Weird is In – Zappos and Austin, TX

by Saul Kaplan

Weird is In - Zappos and Austin, TXI have to admit when I was growing up and when we raised our children I thought weird was out. Weird was isolated, ostracized, dismissed, and definitely not cool. Turns out I was wrong. Weird is in. Weird is unique, refreshing, remarkable, and definitely cool. It just took me a while to figure it out. The evidence is all around us. Two personal reminders of how weird can be an advantage are a recent trip to Austin, Texas and reading “Delivering Happiness” by Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh.

I was asked to give a talk on business model innovation to a group of association leaders in Austin, Texas. It was my first trip to Austin but the city’s reputation for embracing weird preceded my visit. I love the city mantra Keep Austin Weird. How many cities would have the guts to rally around such a weird positioning? I think it is brilliant. It is differentiated and sends a clear message to both residents and visitors that Austin is an edgy and interesting place where creativity is central and you just might learn something new. It makes me want to live and invest there. The night I arrived the positioning was realized immediately as I joined an eclectic crowd forming on the Congress Street Bridge to watch North America’s largest urban bat colony emerge from under the bridge. You don’t experience that every day. It was delightfully weird and the gathered crowd was a great manifestation of Austin’s community aspiration for a collaborative fission of coordinated individualism.

The discussion I went to Austin for with a diverse group of association leaders focused on declining association membership and how to design and test new business models. Turns out that many young professionals are not joining associations and the group wondered if those professionals most receptive to innovation and changing the role of their professions are the least likely to join associations leaving an aging membership uninterested in being and celebrating weird. Maybe associations could benefit from a little more weird.

I just finished reading and highly recommend “Delivering Happiness” by my friend Tony Hsieh. Tony reveals his Zappos playbook and no surprise weird plays an important role. One of Zappos’ 10 core values is Create Fun and a Little Weirdness. Can you imagine your company explicitly celebrating being weird as one of its core values? Zappos means it. Not crazy or extreme weirdness but comfort with unconventional approaches, learning from mistakes, and the ability to laugh at themselves. Zappos wants a touch of weirdness to make life more fun and interesting for everyone. Tony is serious when he says the company must have a unique and memorable personality.

I experienced the weirdness first-hand when I visited Tony at Zappos headquarters in Las Vegas. It is remarkable to see the Zappos culture up close and personal. If you are going to Las Vegas definitely take Zappos up on its standing offer to visit the headquarters. None of what you have read about Zappos is as powerful as seeing it in action. From the way you are greeted at the airport to a memorable stroll through the company. On the outside the buildings look like any one of a million suburban office complexes but once inside you will not forget the experience and uniqueness of being warmly greeted by each department with an eclectic mix of streamers, parades, kazoos, cowbells and what ever expression strikes the Zappos team at the moment. The Zappos culture Tony talks about is obvious, tangible, and infectious. In Tony’s own words to Zappos employees, ” We want the weirdness in each of us to be expressed in our interactions with each other and in our work.” I am thrilled that Tony is joining us as a storyteller at BIF-6 (not to be missed, hint, hint, only 60 seats remain – SAVE $50 using Blogging Innovation’s code – BK10).

If the goal is to get better faster and learning is optimal at the edge we could all benefit from a little more weirdness. We need to make room in our personal lives, organizations, and communities for embracing weird. Everything else seems boring and stagnant. Weird is in.

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Saul KaplanSaul Kaplan is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory (BIF). Saul shares innovation musings on his blog at It’s Saul Connected and on Twitter at @skap5.

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  1. As an expert in Central Austin Real Estate I have to say, Austin is a fantastic place to live! so creative, entertaining, and exciting, you never have to sit at home asking yourself “What is there to do?” Austin has a nice variety of the fun of a big city, but with the vibe of small city friendliness. Great article!

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