Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh Dies at 46

Tony Hsieh, the entrepreneur and former CEO of Zappos, passed away on Friday at age 46.

A statement from Megan Fazio, a spokeswoman for Hsieh’s DTP Companies, a investment vehicle formerly known as Downtown Project aimed at redeveloping an area in Las Vegas, provided to Inc. confirmed that his death took place on November 27, as he was surrounded by family. He reportedly died as a result of injuries he sustained after a house fire. He had been visiting family in Connecticut at the time.

The outpouring over Hsieh’s passing was immense on social media. Waves of people including investor Chris Sacca and skateboarder Tony Hawk expressed adamiration for Hsieh, who retired from Zappos in August of this year, after two decades at the company.

During his tenure at Zappos, Hsieh helped the company become one of the largest online shoe stores in the world. And in 2009, he helped ink Amazon’s $1.2 billion purchase of the company. Prior to joining Zappos in 1999, when it was still called, Hsieh had founded an online ad company called LinkExchange, which he sold to Microsoft for $265 million in 1998.

Despite that financial success, Hsieh’s biggest impact on the world of business will likely revolve around his efforts to elevate customer service and company culture–to the point where his ideas are no longer novel but normal.

His corporate culture book/autobiography, Delivering Happiness, debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list in 2010, and remains a foundational tome for entrepreneurs. In 2009, Zappos launched Zappos Insights, a consulting firm that helps other businesses fine-tune their own company cultures.

Hsieh was born in Illinois to Taiwanese parents. His father was a chemical engineer at Chevron and his mother was a social worker. In his memoir, he describes being pushed hard to succeed. He was allowed just one hour of TV each week; he took violin and piano lessons and he began SAT training in the sixth grade. He later attended Harvard University where he graduated with a degree in computer science in 1995.

Zappos’s philosophy has long been “We don’t sell shoes, we sell customer service,” and its No. 1 core value is “Deliver WOW through service.” For well over a decade, employees have authored Zappos’s annual Culture Book, where Zapponians–as they’re called internally–say in a few paragraphs what the company means to them. With about 1,500 employees, not everything makes it into the book, but it’s brimming with photos of happy employee outings, aphorisms, and cheerful wishes.

Hsieh’s tenure at Zappos was not without problems. Its experiment with holacracy–a decentralized system meant to distribute decision-making throughout the organization–is today largely seen as a bust. Around 18 percent of the staff left the company after Hsieh in 2014 first ordered that Zappos would no longer employ “people managers,” and the company has been quietly backing away from the structure in recent years. 

Separately, he has described losing $100 million over the course of Zappos’s history, just from hiring mistakes. “Especially [true] amongst startups and entrepreneurs,” he told Inc. in 2012. “There’s a temptation to just get warm bodies in and hire as fast as possible. And then just by human nature when firing people, most people just drag their feet. What we learned is instead of trying hire quickly and fire slowly really it should be the reverse: we should hire slowly and fire quickly when it’s not the right fit.”

Still, Hsieh’s impact on e-commerce–and entrepreneurship more generally–will remain indelible. In the words of Fazio: “Delivering happiness was always his mantra, so instead of mourning his transition, we ask you to join us in celebrating his life.” 

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