| Jun 6, 2023

The WOW Factor: Zappos and the Company Culture Others Want to Copy

The online footwear and clothing retailer is built on an ethos of delivering happiness.

When you think of companies with great cultures, Zappos quickly comes to mind. The online shoe and clothing retailer, known for its outstanding customer service, has cultivated a positive environment where everyone feels valued, inspired, and connected. It’s an example other companies try to emulate.

The late former CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, believed that prioritizing satisfaction would lead to better business outcomes. He originally joined Zappos in 1999 as an investor and came on board after founder Nick Swinmurn sold him on the idea of tapping into what was then a $40 billion market for footwear in the U.S. Inside 10 years, Hsieh oversaw the growth from almost no sales to a company earning $1 billion in annual revenue.  

Hsieh didn’t just focus on selling shoes; he focused on “delivering happiness,” (a phrase he used as the title of his New York Times bestseller) both to customers and employees. Despite the mental health struggles that resulted in Hsieh’s death in November 2020, his legacy is embedded in the company culture. 

The Zappos Way

The 10 Principles

At the heart of the Zappos culture are its 10 core values — the guiding principles ingrained in the company’s DNA. Zappos encourages every employee to practice these values daily, helping to create a culture that attracts and retains top talent. They influence everything from recruitment to decision-making processes:

  1. Deliver WOW through service.
  2. Embrace and drive change.
  3. Create fun and a little weirdness.
  4. Be adventurous, creative, and open-minded.
  5. Pursue growth and learning.
  6. Build open and honest relationships with communication.
  7. Build a positive team and family spirit.
  8. Do more with less.
  9. Be passionate and determined.
  10. Be humble.

Holacracy and Self-Management

Another of the key elements of the Zappos culture is the adoption of holacracy, a management system that distributes power and authority across the organization. This model promotes self-management, accountability, and flexibility, enabling individual growth and adaptability. The company integrates these principles into their workplace by:

  • Encouraging employees to make decisions and take ownership of their work.
  • Setting up cross-functional teams to promote collaboration and innovative thinking.
  • Developing transparent processes and communication channels to keep everyone well-informed.

By 2017, Zappos had modified its approach by bringing back managers but keeping its circular hierarchy.  “For me personally, calling it ‘holacracy’ was more a way of codifying or making explicit what was already implicit in our culture,” Hsieh told McKinsey. In other words,  allowing employees to move around the organization to find their niche and passion makes for happy employees and an adaptable and resilient company.


Customer Service Excellence

At Zappos, the focus is on delivering outstanding customer service that leaves a lasting impression — a.k.a., the “WOW” factor. You will find Zappos employees dedicated to meeting customer needs by going the extra mile. Employees answer over 5,000 calls a month and more than 1,000 emails a week. Representatives have no script, treat their customers as top priority, listen to their requests, and respond with empathy and creativity. 

Hsieh originally made it a point to put the Zappos phone number at the top of every page of its website, and its call center is staffed 24 hours a day and seven days a week. It’s a symbol of Zappos’ point of difference and the company’s determination to develop long-lasting relationships with customers.

Employee-Centric Approach

Zappos also believes in investing in and empowering their employees as part of a strong workplace culture where team members are treated like family and are offered opportunities for personal and professional growth, which in turn keeps them engaged and happy at work. Zappos offers various development opportunities, including trainings, workshops, and mentoring programs. 

Meanwhile, regular team outings, such as happy hours, game nights, and volunteer opportunities, provide a way for employees to bond and build strong relationships with their coworkers. Company-wide activities, such as themed parties, costume contests, and talent shows, also help break up the monotony of a typical workday and give everyone a chance to have some fun.

From Shoe Retailer to Cultural Icon

Since Amazon acquired Zappos in 2009 for $1.2 billion, the retail giant has allowed Zappos to continue operating autonomously, retaining its unique culture and values. The sense of community and belonging is fundamental to what has made working at the company so rewarding and enjoyable. In today’s competitive market, it’s an approach that can give an organization an edge in the labor market. 

Zappos Insights, which began in 2009, is an initiative to share the retailer’s perspective on culture, people, and customer service with companies of all sizes across industries. That perspective emphasizes identifying and then living a company’s core values. Hsieh said it didn’t matter what those values were: “What matters is that you have them and you commit to them and align the entire organization around them.”

Rachel Paxton
Rachel Paxton

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Rachel has been a blogger, freelance writer, and successful online business owner for more than 25 years. She has a BA in Humanities and business from Washington State University. view profile


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