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Zappos CEO's shoes need a little more kick

Tony Hsieh's keynote at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival had the opportunity to offer something new to an audience eager for fresh ideas, but it was just his usual schtick about stellar customer service and employee happiness.

The Onion's Baratunde Thurston gives his impression of Tony Hsieh's keynote. Twitter

AUSTIN, Texas--In the dot-com world, Tony Hsieh's story is pretty much canon.

We know he got his entrepreneurial start running a pizza delivery business in college, and eventually went on to co-found LinkExchange and sell it to Microsoft for $265 million.

Then, after founding a venture firm that invested in shoe retail start-up Zappos.com, he took over the helm of the company and has been there ever since. Now nearly 10 years old, Zappos has become renowned among the digerati for its heavy investment in top-notch customer service, quirky company culture, and use of Twitter to promote corporate transparency.

"We put our 1-800 number at the top of every Web page, and we encourage our customers to call us even if it's not to make a sale," the soft-spoken Hsieh said Saturday in his keynote address here at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival. "The telephone is one of the best branding devices out there. You have the customer's undivided attention for 5 to 10 minutes."

With thousands of people filling up the Austin Convention Center's biggest ballroom and several surrounding simulcast rooms, Hsieh had a chance to really shake up the conversation in the digital-media set. Unfortunately, he didn't do it.

CEO Tony Hsieh--in a photo not from SXSW. Zappos.com

He explained some of the company's idiosyncrasies: the fact that it will pay new hires $2,000 to leave the company just to make sure they're completely on board with their new jobs, the fact that customer service representatives are instructed to direct customers to better deals at competing retailers if they exist, the "Culture Book" that contains unedited contributions from every Zappos employee. Many of those in the audience probably knew most of this already. Hsieh, after all, has become a conference-circuit regular.

"The thing that ties all of these things together is really that Zappos is about delivering happiness, whether it's to customers or to employees or even to our vendors or other customers that we work with," Hsieh said.

He went through Zappos' 10 "core values," which include "build a positive team and family spirit," "do more with less," and "create fun and a little weirdness." He talked about "frameworks of happiness" and recommended some books like Timothy Ferriss' "The Four Hour Work Week" and Chip Conley's "Peak." It was a talk that would have been perfectly attuned to an audience of old-school marketers that needed to hear something totally new.

"A company's culture and a company's brand are just two sides of the same coin," Hsieh insisted. OK. But that's nothing that anyone who's been involved in the business of the Web hasn't heard before, many times. This is the sort of thing that unfortunately became a hallmark of the dot-com bust when companies invested too heavily in foosball tables and not enough in revenue models. Then, of course, there's Google and all things "Googly."

What Hsieh could have addressed was the fact that while so many of the nodding heads in the audience claim they fully grasp the admirable values that power Zappos, in reality there's a whole lot of hypocrisy out there--not to mention uncertainty. He talked about both the importance of personal branding and his distaste for egomania, two things that some people in the audience might find mutually exclusive. He mentioned "doing more with less" as a core value of Zappos, but not once even made reference to the dire financial climate. How, for example, do we have to try differently to focus on happiness these days?

Hsieh has the enormous respect of an industry. But if he's going to live up to the visionary hype, he's going to have to do more than just talk about what his company's done right and recommending a few business books.