What Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh does all day

He answers emails from his trailer, with an alpaca nearby. He attends meetings. What he doesn’t do is sit at his desk

Our series What Do People Do All Day? takes a look at the work life, lunch habits, and downtime of people across different industries. 

Name: Tony Hsieh
Title/company: CEO, Zappos
Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
Years on the job: 20

If you were to interview for a job at Zappos, a recruiter might ask you to rate how weird you are on a scale of one to 10. The question is meant to determine whether you’re a good fit for the online retailer’s company culture, which, among other things, requires that you be at least a little bit strange. “I’m probably an eight-to-eight-and-a-half,” CEO Tony Hsieh says of his own ranking. After all, he explains, “I live in an Airstream and have an alpaca that wanders around.”

Hsieh joined Zappos in 1999, not long after he sold his first company, LinkExchange, which he founded in 1996, to Microsoft for $265 million. “The company culture just went completely downhill,” he later told the New York Times of why he decided to sell. “I just didn’t look forward to going to the office. The passion and excitement were no longer there.” When he started at Zappos, he was determined to prevent that sort of waning enthusiasm. Hence, his near mythic focus on corporate culture, which he expounds on in his bestselling book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose

Regarding his aforementioned Airstream: It’s one of about 20 that populate Hsieh’s tailor-made community in downtown Las Vegas, which also features a public coworking space, 10 tiny houses, 35 residents, 15 dogs, five cats, a sloth, and his roaming alpaca. 

Hsieh developed a version of the village five years ago, when he and several friends installed their Airstream trailers in an empty parking lot. They bought and renovated a motel across the street called Fergusons, added a pool and community kitchen, and combined the two. Now he starts each workday in the community-oriented space before even moving over to his company headquarters. Weird? Perhaps. But given Hsieh’s successful track record as an entrepreneur and CEO, it seems to be working. 

Below, Hsieh shares more about his daily routine. 

My schedule is… online. That will tell you my every day for the last few years. I generally try not to have meetings in the mornings. Mornings are spent focused on catching up on email. 

Speaking of email… you can check out yesterbox.com, which is a one-page [explainer] I wrote up for a system that I use, which is: Unless an email can’t wait 24 hours, each day my email to-do list is to respond to the prior day’s emails. I don’t worry about the ones that come in that day unless they’re time-sensitive. So then there’s a sense of completion. 

Hsieh starts his day by clearing his “yesterbox.”

My commute is… about a 15-to-20 minute walk from Fergusons. Zappos took over the former Las Vegas City Hall as part of our efforts to help revitalize downtown Vegas. I’ll usually do some combination of listening to a podcast or reading email on the walk. I don’t really subscribe to many podcasts. Recommendations from friends help, because they’re like, Oh, listen to this specific episode. I recently listened to TED Radio Hour, with Guy [Raz].

In terms of management style… we practice holacracy at Zappos. A normal work chart is a hierarchy of people. Under holacracy, it’s a hierarchy of teams or “circles” but employees can belong to multiple circles. (Right now we have about 1,500 employees and about 300 circles.) And then it’s actually a hierarchy of purpose. So there’s the overall company purpose, which for us is to live and deliver wow, and then all the subcircles from that have a subpurpose that’s in service of the greater purpose, and then it cascades down. But that resource allocation is still top-down, in terms of headcount and dollars.

So the organizational transition we’re making now is… away from that hierarchy of circles to thinking of each circle as its own mini-startup or small business. We’re internally referring to this as market-based dynamics, or MBD. Let’s say your circle used to get a $1 million-a-year budget from your parent circle. Your parent circle is your primary customer. But now you can go find other customers, be they internal or external, so that, fast-forward five years from now, maybe what used to be your parent circle is now just one of 10 customers or 10 percent of your revenue. If you want to increase headcount, just go find more customers. 

The future of Zappos is… not necessarily shoes or clothing or even e-commerce. As we go down this market-based dynamics transformation, we want every circle or team to do whatever they want. As long as they can find their customers, the goal is for them to find the intersection of what they’re passionate about, what they’re good at, and what creates value. 

Meetings start with… a check-in round—people talking about how their weekend was or what random things are going on. But then whoever’s facilitating that meeting will sometimes direct the [conversation] in a certain way. I was at a meeting once where the guy who was facilitating said, “Your house is burning down and your pets are safe. You can go rescue one item. What would it be?” 

My desk is… a place for packages to get delivered. I don’t even know the last time I sat at [it]. If I’m on campus, I’m usually in a meeting, or I’m there for some fun employee event or something. 

If I opened up my laptop right now… there are probably 30 or 40 tabs open to articles people sent me. I probably spend an hour or two a day reading articles. The top five or 10 percent most interesting ones I’ll bookmark. Generally, I try to stay out of the news. The way I try to think about how I spend my time is just asking the question, “A year from now, is this really gonna matter?” I’d say the answer is “no” for the vast majority of news and social media, which I generally try to stay off of. I don’t waste very much time online. 

I usually eat lunch at… 3 or 4 p.m. But if we have a meeting that’s between 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., we generally order in. 

Ideally, I sleep… seven-and-a-half hours a night. But I have a theory on sleeping, where it’s not the number of hours of sleep you need, it’s the number of sleep cycles. When you sleep at night, [you have] roughly 90-minute sleep cycles, of which there are 20 minutes of REM sleep. So seven-and-a-half hours is five sleep cycles. So what I normally end up doing is I might sleep four-and-a-half or six hours, which is three or four sleep cycles, but then in the afternoons or evenings, I take a 20-minute power nap. You’re tired so you can go straight into REM sleep and kind of hack it that way. 

I’m wearing a pair of… black Asics. I basically wear them to everything. Airport. Weddings. For me, I was never interested in shoes or fashion. It was more about being passionate about customer service and company culture. 

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