Zappos Entrepreneur Tony Hsieh Dies At Age 46, Remembered As ‘Beautifully Weird’ Visionary

Tony Hsieh, the co-founder of shoe retailer Zappos, died Friday at the age of 46, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.

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Hsieh’s passing was mourned by numerous people in the startup community over the weekend. An unorthodox businessman who founded Zappos after successfully selling another business to Microsoft in his early 20s, Hsieh was known for his idiosyncratic approach to building companies.

He died after being injured in a house fire, the Review-Journal reported.

In 2004, Hsieh moved Zappos’ headquarters from the San Francisco Bay Area to the outskirts of Las Vegas. Nine years later, he moved the company to downtown Las Vegas, where he went on to live in an Airstream trailer community and invested millions of his own dollars to spark an economic revitalization coming out of the Great Recession. 

Hsieh “played a pivotal role in helping transform Downtown Las Vegas,” Nevada Gov. Stephen Sisolak said in a tweet mourning Hsieh’s death.

Hsieh had sold Zappos to Amazon in 2009 in a deal valued at $1.2 billion, but continued to lead the unit until August of this year, when he quietly retired after 21 years at the helm. The company employs about 1,500 people in Las Vegas, according to its website.

Hsieh’s 2010 book, “Delivering Happiness,” outlined a management philosophy that emphasized an offbeat company culture focused around employee engagement. One of the company’s 10 core values, according to Hsieh’s book, was “Create Fun and a Little Weirdness.” 

“The world has lost a tremendous visionary and an incredible human being,” Zappos said in a statement. “We recognize that not only have we lost our inspiring former leader, but many of you have also lost a mentor and a friend. Tony played such an integral part in helping create the thriving Zappos business we have today, along with his passion for helping to support and drive our company culture.”

Some of his management ideas were controversial, such as a 2013 decision to roll out a company hierarchy called “Holacracy,” in which titles and bosses were eliminated. Many Zappos employees found the structure “baffling,” The Wall Street Journal reported, and when the company offered severance packages to those who wanted to leave in 2015, 14 percent took the offer.

Hsieh was the son of Taiwan-born parents. He received his bachelor’s degree in computer science in 1995 from Harvard University and in 1998, while in his early 20s, sold an online ad company, Link Exchange, to Microsoft. From that deal, according to The Wall Street Journal, he reaped about $40 million in proceeds, which he used to start a venture firm called Venture Frogs.

Hsieh “was one of the most thoughtful people in the startup world, in both senses of the word,” venture investor Paul Graham tweeted on Saturday.

Tech writer Om Malik remembered Hsieh for being a pioneer who early on thought to build a startup outside of the typical coastal tech hubs: “Zappos’ biggest achievement was that it showed long before everyone else: you can build an Internet company anywhere. Unlike so many pundits of now, it didn’t take a pandemic for Tony to have that insight. Zappos was also an example of how tech companies care.”

Startup investor Chris Sacca wrote that “Tony Hsieh might be the most original thinker I’ve ever been friends with. He questioned every assumption and shared everything he learned along the way. He genuinely delighted in making anyone and everyone happy. The earth has lost a beautifully weird and helpful person. RIP.”

Photo: Charlie Llewellin from Austin, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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