A Remarkable, 10-Year-Old Email from Tony Hsieh on Zappos Company Culture

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In early 2005, Tony Hsieh was a relative unknown.

Zappos was a fast-growing company, but it was far from being the household brand that it is today. While it hadn’t yet come up with its core values for which it is famous today, the company had a growing sense of its own culture and identity. They were on the cusp of something big.

It was against this backdrop that Hsieh emailed this never-before published update to investors, employees, partners, and friends of Zappos. It’s an awesome behind-the-scenes look at what drove Hsieh and kept him up at night. In this glimpse into how Hsieh thought about building a company, you can see the seeds of what would grow into Zappos’s world-famous company culture and brand.

Within five years, Zappos would hit $1 billion in revenue and Hsieh would author Delivering Happiness, a #1 New York Times Bestseller, which would catapult him into being one of the most influential business persons in the world. But here is an unfiltered look into the mind of Tony Hsieh, before the notoriety and fame.

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What Will Fast Company Write about Your Startup’s Culture?

zappos startup culture values

Successful entrepreneurs like Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, exhort startups to write down their core values on Day 1 and make company culture a first-order concern from the very beginning.

Have you tried it? The problem is that after you look at what you wrote, you’ll probably see a bunch of boring clichés. Many of your company values might sound suspiciously similar to Zappos’s and Netflix’s. Your company couldn’t sound less exciting.

Molly Graham, former Head of Mobile at Facebook, who worked with Mark Zuckerberg to define Facebook’s company culture in 2008, recognized this common pitfall. She came up with an ingenious solution to the problem, rooted in a simple trick that Amazon uses to build its products, that helped Facebook own the Hacker brand that defined the company through its IPO.

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Twitter CEO Dick Costolo’s Unexpected Advice on Preserving Startup Culture in Your Company

Startups are fast-moving and exciting, with a culture of getting stuff done. So it’s one of the biggest shocks for startup founders to see that culture change as the company grows, and naturally founders often get nostalgic for the days of yore and they make preserving startup culture a priority.

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Founder of Evernote Phil Libin has seen his company skyrocket to a billion dollar company in six short years, ballooning its headcount from 45 people in 2010 to pushing 400 just three years later. Growing concerned over what that precipitous employee growth meant for Evernote’s company culture, Libin reached out to Dick Costolo, CEO at Twitter, who’d gone through it before.

As Libin recounted to PandoDaily, he asked Costolo how to preserve the startup culture at Evernote that had made it so successful. And Costolo gave him an unexpected response that stuck with him, shaping his views on scaling company culture.

Don’t, Costolo said.

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Why I Decided to Move Away From My Team to Live in Downtown Vegas

For six years, John Todero worked to build his marketing company Dyverse in Orlando. He decided to relocate over 2,000 miles away with his small team still in Orlando. John tells us about what spurred his decision to move to the hopeful lights of Downtown Vegas.

While the number one benefit of being an entrepreneur is the freedom from others telling you what to do and how to do it, the truth is, running a company also comes with a lot of responsibilities that can tie you down. Always working long hours to make sure everything gets done on time and ensuring that everyone stays productive, I never felt it was the right time to up and move — even though I’d felt the urge for awhile.

imageAfter grinding it out for six years in Downtown Orlando running my marketing company, Dyverse, I had a real longing to spread my wings and explore what living in other cities would be like. All the same, I had a small in-house team working with me and I wasn’t sure if our foundation was strong enough yet to be working remotely from different cities.

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Reconsidering the Startup Open Floor Plan Office

Last week, Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s plans for a new campus, a 420,000 square foot single-story warehouse made to look like “a hill in nature,” one giant room fitting thousands of people.  He described their aspiration as wanting to build “the perfect engineering space.”

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I admit that Zuck’s statement caught me off guard because I dislike the typical open floor plan office and so do most engineers that I know.  Many engineers wear headphones to create the missing wall so that they can concentrate and focus on coding without distraction.  We chose the small offices at WeWork in SOMA, SF, over co-working for those reasons.

The New York Times reported that recent research supported the hunch that open floor plan offices reduce productivity.  The research showed that ambient conversations at work and a noisy office space contributed to “a decline of 5 percent to 10 percent on the performance of cognitive tasks requiring efficient use of short-term memory, like reading, writing and other forms of creative work.”  According to the researcher, “Noise is the most serious problem in the open-plan office, and speech is the most disturbing type of sound because it is directly understood in the brain’s working memory.”

Nevertheless, the open floor plan office has become a shibboleth of startup culture.  It reflects our rejection of hierarchy, and our embrace of agility, collaboration and creativity, and as a result, many startups take the open floor plan for granted.

We’ve recently visited two startups, Shopify and Zappos, that are reconsidering and riffing off of the standard startup open floor plan office, and we’ve been inspired by what they’ve come up with to ensure that engineers have the relative solitude that they need to get in the zone, without reverting away from the promise of the open floor plan for serendipity, collaboration and work happiness.

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