Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s Unique Take on Startup Hiring and Culture

1/11/10Follow @gthuang

What’s more annoying than a 24-year-old who sells his company to Microsoft for $265 million and never has to work another day in his life? Easy. When that same guy sells his next company to Amazon.com for more than $1 billion.

OK, so it took 10 more years of hard work, but Tony Hsieh, now in his mid-30s, seems to be in pretty good shape. The CEO of Zappos, the Las Vegas-based online shoe retailer bought by Amazon last summer, was the subject of a Q&A in the New York Times yesterday in which he talked about startup culture and hiring practices. In particular, Hsieh (pronounced “shay”) touched on things like why he sold LinkExchange to Microsoft back in 1998 (“the culture just went completely downhill”), and the one question he would ask a prospective hire today.

I came away with two things from the interview. First, Hsieh has a very interesting hiring style. Assuming a candidate has the right skills and experience, then the most important thing, Hsieh says in the piece, is “are they going to be good for the culture?” CEOs always say that, but Hsieh seems to mean it in a more personal way. “We’ll invite them to barbecues on weekends and they bring their families,” he says—it’s a way to tell “whether you feel like you can actually get to know them on a personal level or if they’re very professional and standoffish.”

What’s interesting is that he’s trying to gauge “how self-aware people are and how honest they are,” he says. “I think if someone is self-aware, then they can always continue to grow. If they’re not self-aware, I think it’s harder for them to evolve or adapt beyond who they already are.” To this end, the one question Hsieh says he’d ask in the interview is, “What would you say is the biggest misperception that people have of you?”

My second takeaway, related to the first, is that culture is everything to Zappos. The company values “a little weirdness” in its employees—something that works for some startups better than others. So Hsieh says he also asks candidates how weird they are on a scale of 1 to 10. The number isn’t as important as “how candidates react,” he says.

Just for the record, here are Zappos’s 10 cultural tenets, according to Hsieh (and there are typically interview questions for each one):

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

What Hsieh didn’t talk about in the NYT interview was Amazon and the cultural fit there—probably because nobody seems to talk about Amazon after being acquired by the Seattle giant. We’ll be watching to see how the integration goes…

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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