Kip Tindell’s “Uncontainable”: Book Review, Notes + Analysis

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Business / Finance > entrepreneurs

Overall Rating: ★★★★★★ (6/7) (standout for its category)

Per-Hour Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★★ (6/7)

Readability: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)

Challenge Level: 1/5 (None) | ~250 pages ex-notes (272 official)

Blurb/Description: In a brief and engaging 250 pages that are very unlike most entrepreneur/business books, The Container Store founder Kip Tindell tells the story of how the company turned empathy into a business model via its seven “Foundation Principles.”

Blurb/Description: In a brief and engaging 250 pages that are very unlike most entrepreneur/business books, The Container Store founder Kip Tindell tells the story of how the company turned empathy into a business model via its seven “Foundation Principles.”

Summary: When I worked as an analyst for a hedge fund, I took every opportunity I got to take a meeting with company management set up by a broker… A, it got me out of the office, and B, I felt like I always learned something interesting and new.

I have to admit that I was less-than-excited about my meeting with The Container Store, and it was definitely just an excuse to sleep in and not show up at the office.  I seem to recall having recently taken a similar group meeting with the Pier 1 Imports management team, and I figured it’d be more of the same – another dumb specialty retailer selling products I don’t care about (because I’m not a middle-aged woman) that either has been or will be massacred by Amazon.

… except it turned out to be totally not like that.  I had never seen a company where half the investor deck focuses on corporate culture, and I’d certainly never toured a warehouse where working-class manual laborers had the cheerful can-do disposition of Santa’s elves and viewed packing boxes as a higher calling.

Everyone in the company seemed to be genuinely excited to be at work, and the Container Store executives who led us around the plant knew every worker, and their families, by name.

The enthusiasm was infections.  The culture was obviously, as Tindell would call it, “yummy,” and when I found out that cofounder Kip Tindell had written a book explaining the company’s “Foundation Principles” and how they’d been applied as the company scaled, I obviously couldn’t wait to read it.  And so Uncontainable affixed itself near the top of my long list of favorite business books.

Kip Tindell’s enthusiasm is infectious. Kip Kip hooray!  Photo credit: The Container Store website.

Highlights: Once you’ve read 4-5 business books, they start to sound so similar that reading another one is like watching the next Michael Bay movie: entertaining, but anyone with half a brain cell can predict what’s going to happen next.  

Uncontainable is profoundly different, because The Container Store’s approach to business is profoundly different: moreso than any other business I’ve ever encountered (including Zappos), TCS has found a way to turn empathy into a business model by making it the guiding principle for all of its internal and external relationships.

It’s a fascinating read because it highlights the empathy and local vs. global optimization mental models really well (in addition to a few others).

Moreover, like Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People ( 7H review + notes), Tindell notes that his approach to business and life is the same, and so his seven Foundation Principles are equally applicable to life and work – indeed, many Container Store employees cite the Foundation Principles as having improved their parenting and marriages.

Lowlights: What makes Uncontainable awesome is the fact that it’s not like other business books and therefore different/unique… but if you’re looking for something heavy on operational/financial nitty-gritty details, you’ll need to look elsewhere.

Mental Model / ART Thinking Points:  empathyopportunity costslocal vs. global optimization,disaggregationgrowth mindset, ego, path-dependencysocial proofzero sum games, base rates,nonlinearitymemoryoverconfidenceutilityagencysocial proofpath-dependencyactivation energytrait adaptivityendowment effectcommitment biasfeedback,

You should buy a copy of Uncontainable if: you want a “different” sort of business book that’s pretty much the best practical guide to implementing empathy that I’ve ever seen.

Reading Tips: None in particular.  Tindell does repeat a number of the same ideas in different places, so if something feels repetitive, feel free to skim.

Pairs Well With:

Different” by Youngme Moon.  Different is, as its name implies, also a different sort of business book, focusing on the “featuritis” that is discussed by Don Norman and Barry Schwartz, and how some businesses profit by going a different direction that is much harder to replicate.  The Container Store is a perfect example.

The Happiness Advantage” (THA review + notes) by Shawn Achor.  Tindell and Achor would like each other a lot; Achor’s done a lot of research on the causal relationship between happiness and productivity.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (7H review + notes) by Stephen Covey.  Covey also has seven principles that apply in life and business… it’s a landmark classic and one of the most influential books on my own personal development.

The Great A&P” (review + notes) by Marc Levinson, “Made in America” (review + notes) by Sam Walton, and “The Everything Store” (review + notes) by Brad Stone.  This is the “trilogy” on 100 years of retail dominance in America; I had read all of these books separately, but got a lot of mileage out of reading them back-to-back.

Pour Your Heart Into It(review + notes) and Onward (review + notes) by Howard Schultz.  These two books tell the origin story – and the redemption story – of coffee giant Starbucks; relative to Uncontainable, they’re more focused on the operational side of things.  “Onward” is probably my favorite business book of all time, although Pour Your Heart Into It is great too.

Reread Value: 3/5 (medium)

More Detailed Notes + Analysis (SPOILERS BELOW):

IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK.  Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive.  It was primarily created for my own personal reference.

Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference.  Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.”  Do so at your own peril.

I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases.  First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.  

Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall.  However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.

Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made.  I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning.  Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.

Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.

Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.

Pages 4 – 5: The Container Store is very different from most other companies (and certainly most other retailers).  As best I can tell, they’ve built a business model on empathy: toward their customers, their employees, and their vendors… this is an intangible, difficult-to-replicate culturalcompetitive advantage that means, despite literally selling products thieves don’t want to steal, they’ve been able to build a successful niche specialty retail business over time.

(They haven’t been doing so well lately, but that doesn’t take away from what they’ve accomplished historically.)

Tindell notes a few interesting things here: first, The Container Store:

 “truly love[s] our employees and are committed to caring for their whole being – not just as workers.”  

Tindell firmly believes that principles should be the same in work and business, and as such, a la Covey’s 7 Habits, most employees of TCS find the Foundation Principles to be helpful not just as salespeople or workers, but also as parents and spouses and friends.

Tindell also posits that “women make much better executives than men.”

 Why?  

“They communicate better and listen better.”  

Again, this is unsurprising considering that women generally seem to have an easier time with empathy than men do (whether for biological or cultural reasons).

Finally, Tindell notes that the TCS version of capitalism doesn’t require tradeoffs – they just frame the problem a different way.  Implicit throughout the book is the local vs. global optimization mental model.

Paying their employees more and treating them better may increase costs in the short term relative to other retailers’ models, but in the long term, it creates a lot of loyalty among both customers and employees; TCS has one of the lowest turnover rates you’ll see in retail (and probably more generally in the business world).

Pages 6 – 7: The TCS turnover rate as of the time of writing was “less than 10%” vs. the retail industry average of 100%+; they only hire ~3% of applicants because of their “1 Great Person = 3 Good People” rule that we’ll encounter later.

Tindell notes (and it’s true, as my introduction above demonstrates) that:

“anyone walking through our doors can’t help but be affected by the passion, energy, creativity, and, yes, love that our employees demonstrate every day on the job.”  

Tindell, unlike most males, is not shy about the L-word.  To some extent, he mirrors the approach taken by Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines.

Pages 8 – 9: Here, Tindell notes that he believes that: “you should have the same code of conduct in life and business.”  

Rationality.  Very Covey-like, down to the seven principles (see ‘ The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” – 7H review + notes).

Tindell calls them all based on the “Golden Rule,” which is basically empathy.

I only have one small critique here: empathy isn’t really doing unto others as you’d have them do unto you, but rather doing unto others as they wantyou to do unto them.

This is a nonintuitive concept to understand.  The best overview I’ve seen comes from Dr. Judith Beck’s wonderful Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT review + notes).  Empathy isn’t just one tone fits everyone.

Beck notes at the bottom of page 20 that due to individual differences, some patients might love a warm/caring approach, while others might be put off by it and view it as too “touchy-feely.”

Thus, good intentions can often be misread: for example, I tend to be very warm and close and caring, which is how I like to be treated, but plenty of people I’ve known view that as overly clingy and prefer some coolness and distance/detachment.

As such, Beck recommends paying attention to patients’ emotional reactions, and frequently seeking feedback.

Pages 12 – 13: TCS prizes flexibility and doesn’t micromanage its employees, believing that it’s better to have a core set of principles and let employees use those principles to determine the best course of action.  Nobody in TCS will say “that’s not my department.”

TCS also prizes open and honest communication to the point of extreme transparency.

Page 17: The Foundation Principles aren’t the sort of “corporate mission” lip service that get hidden in a desk drawer somewhere… they’re lived every day.

Pages 18 – 25: Tindell overviews the three Foundation principles, which he spends the book exploring in more depth.

1. “1 Great Person = 3 Good People.”  Rather than paying rock-bottom wages and getting rock-bottom talent, TCS believes that productivity is nonlinear and if you pay up (50 – 100% above typical retail wages).  They don’t view this as a tradeoff – they believe customers, employees, and TCS are all better served having exceptional people who are better paid.

2. “Fill the Other Guy’s Basket to the Brim.”  Attributed to Andrew Carnegie, this is how TCS approaches vendor relationships: TCS goes above and beyond (to truly unfathomable lengths) to help its vendors succeed.  Contrast this to the Wal-Mart approach, or the new Boeing “partnering for success” approach (which employees of its vendors have pejoratively nicknamed “partnering for Boeing’s success.”)

3. “Man in the Desert Selling.”  As Tindell later illustrates with a hilarious skit, TCS views selling as a moral imperative – since they strongly believe they are helping, rather than taking advantage of customers.  Compare to page 217 of “The Design of Everyday Things” (DOET review + notes), where Don Norman notes on disaggregation:

one of my rules in consulting is simple.  Never solve the problem I am asked to solve [because it] is not the real, fundamental, root problem.  It is usually a symptom. […] it is amazing how often people solve the problem before them without bothering to question it.”  

Similarly, TCS employees attempt to diagnose the root cause of customers’ issues, and look for alternate ways to solve them that the customers may not have even thought of.

4. “Communication is Leadership.”  See previous notes: other than individual compensation, TCS takes a very transparent approach.  (Contrast to Jeff Bezos’s approach about communication meaning something’s gone wrong in “The Everything Store (TES review + notes).  I have no view on which one’s more adaptive.)

5. “The Best Selection, Service, and Price” – in contrast to Stanley Marcus (of Neiman-Marcus fame) alleging you can get two and not three, the Container Store shoots for all three.  (It’s not clear if they actually deliver; they have a reputation, which Tindell disputes but I sort of agree with, for being pretty pricey… their high-HHI demographic would certainly seem to sort of support this.)  

6. “ Intuition Does Not Come To An Unprepared Mind – You Need To Train Before It Happens.”  It’s not clear exactly how deeply Tindell has studied the neuroscience and cognitive process of automatic decisionmaking.

We have, thankfully!  I’d point to Philip Tetlock’s “Superforecasting (SF review + notes) and Laurence Gonzales’s “Deep Survival” (DpSV review + notes) as two good books on this topic.)  Dr. Matthew Walker’s “ Why We Sleep ( Sleep review + notes) also provides a fascinating exploration of how REM sleep enables creativity and synthesis of disparate information.

Nonetheless, science or not, Tindell gets to the right conclusion generally.  See  cognition vs. intuition for more details.

7. “Air of Excitement” – this is what was infectious when I visited the TCS HQ/warehouse in Coppell, TX.  Happy employees are more productive. See Shawn Achor’s research, among others.

Tindell concludes here by citing the ideas of a growth mindsetlocal vs. global optimizationego, and noting – again, very Covey-like – that the Foundation principles work because they recognize “natural laws of human behavior” that are too infrequently taught in business schools.

Pages 29 – 30: Tindell was born in Baton Rouge, moved to Lake Charles when he was young, where his dad worked for Halliburton back in the era of employer loyalty (in some sense, TCS is a throwback.)  His mother seems to have been high- empathy and Tindell credits her for being a good listener.

Pages 32 – 33: Interesting example of path-dependency here: Tindell apparently found retail fascinating, hanging out in a dime store after school.  Interesting to ask if Tindell would’ve been so fascinated by retail if he’d grown up today with, you know, more interesting things to do than wander around a dime store.

Page 34: A&P sighting!  See Marc Levinson’s wonderful The Great A&P(GAP review + notes) for more on this retailer, which was Wal-Mart before Wal-Mart but few people have ever heard about it.  It’s one of my favorite under-the-radar books.

Pages 35 – 36: Really interesting example of social proof and tight-knit communities here with regards to one of the schools Tindell went to growing up.

Pages 37 – 38: This is a nice example of empathy and inspiring people to be better… setting the story aside, I’ve had mixed experiences with this sort of stuff, as I discuss in more depth in my notes on Shawn Achor’s stuff.  I think it works sometimes and not others.

I have no empirics but my best guess is that the other person needs to have a growth mindset – and also some fundamental morality/integrity as well as empathy themselves – for this to work.  I tried this exact approach once with someone and ended up being repeatedly taken advantage of because the person just didn’t care.

Page 40: Tindell watches how people treat wait staff; cue Hermione and Sirius Black on house-elves…

If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals. - Sirius Black Click To Tweet

Anyway, TCS takes the Covey win-win approach to the world.  See  zero-sum games.

Page 41: Tindell wanted to get a job; he wasn’t sixteen yet, but he kept showing up and finally they hired him.

Unfortunately, that wouldn’t work today… (on two separate occasions as a teenager, I was hired for a tutoring job, then let go when they figured out I wasn’t old enough to be working there.  Once at 14-15 as a biology/chemistry tutor at a community college, once at 16 or 17 as an SAT tutor for a professional prep company.)

Page 44, Pages 48 – 49: Kip Tindell to the long list of successful people who loved learning and hated formal education because it impeded learning.  Tindell, it seems, never finished college…

I will note that I strongly disagree with Tindell’s advice of 

This is classic entrepreneur advice and I think it’s totally wrong because it completely ignores base rates / the outside view.  I think it’s much easier to start a successful business when you have some real-world experience, a little bit of startup capital, and some connections… I wouldn’t be where I am with ACM if I hadn’t had built up enough of a nest egg working professionally to weather a few years of burning (then not earning) money.  Of course, I also got to make my investing mistakes on someone else’s dime rather than my own.

Pages 51 – 52: Also in the category of “the first idea is not always the best idea” – Tindell wanted to start a grocery store, but his business partner Garrett Boone didn’t like the idea.  And so they ended up going another route.

Tindell compares his career in retail to the girl you were best friends with for a long time and didn’t realize you were in love with… yeah I have one of those too, Kip.  And she’s married now, just not to me. 😛

Pages 54 – 55: Tindell does a lot of really important things on these pages.  To start with, he notes the inherent nonlinearity of productivity: one great person is not just a little bit better than a bunch of really bad people.

He also notes the impacts of feeling included vs. excluded (see other books on the effects of social exclusion, ranging from Brene Brown to “The Lonely American” by Olds/Schwartz).  

Tindell also manages to – BRILLIANTLY – bridge the gap between being a decent human being and not succumbing to Nordic egalitarianism bullshit.  Tindell notes that you shouldn’t think you’re better than other people, in the sense that you have no right to be a jerk to the janitor…

but he also points out the obvious fact that some people can’t or won’t get their heads around: that some people are just better than others at specific things.

(Carol Dweck, for example, is completely right about the importance of the growth mindset, but her book “Mindset” – Mndst review + notes – makes some wildly unrealistic assumptions that basically amount to “nobody’s intrinsically better at anything than anyone else.”)

Finally, Tindell solves the “dumb principal” problem that Richard Thaler discusses on pages 188 – 190 of “Misbehaving” (M review + notes).  Tindell notes that:

 “we understand that people make mistakes.  That’s why we create a warm, safe, nurturing workplace that allows employees to take chances without fear of reprisal when they fail.”  

This kind of  empathy-driven  structural problem solving is phenomenally important.

See Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down ( UpD review + notes) for more here, including her wonderful discussion of the Hawaiian parole system.

Pages 58 – 59: Tindell notes another obvious but often overlooked idea: there’s not a false dichotomy between pay and culture.  TCS not only has a great culture, but it also pays employees really well.

Page 61: Nice example of the flaws of memory: Tindell and Boone have conflicting origin stories for how they came up with the TCS concept.

Pages 62 – 64: The first store was at the Preston/Forest intersection in Dallas.  It took them a while to settle on the name “The Container Store.” From the beginning, most of their products were proprietary or exclusive…

Page 65: Here, again, is somewhere where I disagree with Tindell on an empirical / mental models basis.  He basically alleges that he’s “sure” that when musicians walk out of the studio:

“they knew they had a winner while they were recording it and listening to it in the studio.”

I think this is half-true, half-false.  The half-true part is that there’s probably a self-fulfilling prophecy: in some circumstances (though not all), overconfidence can be an adaptive belief that has utilityeven if it’s not true, because we’re humans, not econs and it’s been well-demonstrated that belief in agency is a material predictor of success.

In other words, if you believe “I suck and my music sucks and nobody’s gonna listen to this,” then it’s unlikely you’ll produce a good enough product for anyone to pay attention to.  On the other hand, if you have confidence and enjoy what you’re doing and are excited about it, it’ll turn out better…

… but on the other hand, here’s what’s half-false: the MusicLab experiment pretty much conclusively (in my view) demonstrates the way social proof and path-dependency combine to make “superstars” in subjective fields like music and writing.

This is cited in a few books, but Michael Mauboussin does the best job of explaining it, to my ears, in “The Success Equation” (TSE review + notes) on pages 128 – 131, which are perhaps some of the most important pages of anything you can ever read.  Go buy TSE and read them, stat.

McArdle touches on similar points in “ The Up Side of Down ( UpD review + notes), with a good example of movies and The Titanic.

Anyway, at the bottom of the page, Tindell does make a good point that I think is totally valid: “if it’s so great, how come nobody’s ever done it before” is a terrible argument.  There are a lot of answers, ranging from status quo bias / culture to local vs. global optimization.  See also one to many.

Tindell references behavioral economics and the conclusively-disproven rational actor hypothesis 🙂  See, of course, Thaler’s “ Misbehaving ( M review + notes).

Page 67: Tindell notes the often-true but surprisingly poorly understood phenomenon that most entrepreneurs (and people in general) are not motivated exclusively or even primarily by money.  

Tindell notes that if all they’d been interested in was money, they wouldn’t have been able to make it through the long period of working for no pay…

It’s a good example of intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation, a model I need to think more about.

Pages 69 – 70: TCS opened to a lot of traffic from family and friends.  From the beginning, the products were often somewhat non-intuitive and required a lot of explanation to sell.

Tindell notes that one motto is “we sell the hard stuff.”  

There’s some nice examples here of the narrow framing problem and the “taking perspectives” approach; a lot of the stuff TCS sold was repurposed from its original intent, and even the vendors hadn’t thought of using it for that.

See also Shawn Achor’s “Before Happiness” (BH review + notes) on learning how to see the world from different perspectives.

Page 72: Tindell notes that he got to meet Stanley Marcus, who became a mentor; he recommends Marcus’s book Minding the Store (which I have not read, and probably won’t because I’ve read like a dozen books about retailing.)

Pages 73 – 74: Tindell here notes that TCS is willing to hire employees who have families they need to take care of… a number of managers I’ve talked to agree that there’s a huge pool of latent talent out there that could be utilized but values flexibility in a way that most corporations simply aren’t willing to work with.   Trait adaptivity.

Pages 75 – 77: A number of qualities are required to be a good TCS employee, ranging from judgment and accountability to a “positive mental attitude” a la Gonzales in Deep Survival (DpSv review + notes).  Also, flexibility.

Tindell again emphasizes, in near-CBT terms, the company’s approach to mistakes: go ahead and try it… what’s the worst that can happen?  

Page 78: Tindell cites Tadashi Yanai (founder of Uniqlo), who wrote a book called “One Win Nine Losses.”  Amazon doesn’t seem to happen in English.

Tindell points out that only some portion of employees’ effort is “mandatory” – the rest is “voluntary.”  He cites his friend Lou Carbone:

“Someone in your position or mine should have, I think, a moral obligation to create a place where people love coming to work.”  

See also Don Norman, Richard Thaler, and Stephen Covey, variously, on whether the problem is in the people or the system – Don Norman with “human error,” Thaler with “dumb principal” issues, and Covey with “the problem is in the system, not the people.”  

Munger might throw in something about incentives.

Page 79: TCS hosts some of their events at Fearing’s, which is awesome and totally worth the price.  Dean was nice enough to sign my copy of his cookbook – The Texas Food Bible – and there are some really phenomenal recipes in there.  

(Here’s Dean’s recipe for Texas Red, i.e. texas-style chili, i.e. IT DOESN’T HAVE ANY BEANS IN IT AND YOU WILL BE EXCOMMUNICATED IF YOU DARE CROSS US.  

Anyway, best chili you’ve ever had, but it’ll take you like three days to make, and that’s only a slight exaggeration… I think it literally took me, my mom, and one of my best friends a full evening and most of the next day and we were all working together.)

Pages 80 – 81: Here’s an example of employees citing the Foundation Principles for their personal communication style… again, the power of empathy and understanding schema as well as activation energy.

Tindell also points out the latent talent pool out there of people who are smart but have unconventional backgrounds.  This is obviously a thing in finance.   Product vs. packaging.

Page 84: TCS invests a massive amount in employee training – over 200 hours in the employee’s first year.

Pages 88 – 89: Tindell notes, rightly:

“the better you get to know someone, in my experience, the more you can care about them.”  

Empathy.

Here they talk about their unique approach to relationships with vendors – they know they’re not necessarily going to win on volume relative to, say, Wal-Mart, so they try to find other ways they can help out – such as ordering products in downtimes to smooth out demand, etc.  Nice example of schema and non- zero-sum thinking.

Page 97: Again, on perspectives/ schema, some nice examples of how TCS vendors often learn about new uses for their products via TCS…

Pages 98 – 99: Cute anecdote here about a thief stealing a trailer full of TCS products… a few boxes were opened then it was abandoned.  

The Container Store has products that are so hard to sell, people won’t even steal them. - Kip Tindell, cofounder Click To Tweet

Anyway, Tindell also points out, again, that their approach with vendors, employees, and customers is not a tradeoff – he points out it’s a non- zero-sum game, and the implicit idea here is that you’re optimizing globally via building sticky relationships rather than optimizing locally by maximizing profit each quarter.

Pages 100 – 101, 103: Unexpected acts of kindness, a la Achor…

Pages 104 – 105: An example of how the deep trust pays off: you wouldn’t put yourself in certain counterparty concentration risk situations as a businessperson, but vendors have done that for TCS because of their long relationship.

Page 108: Tindell on circle of competence: they haven’t expanded internationally because they wouldn’t know what they were doing.

Page 109 – 110: Tindell here briefly discusses the way a lot of competitors, including some with a lot of financial backing, failed to replicate the TCS model.  

Why? The corporate culture was just too hard to replicate, as the former CEO of Williams-Sonoma basically admitted to Tindell.

There’s a good intellectual humility lesson here.  On paper, at any point in the evolution of TCS (if it had been a public company), most halfway-decent analysts probably wouldn’ve said “this is stupid; this can never work.”  This reminds me a little bit of the restaurant chain Texas Roadhouse (TXRH), actually – TXRH doesn’t have fantastic four-wall margins, their food doesn’t seem to be that differentiated, and in general it just sort of seems unimpressive.  No moat, not a “great business,” etc.

But over time they’ve killed it, even through an environment that has been really unfriendly to moderately-priced casual dining sit-down restaurants… their “secret sauce” as best I can tell is also a differentiated corporate culture that, for example, includes unique scheduling that doesn’t maximize AUVs but does maximize managers’ abilities to spend time with their families and have work/life balance, which apparently contributes to a unique operating environment and a lot of engagement.

None of this is to say “OMG go buy companies with yummy corporate cultures” – of course, there are sample size and counterfactual issues here.  Still, it’s a nice reminder to view the world in probabilistic terms, and to realize that the world is more than just a spreadsheet…

Page 111: Kindell notes reciprocity bias here, stating:

“Rarely does someone, in any walk of life, just take, take, take and not reciprocate.  Most people instinctively know to try love – it will come back to you in spades.”

Again, I think this is half true… see Thaler on people wanting to be fair but not suckers.  There are plenty of people I’ve met who are quite willing to ‘just take, take, take and not reciprocate,” including some who I’ve loved very much.

Page 112: Here’s the skit on the literal man in the desert.  It’s hilarious.

Pages 114 – 115: Interesting approach here to give selling the moral high ground… again, very reminiscent of Norman’s not-solving-the-first-problem-you’re-presented.  TCS employees are trained to understand customers’ problems and determine the appropriate solution. Easy to say, hard to do.

Page 116: “help/help or hurt/hurt” is a nice mental mantra for those of us who don’t like selling!

Page 118: Tindell again notes that their business model isn’t altruism… it’s just global optimization.

Pages 121 – 122: you know honestly I think working at the Container Store would make me better at interacting with people.

Page 127: Here’s the classic scaling problem: strategies that work well for small companies for sharing culture and so on are not necessarily still adaptive when circumstances change.  See the discussion of Dunbar’s Number in Geoffrey West’s “ Scale ( Scale review + notes), among other things.

Page 139: Tindell here mentions Tony Hsieh of Zappos; Delivering Happiness is a good book, although (in my view) not as useful as Uncontainable.  It’s buried in my closet somewhere and I’m not terribly motivated to dig it out…

Page 141: Tindell notes TCS doesn’t have an HR department because employees are allowed to openly discuss issues with their managers; if they are having a problem with their manager, they can skip a level.  Addressing employee concerns is everyone’s job, not just HR.  Reminds me of the “web of seamless trust.”

Page 142: Tindell likes asking employees what two or three things they’d do if they were CEO and owned 100% of the business.  Clear growth mindset approach here.

Page 153: Tindell uses elfa to disprove the efficient-market theory (ha).  He notes that part of the TCS secret sauce is selling products nobody else can; one single TCS store sold more Elfa than another entire national retail chain.”

Page 167: Tindell wants the value of items sold to vastly exceed the price paid… it’s the Peter Thiel X | Y value created, value captured model.  (See  disaggregation.)

Page 173: Here’s an interesting example of the endowment effect (and/or maybe commitment bias): Tindell likes the path he’s on more once he’s chosen it…

Pages 186 – 187: Reiterating the training and the growth mindset.

Page 188: … training is important if you’re gonna sell the hard stuff.  And, of course, this creates a nice feedback loop that serves as a competitive advantage – other retailers simply can’t afford to invest that much in training new employees.

Pages 190 – 191: Nice example of the local vs. global optimization issue here: Tindell notes that thanks to low turnover and customer loyalty, the high TCS investment in wages is more than worth it.

Pages 195 – 196: Warren Buffett wanted to buy The Container Store, but he wouldn’t pay enough… Leonard Green massively overpaid, and TCS is still paying the consequences (see: its debt load).

Page 200: Tindell references a book called The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton, which sounded interesting, so I bought it.

Page 202: Tindell, in maybe my favorite quote from the book:

A very wise person once said that in selecting business partners, employees, or friends, everything is a commodity except for judgment or integrity. - Kip Tindell Click To Tweet

I definitely overselected for other traits and did not sufficiently select for these historically… to my detriment.  That has changed.

Page 205: Kind of interesting example of something that always used to happen to me after finals or other stressful events culminating… Tindell calls it the “Finish Line Syndrome.”  Apparently it’s a thing for him too!

Pages 212 – 214: Talking about the “Air of Excitement,” Tindell notes,

“I think of retail as theater.  So why not put on a show?”  

This is something you hear a lot from retail entrepreneurs; I can never resist making quips about Sam Walton’s various and sundry obsessions with panties… see Made in America (WMT review + notes) for some hilarious anecdotes about this and other stunt marketing.  Levinson notes The Great A&P did much of the same (no panties, though, as best I can tell.)

Anyway, Tindell encourages fun at work… in fact, it’s required, even after tragedies like 9/11.  Interestingly, again, this pays off: apparently some customers come in just because they like being around friendly people.

Page 218: Again, an example of local vs. global optimization and non- zero-sum thinking: Tindell doesn’t view employee celebrations as being cost centers, but rather motivators.

Page 222: Tindell cites a book called Peak by Chip Conley.  I’m pretty sure this is somewhere on my shelf…

 

First Read: 2015

Last Read: 2018

Number of Times Read: 3

Planning to Read Again?: yuppers

 

Review Date: spring 2018

Notes Date: spring 2018