Practice Management

Tony Hsieh’s Lessons for ODs: 4 Things the Late Zappos Co-Founder Can Teach Us

By Ken Krivacic, OD, MBA

Jan. 27, 2021

At the end of November 2020, I read about the passing of Tony Hsieh. If you are not familiar with that name, Tony was an American internet entrepreneur and venture capitalist. He is most famous as a co-founder and CEO of Zappos, the online shoe retailer, which was acquired by Amazon in a deal valued at approximately $1.2 billion.

Several years ago, I read his book, “Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose,” and thought it would be fitting to revisit Tony’s philosophy that led to the tremendous growth in revenue at Zappos. You would think it revolved around crunching numbers, controlling cost or a large marketing budget, but Hsieh felt that none of those was as important as his passion for business and his employees. Yes, he knew revenue and growing revenue solves most financial issues for companies, but the challenge is how to grow that revenue.

He used his interest in the science of happiness and the field of positive psychology to guide the growth of his company. He stated that if you can make both your customers and employees happy, then it will inevitably result in a growing company. In his book he wrote, “How much happier could your customers and employees be if you applied the knowledge to your company? How much healthier would your business be as a result?”

His research into the science of happiness led him to establish a framework for obtaining happiness that revolved around four things:

  • Perceived Control
  • Perceived Progress
  • Connectedness (relationships)
  • Vision/Meaning – being part of something bigger than yourself

We can use these four tenets in our personal life, but for purposes of this article, how can we use the four tenets to make our optometric practices more successful?

Perceived Control
“In our call center, we used to give raises once a year to our reps, which they really didn’t have any control over. We later decided to implement a ‘skills sets’ system instead. We have about twenty different skill sets, with a small bump in pay associated with each of the skill sets. It’s up to the individual rep to decide whether to get trained and certified on each of the skill sets,” Hsieh wrote.

Could we do something similar in an optometric practice? In our practice, we used a similar system that either gave a small pay bump or a one-time bonus to staff that increased their training. In our optical, opticians were rewarded for becoming ABO-certified and our technicians and contact lens staff were rewarded if they achieved para-optometric certification. The possibilities for inspiring staff to greater personal and career growth are endless when you incentivize learning, and it allows your staff to have a sense of control over their job and position.

Perceived Progress
At Zappos, merchandising department employees were promoted to the next level after 18 months of employment. They later decided to give smaller incremental promotions every six months instead that were the overall equivalent of the previous single promotion.

This could also be done in an optometric practice, but, in reality, most optometric practices don’t have a large number of employees. In our practice, we accomplished the perceived promotion route through a bonus system. If employees see the company growing, and are in turn rewarded for that growth, that can satisfy the need to perceive progress. We did break the bonus system down to smaller pieces and provided a monthly bonus system rather than a quarterly or yearly system.

“Studies have shown that engaged employees are more productive, and that the number of good friends an employee has at work is correlated with how engaged that employee is. In ‘The Happiness Hypothesis,’ author Jonathan Haidt concludes that happiness doesn’t come primarily from within but, rather, from between. This is one reason we place so much emphasis on company culture at Zappos,” Hsieh wrote.

That same philosophy applies to our practices. Establishing a welcoming culture and a teamwork culture is essential. As the doctor and owner, small things can make a difference. Say hello to your staff in the morning, smile, listen to their conversation about their child’s soccer game and be able to laugh at work. We also established connectedness at our practice through weekly staff meetings and bi-annual offsite “retreats” that were planning sessions, but also included fun – bowling, a movie or a group painting class.

“Both ‘Good to Great’ and ‘Tribal Leadership’ discuss how a company with a vision that has a higher purpose beyond just money, profits, or being number one in the market, is an important element of what separates a good company (in terms of long-term financial performance) from a good one,” Hsieh wrote.

How do optometrists/practice owners accomplish this in our practices? One suggestion is to constantly remind your staff about what you provide your patients daily. We are not just doing an eye exam or selling a pair of glasses. Use your time in front of your staff to go over cases that are changing lives: The first pair of glasses for a young child and their experience when they put them on, the keratoconus patient who put on their scleral lenses and started crying because it was the best they have seen in years or the elderly patient who thanks you for the cataract referral and surgery, and now sees colors they haven’t seen in years. We all hear these stories. Use them to show your staff that it is more than the money we collected that day or month or year. Most of us want to be part of something that is bigger than ourselves.

“Delivering Happiness” was published in 2010, and I read it probably five or six years ago. It changed how I looked at our practice and its employees. I had gone back to business school and earned an MBA in 2011. The coursework taught us about finance, accounting, management and the usual things you think of in relation to business, but it also touched on the subject of behavioral economics. The science of happiness falls under that umbrella, and can be used to guide and promote your practice.

It is important to track the hard numbers – revenue, cost, number of patients, etc., but it can be equally important to track the soft numbers – satisfied patients, happy employees and a content optometrist and practice owner.

Ken Krivacic, OD, MBA, practices at Las Colinas Vision Center in Irving, Texas. To contact him:

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