December 9, 2020

I met Tony Hsieh in Las Vegas seven years ago. His fresh perspective, humility and commitment to his work and home neighborhoods changed my life. I am heartbroken by his death at 46.

While many articles about his death refer to his addictive lifestyle that may have contributed to his death, or a few of his work initiatives that didn’t succeed, for me he will always be the model for commitment to your employees and to philanthropy. Hsieh grasped these values at a much younger age than most entrepreneurs, who eventually “get it.”

People First 

Hsieh was most known for his leadership of online shoe giant, Zappos, where he was CEO until his early retirement this past summer.  Hsieh wasn’t specifically “into” shoes – he told the New Yorker in 2009 he wears “just… sneakers.” But he was very into technology (he earned a computer science degree from Harvard), and he saw opportunities to leverage technology beyond traditional tech companies. More so, he wanted to build an organization that was focused on community and a people-first culture.

Under Hsieh’s leadership, Zappos became a unique model for customer service in e-commerce: he implemented a confidence-inspiring, free-shipping and free-returns model. And he built an organization frequently recognized as one of the best places to work. He was so committed to having the right people at Zappos that he instituted the “leaving bonus” – a program where recently-hired employees who were not thriving during their onboarding were offered thousands of dollars to quit the company.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Hsieh believed people should love what they do, and that if they love it enough, they’d do it for free. He did pay his employees (although less than many tech companies), and he built a culture around benefits like full healthcare coverage, free lunches and chiropractors on campus. He then dismantled the typical corporate hierarchy and created work “circles.” People either loved or loathed it; those who didn’t love it left, and those who did, truly loved where they worked – and coined themselves “Zapponians.”

A company’s culture and a company’s brand are really just two sides of the same coin. If you get the culture right, then most of the other stuff will happen on its own. Hsieh, in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, 2009

Tony Hsieh brought Zappos to downtown Las Vegas in 2013. Along with it, he brought a vision to create “the co-learning and co-working capital of the world,” investing $350 million to transform the area into a modern-day tech landing spot and community of festivals and family entertainment to offset the gambling culture. After hearing Hsieh speak at a conference in Las Vegas that same year, I was compelled to visit and experience a piece of this culture myself.

Pizza and the Red Velvet Throne

Just as he had promised, the Zappos car picked me up at my hotel. (Note: anyone can arrange for this free service). I was welcomed with the most amazing tour of workplace culture I’ve yet to experience. Two moments are particularly unforgettable:

  • First, I met customer service representatives who confirmed for me the Zappos lore of the customer who called in for a shoe discussion and mentioned she was hungry. The customer service rep surprised the customer with a pizza delivery, arranged while still on the phone helping the customer with their shoe order.
  • Second, I saw a woman walking around with a hat that said “Coach”. I stopped Augusta and asked her what she coached at Zappos. She took me to her office, pointed out the red velvet upholstered throne designated for her teammates and said, “I help make employees’ dreams come true.”

Thanks, Tony, for these remarkable memories – they are eternal reminders of how much people, culture and community matter in leadership and organizations.