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Not every company achieves a billion dollars in sales, pays new hires $2,000 to quit, or makes the Fortune Magazine lists of “best places in America” to work. And not every company has a 500-page “culture book” that defines who and what it is.

Zappos, the online shoe-and-almost-everything-else retailer, is known for having an amazing corporate culture. The company’s corporate goal, which started out as “delivering wow,” is now “delivering happiness.” But it also delivers a lot of revenue.


I talked to David Vik, the “coach” of Zappos who joined the company as the 119th employee. He focused on building people and building a positive corporate culture, and scrawled the graphic that would eventually become its iconic shoe-as-exclamation-mark logo. He not only helped Zappos build its globally-famous culture, he also transformed his most recent company, recruiting firm Riviera Partners, from “12 angry people” to one of Inc. Magazines’ fastest-growing companies.

Vik recently published “The Culture Secret,” a book about empowering people — and companies — through vision, purpose, and pure wow.

VentureBeat: What was your role at Zappos?

Vik: I was just “Coach” of Zappos … kind of like being a coach of a sports team. My focus was to empower employees to reach their potential, and to drive the culture.

VentureBeat: You were a chiropractor before that, right? How’d that transition happen?

Vik: Nick Swinmurn, the founder of Zappos, was a patient of mine, and I invested in the company. In fact, I sketched out the logo with a shoe in it.

I had retired after 22 years as a chiropractor, building one of most successful clinics in the States, but after I retired there was nothing to do. So I went to the company’s startup day for new hires when there were 118 people in the company.

At the end of the day, Tony (CEO Tony Hsieh) had them vote on me … and they wanted to me to join the company!

VentureBeat: A ton has been written about Zappos’ culture. What’s unique about Zappos?

Vik: Their vision, which originally was to deliver wow, and now is to deliver happiness.

Selling shoes is a commodity … so you have to do it different than anyone else. We built a huge selection and had the idea that you could buy whatever you wanted and return what you didn’t want for free. The focus of every department was on delivering wow.

What I did was deliver wow to our employees … I had a throne in my office and had thousands of visitors, all of who sat in my throne. You’re a king in your life, you were built and born to reach your potential, and I wanted them to feel that.

It started with the employees, and they delivered it to our clients.

VentureBeat: Are there some core needed elements of a great culture in any company?

Vik: Well, yes, that’s the reason I wrote the book.

See, culture is squishy … people say ‘We’ll let dogs come in, and we’ll put beanbag chairs in the office, bring in foosball tables.’ But that’s just window dressing. The culture is what you do and how you do it, it encompasses everything.

What I’ve found is you need five structures:

  • vision: what you’re doing
  • purpose: why you do it
  • business model: what will fuel you as you’re doing it
  • wow and uniqueness factors: what sets you apart from others
  • values: what matters to you

When everyone knows it, they can get behind it, and then they don’t have to be told what to do. For instance, at Apple, it’s tools for the mind, and employees have the autonomy to create and invent what tools of the mind they’re going to make.

A lot of companies have a long mission statement, and no one can remember it. You need something very short: this is what we do, and this is why we do it.

VentureBeat: What kills a company’s culture — or at least a positive culture?

Vik: Companies just get off track.

First off, they don’t articulate what they are, and then it kind of becomes culture by default. Leadership can also destroy a culture by managing people (when you should only manage things, not people). Often it just kinda gets watered down. Companies start off with a great vision and purpose and then it kind of gets diluted.

Vision and purpose are not transaction based, but need to be experience based. For example, a car rental company isn’t about renting cars: They should say we’re connecting people.

In the past, companies were company-centric, but today they have to be customer-centric. They have to be in alignment with the wants, needs, and demands of the customer. If not, they’re going to die. Fifty years ago, the average lifetime of an S&P company was 50 years, and now it’s only 25 years.

Some companies think they’re the only gal in an Alaska bar.

VentureBeat: What about in tough times? How can a company work on culture when the house is burning down?

Vik: It’s simple. Customers vote with their pocketbooks whether they like you or not. So companies need to quit being company-centric and start being customer-centric.

It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It’s not about masseuses and prime rib. Those are cool things, but in many cases, it’s like a rich parent giving their kids a ton of money and toys, but not their time. If you want a great culture, you sit down, and talk: How are you doing, how’s your family, what can I do to help you out?

In the old days, the machines were the assets and the people were expendable. Now it’s the opposite.

VentureBeat: What role did Tony play in Zappos’ culture?

Vik: Huge. He had a real big role.

Tony had a company before Zappos and he sold it when it got to about 100 people. He said it wasn’t fun anymore —  it wasn’t a fun place to come to work. He wanted to change that, and I think that’s one of the reasons he hired me.

photo credit: Stuck in Customs via photopin cc

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