Cover Story

The Business Case for Quirkiness

by Cara Cannella

Zappos built a billion-dollar bottom line and a reputation for customer service by letting employees bring their whole, creative selves to work. We go inside.

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When Tyler Williams applied for a job at Zappos with a DIY music video, he anticipated one of two things: “They’ll either really love it or say, ‘This guy is a complete psycho. Don’t let him within 100 feet of the building.'”

The 2011 YouTube message to the online shoe and clothing retailer — legendary for its customer service and playful company culture — was direct: “Hey, Zappos. My name is Tyler, and I’m trying to get a job with you guys, so … I wrote a little song based on [your] 10 core values.”

Fortunately for Williams — and for the company’s “brand aura,” which he now oversees — Zappos got it. The video made its way around the Las Vegas headquarters, all the way to CEO Tony Hsieh and the company’s head of human resources, who brought Williams in. In June of 2011, he joined the Customer Loyalty Department answering customer phone calls.

Today, Williams, 33 and an Alaskan native, is the company “fungineer,” working with marketing and PR to breathe life into company events and, in his words, “uphold irreverence” at Zappos. He is the public face of the brand’s quirky, creative spirit that he showcased in his job application six years ago.

The surprising bit about all this? Musicians like Williams and roles like “fungineer” are not as rare at Zappos as its multi-billion-dollar balance sheet implies. In fact, there’s reason to believe that the company owes much of its success — it was acquired by Amazon for $1.2 billion in 2009 and regularly tops customer service and best places to work rankings — to its whole-hearted embrace of creativity.

The ROI on Creativity

“In a world of disruption, where the need for innovation is constant and unyielding, creativity can be a company’s competitive advantage,” says Dorie Clark, branding expert, author and frequent contributor to the “Harvard Business Review.”

In her books “Reinventing You” and “Stand Out,” Clark expands on ideas she has evangelized for more than a decade as a speaker and marketing strategy consultant. “In an increasingly competitive business environment, creativity is a must-have skill,” she says, citing a 2014 Forrester Consulting study that shows creative companies as dominating market share.

That bottom-line advantage is evident at Amazon, the biggest online seller of apparel and footwear in the United States, laying claim to 20 percent of apparel and 40 percent of footwear sales, fueled largely by its Zappos acquisition. Those results can be chalked up to a host of intangible factors, including the capacity to foster innovation, attract forward-thinking talent and leadership, and establish an invigorated brand identity.

Creative companies are also three times more likely than their less-creative counterparts to be nationally recognized as best places to work, Clark points out, citing the same Forrester study. In 2009 Zappos made its debut on Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list at number 23, the highest-ranking newcomer. Zappos continued to rank on the list for seven years in a row.

Forrester’s research, Clark points out, shows that companies that embrace creativity experience disproportionate revenue growth. In fact, 58 percent of creative companies surveyed by Forrester experienced year-over-year growth of 10 percent or more, compared to only 20 percent of less-creative companies.

None of this is to say that an executive team can snap its fingers and build a creative workplace overnight. Often it runs deep in corporate veins.

Where Creativity Comes From

At its core Zappos has always been the product of creativity. When founder Nick Swinmurn couldn’t find the shoes he wanted at the mall or online, he had the idea for an online shoe store.

Buying shoes online sounds run-of-the-mill these days, but in 1999 consumers were purchasing very little on the web, let alone shoes. Investors were skeptical, but Swinmurn overcame that hurdle with a ladder of appealing solutions: a vast selection of footwear, fast and free shipping and returns, and personalized attention grounded in an ethos that prizes customer service.

The latter is reinforced by a culture that radiates goodwill from the inside. The company’s 10 pillars — the same ones in Williams’s YouTube video — are ingrained even before employees are hired. Potential recruits encounter the fourth pillar — Be Adventurous, Creative, and Open-Minded — in interview rooms designed for candidates to relax, respond to questions truthfully and reveal their personalities and creativity. These rooms, with themes ranging from Cirque du Soleil to Cher’s dressing room, are one part of a broader strategy that aims to disarm employees and free them from the stifling effects of conventional corporate decorum.

“We want everyone to not be afraid to take risks and to not be afraid to make mistakes,” Hsieh writes in his 2010 book “Delivering Happiness,” about the benefits of spreading goodwill both beyond and inside the company. “Because if people aren’t making mistakes, then that means they’re not taking enough risks.”

Dorie Clark agrees. “Companies can encourage creativity by making it safe to talk about failures and what’s been learned from them,” she says. “Unfortunately, too many companies have a culture of hiding mistakes and implicitly encouraging employees to act ‘perfect’ all the time. That diminishes employees’ creative potential because creativity involves taking risks — though hopefully small, smart ones.”

In “Delivering Happiness,” Hsieh cites a 2007 research study he shared with Zappos managers, which found that letting workers swear at will in the workplace can benefit employees and employers alike. The researchers, Yehuda Baruch and Stuart Jenkins of University of East Anglia in the U.K., found that as long as profanity is not used in a negative or abusive way, “swearing is used as a social phenomenon to reflect solidarity and enhance group cohesiveness or … to release stress.”

Psychologist Richard Stephens, from Keele University in the U.K., arrived at similar findings in a 2017 study, concluding that swearing can decrease “generalized inhibition.”

The goal is not to have employees drop F-bombs left and right, but to set the tone for uninhibited ideation and problem-solving — critical at Zappos as it expands from a shoe and apparel retailer to a service company with multiple business ventures under one marquee brand, like Richard Branson’s Virgin.

At a recent company-wide meeting, Hsieh encouraged employees to think of Zappos as more than just the company it is today. He wants them to think bigger, with Zappos’ culture and service-focused brand in mind, in brainstorming possible new lines of business, possibly in the hospitality industry.

What Creativity Looks Like

At Zappos, dress code (or lack thereof) and personal desk space are outlets for creative expression. “Our only policy is, ‘Don’t offend anyone,'” says John Wolske, Culture Evangelist for Zappos Insights, a department that trains and educates businesspeople in customer service and building company culture. His own standing desk is surrounded by rockstar-themed ephemera and knickknacks, from a giant blue microphone (used for performances and virtual keynotes) to customized guitar picks with sentimental value, nested in a Jessica Rabbit shot glass.

On his wall there’s a poster advertising an all-Zappos-employees band he put together for a rock ‘n’ roll marathon in Vegas. A coworker who sits nearby has a lifesize cardboard cutout of Mariah Carey, his favorite diva.

Early in his call-center training, Wolske learned to connect to the higher purpose of “Deliver Wow Through Service” (number one on Zappos’ core values list) by tapping into his love for rock ‘n’ roll. He took to connecting with callers about music, rather than just responding transactionally.

“That’s where creativity comes in, even in a call-center job,” he says. “One time a guy in a Credence Clearwater Revival cover band called about shoes he needed for one of his shows. I told him I was in bands, too, and that I’d keep an eye out for his next show in Vegas. ‘Sounds like I got the right guy,’ he told me.”

Wolske concedes that all this “culture” could seem odd, even cultish, from the outside. In his newest presentation, the 39-year-old Toronto native preempts that criticism by deconstructing the word’s etymological origins: “Before ‘cult’ had a pagan connotation,” Wolske says, “it had the same Latin origin as the word ‘cultivate’—to tend to and care for.”

Any company or brand, he says, should tend to and care for that which makes it successful: its people. “A cultish association means that the brand has clearly defined what it’s all about,” he continues. “The suffix ‘ure’ in ‘culture’ means ‘to show result from,’ so that cult-like feeling is kind of the goal. Ask yourself: Do people understand what your brand is truly about? And are you living that to the nth degree?”

Bringing Your Whole Self to Work

As Clark describes in her book “Stand Out,” one of the best paths to innovation is cross-pollinating different experiences and disciplines. “Employees who are allowed to bring their full selves to work may be talented musicians or speakers of a foreign language or may have extensive experience in an entirely different arena from a past job,” she says. “That background can be crucial in helping to uncover new ideas and insights that can benefit their current company.”

For Williams and Wolske, music is a big part of what they bring to the table. When Williams was a touring musician, on the road for eight months straight, he got burned out by the grind. Ironically, when he started working at Zappos, music resumed its place in his life as an energizing outlet. “Luckily at Zappos I get to be super creative,” he says. “We encourage work-life integration, not separation. You spend at least half of your waking life at work, so you might as well enjoy it and the people you work with.”

At monthly Friday night jam sessions, hosted by Hsieh at the Vegas RV park he owns and inhabits, Williams plays with a group of fellow employees. Lit by stringed light bulbs, the crowd gathers around a fire pit in the outdoor living room outside Hsieh’s Airstream.

“We’re musicians of all different skill levels. Everyone brings instruments and swaps in and out without ego. The sound is anywhere from terrible to amazing,” Williams says, laughing.

But good music isn’t the point. It’s about amplifying rather than suppressing creative inclinations and hoping they carry through to Monday morning at work to drive the business in new, unanticipated directions.