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September 22, 2014

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BUSINESS:

Zappos branches into tour biz — of its offices

Visitors verify why firm is one of Fortune’s best to work for

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Justin M. Bowen

Zappos employees greet the tour with shake weights Thursday at the headquarters in Henderson. Zappos offers daily tours to anyone who is interested in seeing the inner workings of the billion-dollar company.

The Wacky World of Zappos

Come along on this inside tour of the infamously wild offices of Zappos.com. From free lunches, to boisterous competitions, to a selection of mullet wigs, it's no wonder they offer up to eight tours a day to accommodate everyone who wants to learn from their business model. Since its start in 1999, the company-turned-tourist-attraction has grown into a billion-dollar company, selling millions of dollars worth of shoes and clothing every day.

Touring Zappos

Zappos headquarters in Henderson offers daily tours to anyone who is interested in seeing the inner workings of the billion-dollar company. Launch slideshow »

The sound of cowbells echo off the cubicle walls of the Zappos Henderson office. A few steps farther and passers-by are greeted with crackling noisemakers. Naturally, the noisemakers match the Mardi Gras masks hanging from the ceiling and the beads dripping from employees’ desks.

A group of tourists click their cameras above the cubicle walls, employees pose, and then it’s back to work. Just another day at the billion-dollar online retail company. It started with shoes in 1999, but it has expanded to a range of inventory including clothing and electronics.

Tourists have become just another fixture amid the quirky office decor. Free tours are hosted four days a week, four times a day. They’re part of an effort to show entrepreneurs and Zappos super fans what makes this one of Fortune’s 100 best companies to work for.

CEO Tony Hsieh, 35, and his company have garnered a celebrity-like following over the past 11 years. They’ve both climbed numerous “best of” lists, most recently The New York Times Best-Seller List. Hsieh’s book “Delivering Happiness” hit No. 1 in late June and now sits at No. 2.

The book outlines Hsieh’s humble business beginnings and philosophy: Make company culture the first priority and the rest will fall into place.

Hsieh’s book brought in two Las Vegas locals, both of whom said they read the volume in a day, for Thursday morning’s tour. They were joined by five executives from a Vancouver technology consulting company who traveled to Las Vegas solely for the Zappos experience.

“We’ve followed Zappos for a number of years,” said Habanero Consulting Group President Steven Fitzgerald. “We’re really interested in organizations that do a really good job of understanding what their purpose is, companies that aren’t guided by their profits and are guided by some kind of higher principle, and Zappos seems to be an organization like that.”

The Zappos company culture has been so sought after by other companies that Zappos formed Zappos Insights, a division of the company devoted to spreading the company’s mission.

“Companies that really want to have a people-focused company, that’s driven by values, where people love to come to work and create service that customers really rave about, we help train the companies who want to do it through our tours and our classes,” said Zappos Insights Product Manager Robert Richman.

He said the tours started with vendors, who told their friends, who told their friends. Eventually, Richman said, they had hundreds of people touring Zappos each month.

“It’s anybody from fans to entrepreneurs to college students,” Richman said. “Anybody who’s heard about the Zappos ethos and wanted to see it for themselves.”

Hsieh’s philosophy of company culture is everywhere in the Zappos office. Each division has its cubicles decorated in a different theme, including the jungle themed-pod where Hsieh’s desk sits among his employees. There’s no way of distinguishing it from others, except maybe for the giant inflatable monkey sitting on his desk.

There’s free cold breakfast and lunch in the cafeteria, services such as dry cleaning, massages and car washing, and no dress code, just to name a few of the perks. It’s the stuff the 1990s dot-com boom was made of.

“What’s with the tree?” one tourist asked, pointing at the Christmas tree in the front lobby.

“Oh, it’s Christmas in July,” the front desk attendants said matter-of-factly.

The tree sits next to a glass case holding a pair of Airwalk desert boots, the pair of shoes that spurred the online merchandising company. The story behind the boots is one of the 185 information points that culture guides such as Jon Wolske need to know. That, and perfecting how to walk backward.

Wolske knows all the cues to get each department to perform its shtick. He plays “Eye of the Tiger” near the recruiting department and a choreographed weightlifting routine ensues. When he spots another tour guide and his group in a narrow hallway, he makes them rumble. Really, it’s just a game of rock-paper-scissors.

Wolske even has a heartfelt story about helping a woman cope with her comatose daughter during his time working in the call center, telling tourists that Zappos’ mission is about more than selling shoes — it’s about delivering happiness.

Near the human resources department, a bunch of mullet wigs sit stuffed in a chain-linked fence. Their significance is more than just a gag. The wigs sum up the zany online retailer.

“Business in the front,” Wolske said, throwing on the wig. “Party in the back.”

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