Tony Hsieh, who helped grow the online company Zappos into one of the largest retailers of shoes on the Internet, died Friday after being injured in a house fire. He was 46.
"The world has lost a tremendous visionary and an incredible human being," Zappos CEO Kedar Deshpande 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."
Megan Fazio, a spokeswoman for Hsieh's side venture, DTP Cos., told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that Hsieh died from injuries sustained in a house fire in Connecticut. A local CBS affiliate reported that Hsieh died peacefully in Connecticut, surrounded by family.
Hsieh graduated from Harvard University in the mid-90s with a degree in computer science. While working at Oracle, Hsieh and a college roommate created a business called LinkExchange to help companies buy advertisements on websites. In 1998, during the heyday of the dot-com bubble, they sold the company to Microsoft for $265 million. That provided funding for what came next.
"I'm actually not passionate about shoes at all," Hsieh told NPR's How I Built This in 2017. What he was passionate about, Hsieh said, was customer service and company culture. That's one of the reasons he sold LinkExchange, he said: At some point the company grew so large that the corporate culture changed, and no longer appealed to Hsieh, an introvert.
With his newfound wealth, Hsieh started an incubator to invest in other companies. One day, he got a voicemail from the founder of Zappos, Nick Swinmurn, who had an idea for selling shoes online. It was one of the numerous random pitches Hsieh was getting every day, and he almost deleted the email.
"It seemed like the poster child of bad Internet ideas," Hsieh said: Who would actually buy shoes without seeing them in person?
But Swinmurn intrigued Hsieh with two facts: First, footwear was a $40 billion industry in the United States. Second, mail-order catalogs were, at the time, the fastest-growing segment of the footwear industry in the country.
That was "clear proof that people are going to remotely try on shoes," Hsieh said. He spent the next 20 years leading the shoe seller to enormous success as CEO.
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— Chris Sacca 🇺🇸 (@sacca) November 28, 2020
"I'm probably different from a lot of typical CEOs," Hsieh told How I Built This. "Imagine a greenhouse, where maybe at a typical company, the CEO might be the strongest and tallest, most charismatic plant that all the other plants strive to one day become. ... For me, I really think of my role as more about being the architect of the greenhouse, and then all the plants inside will flourish and thrive on their own."
In addition to Zappos, Hsieh was known for his venture DTP Cos., which poured hundreds of millions of dollars into revitalizing downtown Las Vegas. By 2017, Hsieh's company had a portfolio of about 90 properties there, according to the Review-Journal.
"Today is a sad day," former Zappos Chief Operating Officer Alfred Lin said on Twitter. "The world lost a pioneer of company culture, the shoe industry, Downtown LV, web advertising, and also a gentle soul who gave a part of himself to countless people. We'll remember Tony for that and the happiness he brought to so many people."