Zappos: Place Bets on Passionate People
Posted on Harvard Business Review: May 17, 2010 10:08 AM
Tony Hsieh is the CEO of Zappos.com, Inc. During the past 10 years, the company has grown from almost no sales to more than $1 billion in annual gross merchandise sales, driven primarily by repeat customers and word of mouth. Below is an excerpt from Tony's forthcoming book that describes the beginning of Zappos.
Nick [Zappos' original founder] summarized his entire pitch in three sentences: "Footwear is a $40 billion industry in the United States, of which catalog sales make up $2 billion. It is likely that e-commerce will continue to grow. And it is likely that people will continue to wear shoes in the foreseeable future."
A few weeks later, Nick contacted us and said that he wanted to set up a lunch meeting. He'd found someone named Fred who worked in the men's shoe department at Nordstrom and was interested in joining the company, but only if the company got funding beyond the small friends-and-family round that Nick had already raised. Nick also asked me what I thought of "Zapos" as the name of for the company, derived from zapatos, which was the Spanish word for "shoes." I told him that he should add another p to it so that people wouldn't mispronounce it and accidentally say ZAY-pos.
And thus, the name Zappos was born.
A few days later, Alfred [Zappos' current CFO and COO] and I met with Nick and Fred at Mel's, a 1950s-themed diner a block away from where we lived. As we talked about the potential of Zappos, I did my best to not let the fact that Fred was a spitting image of Nicolas Cage distract me from the business conversation. Fred was thirty-three years old, tall, and really did look like he could be Nicolas Cage's stunt double.
I ordered the turkey melt, with a side of chicken noodle soup to dip the sandwich in. Fred ordered a turkey burger. Exactly 10 years later, Fred and I would return to Mel's and order the same thing to celebrate our ten-year meeting-versary together.
Nick talked about the progress that the website had made over the past few weeks. They were already getting $2,000 worth of orders a week, and the numbers were growing. They weren't making any money, because anytime an order was placed, Nick would run to the local shoe store, buy the item, and then ship it out to the customer. Nick wanted to put up the website just to prove that people would actually be willing to buy shoes online.
There were literally thousands of different brands in the footwear industry. The real business idea was to eventually form partnerships with hundreds of brands, and have each of the brands provide Zappos with an inventory feed of what was in each of their warehouses. Zappos would take orders from customers on the Internet, then transmit the order to the manufacturer of each brand, which would then ship directly to the Zappos customer.
This was known as a "drop ship" relationship, and although it already existed in many other industries, drop shipping had never been done before in the footwear industry. Nick and Fred were betting that they would be able to convince the brands at the next shoe show to start drop shipping, and then Zappos would not have to own any inventory or worry about running a warehouse.
Fred told us that he'd climbed the corporate ladder at Nordstrom for eight years, just bought a house, and just had his first kid. He knew that joining Zappos would be a big risk, but he was ready to take a leap of faith if Venture Frogs would provide the seed funding for the company.
Alfred and I looked at each other. Nick and Fred were exactly the type of people we were looking to invest in. We didn't know if the shoe idea would work or not, but they were clearly passionate and willing to place big bets, so we were willing to bet on them too.
A week after our seed investment, Fred quit his job at Nordstrom. He was officially a Zappos employee now. He and Nick headed to the shoe show in Las Vegas the very next day.
"Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose" is Tony Hsieh's first book, and will be released on June 7, 2010. The book can be pre-ordered on Amazon. For more information about the book, visit: http://www.deliveringhappinessbook.com.
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