even after a decade are: 

Hire according to fit and culture 

While Zappos often finds itself in an enviable position with several people applying for jobs, it takes way longer to get hired into the company. As in the book Extreme Teams, the author Robert Bruce Shaw says, “They value their culture more than achieving their quarterly targets.” 

The company uses specific questions to measure each applicant’s fit into the culture. At least is one interview question based on the 10 core values of the firm, which are: 

  • Deliver WOW through service 
  • Embrace and drive change 
  • Create fun and a little weirdness 
  • Be adventurous, creative, and open-minded 
  • Pursue growth and learning 
  • Build open and honest relationships through communication 
  • Build a positive team and family spirit 
  • Do more with less 
  • Be passionate and determined 
  • Be humble. 
The company believes that from these core values, it is able to assess the three main aspects of an employee’s experience – empowerment, compassion, and trust. Everyone at Zappos is given a free rein to make their own customer service decisions. This could even mean spending an insanely long amount of time with one caller. 

The team took over a year to shape and build the 10 core values of the company. 

Embrace each individual’s uniqueness 

This also fits in with the company’s core value of creating fun and a little weirdness. People decorate their desks the way they want, they wear what they want, and are allowed to even bring a dog if they want to. The place in itself is relaxed, and there is no need to arrive at an interview at Zappos with a suit and a tie. 

Within three weeks after joining the company, each recruit goes through a ‘Values project’ where they research and demonstrate what value or set of values means to them and the business at large. People are sent on scavenger hunts to find out about the business, people, and values, and are encouraged to interact and connect with people. 

Supporting and reinforcing the culture 

Salaries, for example, are chosen by the team and the teammates. You and your team are to work within a budget. Teams are encouraged to meet people of other teams and departments by having drinks and snacks at alternate floors. For Zappos, the fit of culture plays a stronger role than subject matter expertise. 

The HR team also carries out a three-week induction where each recruit is given a brief on Zappos’ culture and its values. The recruits are also given a month-salary in advance if they don’t feel they fit into the culture. Each process reinforces the behaviour and everyone is also reviewed in terms of the values and not just performance targets. 

This, in turn, is seen even in the customer service where customers can return all products at any time in the next 365 days, and if you happen to buy something on February 29, you get four years to return them. 

Engaging and empowering people 

After your induction, the core focus of every employee is to deliver fantastic customer experience. The staff has the power to do the right thing without seeking permission from their boss. The employees are all trained in a way that they don’t have to pass a customer on to somebody else. 

The CRM system at Zappos is WMS – 'Where’s My Shit?' – which has the customer’s personal details, notes on conversations etc. The people are given the power to build a personal connection with their customer. And there are no scripts. Every employee is trusted to make the wise decision. 

Edited by Kanishk Singh


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