Tony Hsieh, who in his 20s transformed the online company Zappos into a retail juggernaut, revolutionizing the way we buy shoes, and then spent his later years helping to transform and revitalize downtown Las Vegas, died Friday at the age of 46.
Hsieh died from injuries sustained in a house fire that occurred when he was visiting family in Connecticut.
His death was confirmed by the Las Vegas-based, DTP Companies, formally known as the Downtown Projects. “Tony’s kindness and generosity touched the lives of everyone around him and forever brightened this world,” the company said in a statement issued Friday night, adding that Hsieh was “a forward thinker who saw the happiness ahead of dollars.” Zappos also issued a statement mourning the loss of its former CEO.
It is with very heavy hearts that we are sharing some very sad news, as we have learned that Tony passed away earlier today (11-27-20). The world has lost a tremendous visionary and an incredible human being. We recognize that…https://t.co/RUMNOFrItZ pic.twitter.com/NSAFGW8p4L
— Zappos.com (@Zappos) November 28, 2020
A son of Taiwanese immigrants and a graduate of Harvard, Hsieh founded his first company, LinkExchange, in 1986 at the age of 23, selling it two years later to Microsoft for $265 million. He then started a venture capital firm and invested in a small internet company called ShoeSite.com. In the next few years, he became its chief executive, renamed it Zappos, moved it from the Bay Area to the outskirts of Las Vegas, and built it into a transformational retail site before selling it to Amazon in 2009 for $1.2 billion. Tsieh stayed on as chief executive before retiring recently to focus on his redevelopment efforts.
Zappos was nothing if not a revelation in the online retail world, offering consumers a dazzling array of shoes they could buy while sitting at their computer, a superb 24/7 customer service experience – and, perhaps most crucially, a 365-day, full-refund return policy.
As Alexandra Jacobs wrote in a 2009 New Yorker profile of Zappos and Tsieh: “Some people still consider pawing through the sale racks at Bloomingdale’s or the fluorescent-lit aisles of the Designer Shoe Warehouse an enjoyable contact sport. But Zappos and its imitators—shoes.com, heels.com, and the Gap’s inexplicably named piperlime.com—are shifting this public transaction into the comfort and privacy of customers’ living rooms. There, thanks to Zappos’s three-hundred-and-sixty-five-day return policy, we can all be Imelda Marcos, sifting through ceiling-high piles of boxes, and waiting in sweatpanted indolence for the UPS man to pick up our rejects.”
Over the years, however, Hsieh’s attention began to shift away from shoes and toward his ideas of how to transform the workplace, becoming a sought-after motivational speaker and writing the book, Delivering Happiness. “A lot of companies talk about work-life balance,” Hsieh told The New York Times in 2015. “We’re more about work-life integration. At the end of the day, it’s life.”
He also embraced his adopted hometown of Las Vegas. As TechCrunch wrote this weekend, Hsieh “saw the charm of downtown, full of 20th-century modernist flourishes underneath its more obvious signs of decline, and proceeded to buy up huge chunks of the area: apartment buildings, houses, small business structures, old casinos and hotels, and empty lots.” The website added: “His vision was not just to be a real estate magnate — although that is clearly something that interested him, too — but to regenerate Vegas in the mold of what he knew best: tech.He proceeded to invest in a huge run of startups, provided they move to Vegas to build their businesses Downtown, to bring entrepreneurs and jobs to the area.”
After word of Tsieh’s death became public, tributes began to pour in on social media, with tweets of condolences from fellow entrepreneurs, the skateboard legend Tony Hawk and Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak.
RIP Tony Hsieh. You proved that we don't have to choose between kindness and success, that delivering happiness can make us happy, that weirdness is not so weird—it's actually wonderful.
You'll be missed, friend. pic.twitter.com/QWzV6UOmil
— Adam Grant (@AdamMGrant) November 28, 2020
A beautiful tribute to a true pioneer. Tony Hsieh was a visionary. He was generous with his time and willing to share his invaluable expertise with anyone. And he was very, very cool. https://t.co/5A78fWpNyv
— Tony Hawk (@tonyhawk) November 28, 2020