Delivering Happiness by Tony Hsieh: Failures and Pivots along the road to Happiness

Last night I read most of Tony Hsieh’s new book Delivering Happiness, due out in June.  In it, he describes his career as an entrepreneur from the age of nine, when he started a worm farm in his parents backyard (not a single worm lived through the month!).

I was struck, especially after my last post, at how many different businesses he tried in his life before he started Zappos, and how many were either “meh”, or failed completely. Here is a fairly complete list:

  • worm farm (fail)
  • garage sales (meh)
  • neighborhood newletter (fail)
  • paper route (meh)
  • custom button making (success)
  • greeting card sales (fail)
  • magic trick mail order sales (fail)
  • crowdsourced study guide (success)
  • games tester for LucasFilm (meh)
  • programming job at GDI (meh)
  • Quincy House Grill at Harvard (success)
  • Oracle (meh)
  • LinkExchange (success)
  • Zappos (success)

Throughout his life, he has been continually trying new things, and gaining experience at succeeding, failing, and making decisions about when to keep going, and when to give up.

If you look at Zappos today, it seems like they’re on top of the world. But when you read Tony’s book, there have been some harrowing and very risky pivots they undertook to get to where they are.

Here are the Cliff Notes : Zappos started as a web-based company that contracted with shoe brands to drop-ship product to customers. It was hard to convince large brands to do business with them, so they bought a retail store to have access to more brands. A large percent of customer purchases were late or never delivered. They started stocking products in their office to increase reliability, outgrew the office space, and rented space across the street. They dumped their drop-ship business (which accounted for significant revenue), so that they could make reliability a cornerstone rather than a hope. They outsourced their warehousing operation to a vendor in Kentucky, lost 20% of their inventory in a truck crash, watched the oursourcer fail, then built their own warehouse operation in Kentucky. Tony sold everything he owned to raise money to buy more inventory. They decided that customer service was their #1 priority, and moved the entire company to Las Vegas. During all of this, they almost ran out of money multiple times, and had to negotiate with vendors, investors, and employees to try to bridge the gap, as well as sell off everything Tony owned to make payroll and stock inventory.

The end of the story is something we all know now: He went on to create a very inspiring culture where “Delivering Happiness” is the company’s brand promise. (As an ex-raver , any CEO who bases his company on the concept of PLUR warms my heart. I’d love to go out dancing with him and the Zappos folks someday).

But along the way, Tony and his team has learned to stay creative, positive, and solution-focused in the face of dire, difficult circumstances.  Then, and only then, did they arrive at the place where they could choose to create happiness, rather than just staying afloat.

Business Failure Hurts, Bad

I had a great talk today with a dear friend about the demise of his business that he had invested heart and soul in, and about the rise and fall of Critical Path (where I was co-founder during Web 1.0 boom and bust). People tend to talk a lot about what circumstances or decisions cause a business to fail, but not much about how it feels.

I know from experience how awful this is: if I had to pick the most poignant day in my career, it would be a toss-up between (a) the day I had to lay off 10 close friends from the company they’d helped me take public, and (b) the day the news broke that last quarter’s earnings were falsified, and the stock plummeted to under $1. (It wasn’t the money that bugged me, although that was awful too; it was the shame of having the company I’d helped to create tarnished by underhanded business dealings.)


Originally uploaded by Erik Charlton

As an entrepreneur, you are probably spending more hours a day on your business than you would with your significant other, and maybe even your child. You’re pouring so much energy into it that you end up identifying with it, as if it is a part of you. Every time you pass out a business card for your new venture, you’re essentially saying “this is me; this is my dream! come join me! the world will be a better place when it has this thing!” After months and months of doing that, the business name might as well be your last name… And you pretty much *have* to be this crazy, this passionate, and this committed, to have a chance as making something work.

When your business doesn’t work out, or when you get forced out, what do you do?

If you lost your partner, you would grieve, nonstop, for weeks or sometimes even months. No one would ask you “so, will you be registering on”  So when you lose your business, why do people think it’s OK to say “wow, tough luck”, and then in the next breath, to ask cheerfully “so, what’s next for you?” as if there is no emotional content to having a business fail whatsoever?

My guess is that people are uncomfortable with grief, and maybe don’t understand what a big deal it is to have your startup collapse. I’m all about helping people have more success, more happiness, and more joy in their work and their lives. But if you’ve just been through a dramatic business failure, you will likely be consumed by that experience, and you won’t be able to pull through to the other side until you’ve dealt with it. And, if you don’t deal with it, stuff will pop up at inopportune times. You get to do it now, or do it later. Might as well tackle it while it’s fresh…

Take some time to be sad. The five stages of grief will apply:

Denial – “I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening, not to me.”

Anger – “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; “Who is to blame?”

Bargaining – “I’ll do anything if it will make my business go”; “I will give my life savings if…”

Depression – “Why bother with anything?”; “What’s the point?”; “Business just sucks”

Acceptance – “It’s going to be okay.”; “There is something else out there for me.”

You might have to give your close friends some cues so they know where you’re at, and how to support you. You might want to lay low for a while, but don’t do it for too long. If you’re supporting a friend who lost this business, you can always ask what would be most helpful. Just having someone to talk to that doesn’t have any agenda is a great starting point.

It’s only when you get to Acceptance that you will have the energy and perspective to choose something new that isn’t a reaction to what just happened. Just like when you break up with a partner, you might think “I’m unloveable” or “I’ll never meet another person as perfect for me as so-and-so”. Then with time and perspective, they get to see that they learned some valuable lessons, had some fun times, had some hard times, and they’re ready for something new.

In hindsight, you’re going to get to say exactly the same thing about a business failure: you learned some valuable lessons, you had some fun times, you had some hard times, and now, the person you became by doing all those things is ready for something new.

Thanks for sticking with this; it’s a hard topic, but seemed worth an entry, since it’s rarely talked about.

Diving into Advance copy of Open Leadership by Charlene Li

Last night I checked my mailbox, and was excited to see my advance copy of Charlene Li’s new book “Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead“.  I mowed through the first three chapters before bedtime. While it’s definitely a book advocating for business to be more open, and has plenty of great stories of business success based on the leaders’ openness, she also provide tangible guidelines for choosing which avenues of openness will work best for your business now, and how to put policies in place to make openness successful within your company’s culture. I’m pleased to see that in addition to advocating and storytelling, there is plenty of very practical and useful “how to”.

Clearly the age of openness in business is upon us; Charlene is helping to point the way forward.  I’m looking forward to digging in to the rest of the book!

All Hands Meetings

Getting everyone in one room together is a tradition that starts when a company is small, and often it continues in the same format well past the point that it’s an efficient use of everyone’s time. For a tiny startup, you can go around the room and have everyone talk about what they’re up to, and coordinate who’s doing what. It has a kind of charming informality, and since there aren’t too many people there, it’s not going to take too long.

As a company gets bigger, that format starts to break down, usually at around 10-15 people. It’s no longer interesting to hear what every last person is doing, and it takes a long time. If someone starts talking in detail about a specific project, chances are more than half the people in the meeting don’t need to or want to know about it.

Essentially, the goal has shifted from coordinating and problem solving to reporting news, celebrating success, sharing vision, and staying connected.  So, what happens in the meeting should change too.

Here are guidelines I’ve found successful for a group of 15-50 that accomplishes those goals:

  • Someone is in Charge: There is one person whose job it is to round up items for the agenda, start on time, keep things flowing, and end on time (or early). One of the moderator’s most important jobs is to politely ask people to wrap up who are rambling, and ask people to take something up again outside the meeting when it only affects a small group, or requires discussion. The CEO is generally not the best person to lead this meeting; an office manager or COO often works well. A 20-30 minute timeframe works well.
  • Report News & Celebrate Success: Have representatives from each group give a brief overview of what noteworthy things they’ve accomplished (or failed at), and what work is in progress. Groups should know who’s speaking ahead of time, and speakers should prepare some talking points ahead of time so that they can be concise, yet share interesting stories.  Keep reports to 2-3 minutes unless something earth-shatteringly important is happening.
  • Share Vision: If a significant decision has been made about the company’s direction, this is a great place to share it. I find it’s nice if the vision can sometimes come from someone other than the CEO, which shows there is more than one leader doing the thinking.
  • Stay Connected: This is a great time to ask questions of your staff that lets them share something personal, and get responses from the whole group. I like asking positive questions sometimes, and negative questions sometimes, and going around the whole room Most people answer, although it’s OK to pass too. My favorites are: What are you most proud of doing here? What are you most concerned by? Who on the team would you like to acknowledge for doing something great, and why? What are we forgetting that’s important? You’ll learn a ton if you write down the answers. As the leader, be prepared to give an honest, heartfelt answer. People will gauge what is and isn’t OK to say based on what most senior person in the room says.
  • Use Time Wisely: If you host an all-hands meeting for 30 people, someone who tells a 5-minute story is spending 2.5 hours of collective work time. Some stories are really worth it – they inspire, teach, or communicate important information. The bigger the group, the more prepared the speakers should be.
  • Share Airtime: There is a tendency to make the all-hands meeting the CEO’s megaphone. Resist the urge to let one person deliver all the news, or have the CEO tell 15-minute stories about the customer they just visited or the deal they just brokered.
  • Take Coordination Offline: Do not use the all hands meeting to decide what gets done and assign it to people. Find another mechanism to handle projects & workflow.

I’ve found that following these guidelines really helps makes all hands meetings productive, inspiring, enjoyable, and real.

If you’ve got a great suggestion for all hands meetings for companies in the 15-50 range that I didn’t cover, I’d love to hear it!

Making Effective Requests

Requests are a powerful tool for making things happen. As a business grows from a small group working on a single project to a flourishing office full of competing priorities, effective requests become more important. When team members (and especially managers) learn to make effective requests, expectations and deliverables are clear, and it is easier to keep projects on track.

Components of a Request

An effective request has these components:

  • Who: The request is made to a specific person
  • What: It describes the action to be performed
  • When: It includes a time frame
  • Why: The reason for the request is clear
  • How: Ask directly, and consider the listener’s feelings

Sloppy Requests

Sloppy requests occur when hints are thrown out without asking for something directly. They omit at least one, and often many of the Who, What, When, Why, and How. Some examples are:

  • It seems like this is not quite finished.
  • Would someone be able to take care of this?
  • We need to get this project back on track.
  • I have to present to the client next week.

Sloppy requests put the responsibility for clarifying on the listener, and they can also give the impression that the requestor doesn’t feel justified in asking.  Some people feel hinting or being vague is a “nicer” way to ask for something. Most people prefer direct requests, as long as they are made respectfully. The way that each person makes a request is influenced by the way that they observed in their family and previous jobs.

Considering the Listener’s Feelings

When making a request, it is often helpful to consider what the listener’s current experience is.  And in making a response, considering the requestor’s emotional state is just as valuable.

These two statements are likely to generate very different responses from the listener: “ I need you to start working on this now; it’s really important that I get this done for the client right away” vs. “I know you’ve been working really hard to finish what you’re working on, and that your new baby has been keeping you up late. I need to talk about this new work, because I have to get back to the client about it today. Is there a time in the next hour when we could sit down and talk about it for 20 minutes? I know it will interrupt you, but I’d really appreciate it.”

Likewise, the listener can do the same for the requestor: “You sound really stressed about getting back to this client. I know you’re working really hard to land this job. I’m in the middle of finishing something that I’d like to wrap up before I shift my attention to something else. Could we sit down and talk about it in an hour?”

Response to Requests

When a request is made, the listener can either:

  • Agree
  • Ask for Clarification
  • Negotiate
  • Decline

Agreement is the simplest response in the moment, and some people are inclined to agree immediately, and then assess if it’s really possible later. When that happens, the listener can end up agreeing to something that isn’t possible, which will be frustrating for everyone in the long run. True agreement comes when the listener thinks through what is necessary to satisfy the request, and agrees from a place of knowing what effort will truly be required of them.

Asking for clarification is a great tool for the listener to use to help assess what will be necessary to satisfy the request. This is a great response to a sloppy request: “I’m not sure when you need this to be done by; what’s the deadline?” or “Do you need just a prototype finished, or something ready for production by then?”

The listener has the option of negotiating with the requestor if they think they won’t have enough time, or have ideas for how to do something better/faster/differently. “I don’t think I can finish what you’re asking for in the time I have – what if we did it this way instead?”

If a request comes from a manager, it may actually be a demand, where the listener is expected to comply without question. If that is the case, the manager and the listener benefit if the manager makes it clear from the beginning that they are making a demand. Phrases like “If you have time…”, or “Do you think you could…” make it sound like the listener has a choice – if the task is a demand, it is generally easier for everyone if the manager says something like “I have something important that I’d like you to do right away.” That makes it clear that the manager is exercising their authority to re-arrange work priorities. It may be that there is still some negotiation that needs to take place before the listener can agree fully: “I can finish that tomorrow, but the other project I’m working on will slip by a day. Is that OK?”

Finally, a listener can decline a request: “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to do that.

Generally the listener won’t want to flat-out decline a request from a manager, and it’s helpful to offer a different option if that’s the case: “It’s not possible to finish that in the time you’re asking for. How about if I got you a mockup by then, and then we agree on how long it’ll take to finish it?” It’s also possible to ask for help: “I don’t think I can finish that alone, but if you let Alicia work on it with me for the next two days, I think we could finish it together.”

* * *

Agreeing on a common language for requests in the workplace gets everyone on the same page so you can get things done together more effectively.

The concepts of effective requests and sloppy requests, and the components of an effective request are all from the book: Coaching to the Human Soul by Alan Sieler.

Are you more of a talker or a listener?

One of the things I find fascinating about geek culture is that a lot of the conversations are “won” by the person who talks the most. Geeks are generally running a meritocracy, and the way that you earn merit points is by making the most compelling argument for what you believe, making sure you get the airtime to express it in a group, arguing in circles around your detractors, proving you’re the smartest, and getting the team to implement your idea.

That strategy will make you pretty successful as you are growing up through the ranks of geekdom. Other geeks will model it for you, and to be a successful geek, you will have to do it really well.

If you want to become a CEO, it is something you will have to partially unlearn. I say partially, because of course you will always have this technique in your back pocket, in case you run into someone at a conference that you want to out-geek. Don’t worry, you’ll always have this arrow in your quiver!

However, once you move into the ranks of CEOs, or even CTO/CIOs, you will need to adjust your speaking strategy. What was once a superpower will become a stumbling block. Because once you have a fair amount of executive power, you don’t have to dominate the conversation to get your way.

So, how will your conversational style change? You will listen MORE than you will speak, and you will ask lots of questions.

Your skill of deciding what direction you want a conversation to go in will still be quite useful. You don’t want to end up off in the weeds, and especially not the weeds of someone else’s choosing.

As a CxO, a lot of time you should be gathering information to make decisions, and developing relationships. You cannot doing either of these things while you are talking. Therefore, you are thinking about what you want to know, and where you want the conversation to go, and you are asking questions that help you (a) learn about other people and what they believe, and (b) help you make better decisions. Think of something you want to know about, ask the question, and let the other person talk.

At first it will feel awful to give the floor up to someone else… You will imagine the power draining away onto a puddle on a floor. Take a deep breath, and let them talk anyway.

In a social situation, you will be most comfortable “holding the floor”. You are full of fascinating stories and opinions! However, the point of most social situations at the CxO level is to develop deeper relationships with other people present, and you can’t do that if you are talking the majority of the time. Other people will learn more about you, but you won’t learn much about them, and they will talk away feeling like you don’t find them interesting, or don’t care about them. FAIL!

You can learn a lot from other people’s body language. As a geek, you trained yourself to ignore this – the idea was to dominate the conversation at all costs. Now it’s time to pay attention! When you are telling a story, are people looking directly at you, or looking away? You can tell that someone is bored when they direct their eyes or bodies away from the speaker. If this is happening, it’s a sign that you’ve been talking for too long.

Wrap up your story or point, and shift the focus to someone else by asking them a question. You will be amazed at how this will re-energize the conversation.

Another great way to learn about this is to watch everyone’s body language when someone else is speaking. There you don’t have to hold the floor and watch simultaneously, so it’s easier to learn.

What stops you from getting work done?

Most of us are engaged in a never-ending battle to get more done, especially those of us who work independently. If you are working for long stretches of time by yourself, you are dependent on your ability to schedule and manage your time efficiently.

Most of us learn how to do that as schoolkids, based on a system of external influences, such as rewards and punishments (and, as Alfie Kohn wrote about in “Punished by Rewards”, rewards don’t actually work very well). If you want to direct your own time, you will have to train yourself to make a plan, eliminate distractions, and choose to follow through on the plan.

Here is an easy way to get started now:

Make a plan.

Carve out how many hours you are willing to work TODAY.  Be realistic. If you’re not sure how long you can work, think back to times you’ve been productive in the past. Most people can be productive for about 3 to 4 hours before they need to get up and take a break. How long can you reasonably work and actually get something done? The trick is to book yourself for this amount of time, but NOT MORE.

OK, so let’s say you’ve now got 3-4 hours set aside. What can you reasonably accomplish in this amount of time? It’s probably less than you think. Most of us overestimate what is possible in 3-4 hours. We think we’ll write the entire term paper, finish the project, clean out the whole garage, write the business plan, etc.

One of the biggest downfalls in planning is that people often set themselves up to fail by taking on something too big. What you want at the end of the 3-4 hours is the sense of satisfaction that you did what you set out to do, and start earning YOUR OWN TRUST. Without the ability to trust that you can do what you plan, what you’re doing is hoping your project will get done, without believing that it will get done.

There is a chasm of difference there. If you overbook yourself, you will likely get up with the feeling that you couldn’t do it all. Your trust in yourself just went down, and you’re less likely to believe you can do what you set out to do. If you slightly underbook yourself, you are way more likely to be successful, and to get up feeing like you accomplished what you set out to do. That way you are building trust in yourself, and building self-esteem. The self-esteem you get from doing what you say is priceless. It’s one of the most valuable things you can possibly get, and it feels terrific.

Eliminate Distractions.

Let’s talk about removing distractions. There are two types of distractions I’ve seen sabotage people’s work: interruptions and meanderings.

An interruption is when something unpredictable happens that stops your current train of thought, and redirects you to something new. Most common interruptions are phonecalls, text messages, people walking in the room and asking you questions, and checking email. When something interrupts you, it takes on average XX minutes to re-engage with what you were doing before you were interrupted. So if someone calls to talk to you on the phone, it costs you the five-minute phone call, plus the amount of time to context switch back to what you were doing originally. Ouch!

A classic form of meandering is web surfing; another is watching TV. It’s something that has no obvious beginning or end, and that you can lose yourself in easily for a long time. If you find yourself meandering, you will have cost yourself the time it took to meander, plus the time it takes to context switch back to what you were originally trying to do.

What can you do to eliminate distractions? The three easiest ways are: (1) turn off your phone, (2) turn off your Internet access, and (3) go somewhere that other people are silently working. It may sound draconian, but it really, really works. In particular, a large number of my clients turn off the Internet at certain times during their work cycle. You may be the kind of person who can work at home in solitude. If so, it helps to have a place where you only work. The idea is to build up the situational cues so that every time you sit down there, you know you are going to settle in and get something done.

Choose to Follow Through.

OK, so we’ve now got you to the point where you’ve come up with a realistic plan for today, you’ve eliminated the distractions, and you’re ready to get to work. There is one last step… You have to choose the work you are about to do.

One of the most destructive things I hear from people is “I need to do XYZ today.”  For most people, this is a cross between fantasizing about what is possible, and beating yourself up about what hasn’t been done yet. When I hear that, I can almost guarantee there will be some amount of procrastination involved before they even start. They haven’t yet made a commitment to do it, but they are hoping that by talking about the need to get it done, they will convince some other part of themselves to get up and go do it!

Language can create incredibly powerful shifts in behavior. If you’re not sure, instead of saying “I need to do XYZ today”, you can start by saying “I am considering whether I will do XYZ today”.  Before you’ve committed, that is the truth about where you are.  This may sound overly pedantic, but it works.

After you’ve thought through how much time you would need, what other priorities or responsibilities you have, you’re in a position to make a commitment for today, or pass. If you pass, you’re deciding today isn’t the day, and that is totally fine.

If you commit, you’ve made a decision to press forward, and use your willpower to accomplish what you set out to do. You have an opportunity to follow through on a commitment to yourself, to build your self-esteem, and to feel great when you get it done. Don’t throw away this opportunity! You will feel awesome when it’s done!