Can a company comprised of real people survive being acquired by Amazon?

Doc Searls’ post about the acquisition of Zappos by Amazon pretty much sums up my concern. Like Doc, I believe the online apparel retailer, Zappos is as much a cause as it is a brand. The company defines the word relationship. There aren’t many companies around like that. Amazon certainly isn’t (although, that doesn’t keep me from being a loyal customer of their’s, as I’ll get to shortly).

But Zappos is more than a company, it’s a myth. In fact, it’s lots of myths.

I’ve heard so many stories about the extraordinary steps Zappos employees have taken to please customers, I’ve started to believe that if you e-mail (or tweet) the CEO with a concern, within 30 minutes, the company will deploy employees who will sky-dive into your front yard to fix whatever is wrong. No kidding, according to a legend I just made up but will be believed by Zappos customers, they have employees flying over every city in America just in case customers have a problem. The stories of their customer service have been told and re-told so many times, that mashed-up versions of them begin to make no sense: Why would Zappos pay an employee to resign after being trained to send pizzas to customers’ funerals? (Note: My apologies for that inside joke for Zappos’ cultists.)

I started admiring Zappos even before I knew what they were.

As I don’t buy shoes* (Zappos now sells much more, but at first it was all about shoes) I first heard of Zappos at the Nasvhille airport. No kidding. The Nashville airport was (and still is) one of a few airports that participate in an advertising program that puts ads in the bottom of those plastic trays you place items that run through the security X-Ray. It was (and still is) one of the most creative place-based advertising ideas I’ve ever seen. The potential customer is captured — and has no option but to look down and wonder what the heck Zappos.com is as they place their shoes on top of the large logo. The first time I saw the ads, I asked the TSA person what Zappos was and because so many people had done the same, he told me they were an online shoe company. In other words, the TSA person had been drafted into becoming a Zappos spokesman. Brilliant. (However, he also told me he didn’t like the color of the ads because people tended to leave cell-phones and laptops in the tray because their color blended into the ad.)

Another amazing Zappos story I experienced personally

In 2008, at South by Southwest. Zappos flooded the zone with employees. They had a large exhibit space, but more than that, they had employees all over the place giving out stuff. For instance, if you were on an elevator with one of them and said, “I like your tee-shirt,” she would instantly take it off and hand it to you. (Actually, I just made up that “she” part of the story. They had back packs full of stuff and would grab one from those.)

As most people who read this blog know, South by Southwest Interactive is a geek-fest: fashion and apparel are not high on the list of concerns for many people in this crowd, believe me.

But Zappos developed a legendary cult following that year because of one idea. One incredibly amazing idea.

I can never recall it raining during South by Southwest. Indeed, many of the years I’ve attended, Austin was going through droughts. But last year, it started to rain the second or third day. And I mean rain, as in pouring down cats and dogs.

As if Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos (who was at South by Southwest everywhere that year) had planned the whole downpour thing, Zappos just happened to have what seemed like thousands of little bags that contained fold-up disposable ponchos. Suddenly, all those Zappos employees were at every door handing out those ponchos. It was magic. Everyone at SxSW began wearing them and blogging and tweeting and posting photos about how Zappos walked, literally, on water.

Culture Clash

When I read the news earlier this afternoon, I thought of a friend of mine who had a beef with Amazon over a botched order years ago — back when they were a much, much smaller company. He sent a letter — on paper — of complaint to Jeff Bezos and never heard back — not from anyone.

His resentment at not being acknowledged — not even via a form e-mail — has led to a near decade-long avoidance of doing any transaction with Amazon.

It is impossible to consider that ever happening with Zappos.

It’s just not in their culture.

I have no personal complaints with Amazon. For me, Amazon is an amazingly convenient and efficient machine. I order stuff from them and more often than not, it arrives on time with no problems. If there is a problem, they are efficient in making it right. However, I’ve never thought of Amazon being comprised of human beings (other than Bezos).

Zappos, on the other hand, is just about the most human company there will ever be.

Its CEO is about as real a person as you’ll ever find. He is not, how can I put this delicately, the greatest of presenters. In fact, he’s not even in a list of the top several thousand great presenters. You know Steve Jobs spends weeks with a large team of people getting ready for a presentation? Tony Hsieh doesn’t do that.

Ironically, when I saw him present at this year’s SXSW, he was spell-bounding. Why? It’s all about the authenticity. As Doc says, Zappos is a cause and the cause is relationship. That day, Tony Hsieh seemed like a guy that someone pulled out of the audience and said, “Quick, go up there and present.” It doesn’t get any more authentic than that. And he connected because of it.

And yes, I’ve read the CEO letter: Zappos will remain independent. A wholly owned subsidiary. But geez, how many times have we heard that before from others?

What do Zappos, Craigslist & Wikipedia have in common?

One last thing about Zappos: They prove something that Wikipedia and Craigslist also prove — being successful on the web is not about glitz and “flashy” design. Zappos.com is, along with those other two sites are, in a word, ugly. Zappos’ design hasn’t really changed much in the years I’ve known about it. There is nothing Web 2.0ish about the way Zappos.com looks or feels. In fact, it’s rather Web 1.0 come to think of it. And as much as people complain about how poorly designed Amazon.com is, compared to Zappos.com, it is artwork.

But frankly, that’s a really good thing. Because if Zappos.com was a beautifully designed site, right now, people would be saying that’s the reason for their success.

FedEx & Kinkos: a cautionary tale

I have a concern, however. This transaction reminds me of when FedEx purchased Kinkos. FedEx is, perhaps, the most efficient company ever created. It is run by efficient people who do everything by the clock (think about that Tom Hanks character in Cast Away). Kinkos, on the hand, was this quirky company that had lots of franchisees who employed people who are more like characters out of a Kevin Smith movie (say, Silent Bob in Clerks) than Tom Hanks in Cast Away.

Unfortunately, that clash of efficiency and authentic humanity was a trainwreck.

I hope the same doesn’t happen with this culture-clash.

*More accurately, I don’t shop for shoes.