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11/30/2020

Longtime, visionary CEO of Zappos dies

Marianne Wilson
Editor-in-Chief
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Tony Hsieh

The recently retired CEO of online footwear and accessories retailer Zappos has died at 46 after sustaining injuries in a house fire.

Tony Hsieh, who served as CEO of Zappos from 2000 until 2020 and became famous for his unconventional and people-centric approach to retailing and business, died on Friday, Nov. 27, at Bridgeport Hospital in Bridgeport, Conn. Hsieh’s death was caused by smoke inhalation complications after he was injured in a house fire in New London, Conn. on Nov. 18. Police are currently investigating the cause of the fire.

Hsieh, a graduate of Harvard University, founded internet advertising network LinkExchange in 1996 and sold it to Microsoft for $265 million in 1998. He used that money to launch business incubator Venture Frogs, which was an initial investor in Zappos in 1999. Still in his mid-20s, Hsieh took the reins as Zappos CEO in 2000.

In 10 years, I would like Zappos to be a household name that people are extremely excited about and equate to excellent service. We’ve received customer e-mails asking us to please manage the IRS or take over an airline—we’re not planning on that anytime soon, but we like that customers perceive our brand to be about service, not just shoes.

Under Hsieh’s leadership, Zappos followed a unique business strategy that produced success. He moved the company to a corporate headquarters in downtown Las Vegas, feeling the city’s fun, 24/7 culture would suit the way he wanted the company to operate. Call center employees were encouraged to stay on the phone or live chat with customers as long as the customer wanted to talk, and to discuss any topic the customer chose to bring up.

Zappos’ headquarters had an open layout designed to promote “serendipitous collisions” of people in different departments who ordinarily would not interact, including Hsieh, who did not have a private office. In 2013, the company adopted a decentralized “holacracy” management model that gave every employee decision-making power, and Zappos offers free shipping on every order and a 365-day free return policy.

In 2009, Amazon acquired Zappos for close to $930 million in Amazon shares, cash and restricted stock. Hsieh was allowed to stay on as CEO and the company continued functioning as an independent entity within Amazon. He wrote a best-selling book, “Delivering Happiness,” in 2010, describing his customer service philosophy.

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Earlier this year, in August, Hsieh retired from Zappos. According to reports, he planned to focus on supporting philanthropic causes and entrepreneurs who are focused on social good — two causes that have long been close to his heart.

In 2007, Hsieh, then 33, appeared on the cover of Chain Store Age, honored as one of Ernst & Young’s Retail Entrepreneurs of the Year. His customer-centric, service philosophy was in full bloom.

“In 10 years, I would like Zappos to be a household name that people are extremely excited about and equate to excellent service,” declared Hsieh in the accompanying article. “We’ve received customer e-mails asking us to please manage the IRS or take over an airline—we’re not planning on that anytime soon, but we like that customers perceive our brand to be about service, not just shoes.”  

Social media was flooded with tributes to Hsieh on news of his passing.  

“Your curiosity, vision, and relentless focus on customers leave an indelible mark,” Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO and president, posted on Instagram. “You will be missed by so many, Tony. Rest In Peace.”