Why Zappos Shouldn’t Be Your Business Model

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Everyone is at PubCon, and Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos gave the keynote yesterday in Vegas. I’m not there, but if you care to read what he said, you can read Lisa Barone’s excellent live blogging coverage of the keynote and other  sessions at the Outspoken Media Blog.

The Zappos story, culture and ethos of service is repeated everywhere by the media: It’s touted as a great way to build a company, have relationships with your customers, build your brand and provide amazing customer service. I’ll take their word for it, because I’ve never had the opportunity to buy something from them.

You know what Zappos is not touted as, though? Profitable. I did a little digging searched a little bit on Google and found two very interesting sites:

Zappos pre-tax net profit is in the low single digit range – 3-4%. For the independent SEO’s reading this , you’d be better off working in house on margins like that. For the veteran e-commerce players, you know that this is not a good long term business model.

Yes, I know they were acquired by Amazon for some obscene amount of money. The difference is that Amazon is a public company obsessed with market share and also less concerned with little things like profit margins.  I also imagine Jeff Bezos couldn’t stand that Endless.com was loosing to Zappos. Zappos was a venture backed firm, and I suspect they knew how bad the business model was, which is why they forced Zappos to sell out.

I think most people forget that the primary goal of any business needs to be turning a profit and increasing cash flow. To do that, you need to provide good services, products and value your customer, but all as a goal towards profit and cash flow. The business press would have you believe otherwise, but that’s why they write about business instead of running businesses.

Now, if you’re a venture backed firm with a sole goal of heading towards a big exit, then you don’t care about this stuff. You’re concerned with growth and market share, angling for an acquisition.

Most businesses aren’t venture backed, though. The majority are  long term endeavors started by entrepreneurs for all kinds of different reasons.  For those businesses, you need to focus on satisfying customers, there’s no doubt. At the same time, you can’t let customer satisfaction become the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal needs to be profits and keeping your business sustainable. Often this is partially obtained by keeping customers happy, but sometimes you’ll discover that keeping certain customers happy is not worth your while.

I’m not advocating being an ass to your customers, far from it. I just think that customer service needs to be a means to justify the end, and not an end unto itself.  Creating better products, selling more, making more profits, increasing your margins and other basic business issues are just as important and can contribute just as much, if not more, as customer satisfaction.

How Google Wants to Destroy Small Business Online

E-Commerce site owners: Watch this video at least three times, and take careful note of what Matt is saying and what it means for your future as Google sees it.

The future , as Google sees it, does not include you. Do you see how Matt smirks with the sort of look that says “without unique content, your shop is worthless”? Do you  see the sheer chutzpa of Google, claiming that you need unique content to be a legitimate retailer in their index? What differentiates Tiget Direct, NewEgg,  Best Buy and J&R? Do people buy from them because they have unique reviews and great content or a great reputation and decent pricing? I don’t know about you, but I don’t buy stuff from online stores because of a great blog or some nutty social marketing campaign.

In Google’s world, New York’s Diamond district would be reduced to ten shops that each had free courses on choosing the right diamond, how to know if your diamond is right for you, and personal assistants to help you from start to finish on your purchases. These shops would be publicity whores and would hire full time PR firms to make sure they were in the newspaper every single day. There would be no competition based on price or important things like free shipping or product guarantees, but solely on how the storefront looked from the outside.

There is a legitimate function in commerce of having multiple stores selling the same items, at similar prices, without anything functionally differentiating between them. They can all be cookie cutter stores, that look very similar, but as long as there is significant demand for products, there will always be room for competition based on pricing and service, and not unique content.

That function disappears in Google’s organic results – if you haven’t spent a billion dollars in branding, you’;re not worthy of the index, even if your pricing is better and you sell the exact same stuff everyone does. Google’s policy is not only pro big branding budgets, it’s fundamentally anti-small business.

Sure, they’ll let you compete for penny margins in Adwords, but then they’ll turn around and ban you without further notice. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. But wait, you’re a big brand? Quality Score doesn’t apply to you. You get  out of jail free.

If your business is not a major brand and depends on Google for the majority of its traffic and sales, I suggest you start diversifying your traffic, and working on your brand. The future does not look bright for small business online, folks.