Tony Hsieh was more than a successful CEO - he was also a giver, community builder, and visionary ahead of his time
- In addition to Hsieh's prominence in the
businessworld, he also was a community builder and visionary outside of work.
- Weaving together anecdotes and photos from people in Hsieh's inner circle, writer Aimee Groth paints a picture of an "inquisitive, impactful, loving, kind" leader who was masterful at making connections wherever he went.
- The former
ZapposCEO died on November 27 at the age of 46.
The outpouring of love for former Zappos CEO
"The tapestry we each weave in life, extending all around us, is always farther reaching than we know - but Tony's was enormous, impacting so many," Jen Consalvo, an entrepreneur who helped build out the
I met Consalvo and Gruber on a 2012 trip to Vegas, the same day they happened to be moving into the Ogden, the apartment complex across from Zappos where Hsieh and many of his friends and employees lived and worked.
"It's fascinating," Consalvo continued, "as much as Tony was known and admired, he was often too quiet for people's comfort - yet his words were smart, inquisitive, impactful, loving, kind, and generous. His ability to withhold expression made people uncomfortable, yet he was actually the most thoughtful host and caretaker you've ever met."
Hsieh had a grandiose mission: He wanted to build the "most community-focused large city in the world"
He wanted to do it in the accelerated time frame of five years. He poured his windfall from the 2009 Zappos/Amazon sale into buying up real estate in a blighted part of town where the Zappos HQ was relocating and invested in local tech startups, small businesses, arts, and culture.
To measure success, he put forth a new metric: ROC ("return on community"). He sought to create a new kind of economy, a society where human goodness was the primary currency. It was an attempt to engineer socially-conscious capitalism, before the idea of stakeholder capitalism entered the mainstream. During one of my interviews with former Zappos COO, CFO and chairman Alfred Lin at Sequoia Capital, he told me that Hsieh's ideas were often years ahead of their time. This grand social experiment in downtown Vegas was no exception.
Hsieh's propensity to reimagine the ways in which society might work was compelling and drew thousands of
To lay the groundwork for this new economy, Hsieh prioritized experiences. Instead of meeting through roles, titles, and other forms of hierarchy, Hsieh wanted people to meet through shared experiences and establish common ground that way. Done well, events allow people to discover more of who they are in the process.
Hsieh knew how to do events well - going all the way back to his days at 1000 Van Ness in San Francisco, the apartment complex where he lived and worked during the dotcom boom. It's where he launched the startup incubator Venture Frogs with Lin after they sold advertising network LinkExchange to Microsoft for $265 million. A masterful systems architect himself, Hsieh knew brilliant event curators when he saw them.
Consalvo and Gruber were clearly pros. With Hsieh's investment in their company Tech.Co (formerly Tech Cocktail), they applied their years of experience building startup ecosystems around the US to developing a tech scene in downtown Vegas. They regularly flew in dozens of entrepreneurs and VCs to mingle with locals for a week of talks, dinners, social events and tours. Attendees stayed for free at Hsieh's 100-some "crash pads" at the Ogden and other Downtown Project-owned apartment complexes downtown. Tech Cocktail's events rivaled high-priced tech conferences, without the pretense.
Instead there was a focus on "serendipity" and "collisions," terms Hsieh embraced as a way to encourage chance meetings. His marketing vernacular was designed to create more light-heartedness around the idea of connecting with and pitching strangers, to make it less awkward and more fun.
No matter where he went, he easily formed a network of friends and professionals
Hsieh was a beloved member of Summit Series, an international network of social entrepreneurs based in Eden, Utah. He drew inspiration from the organization's fresh approach to community design and its focus on social impact. So when Hsieh met Summit events worker Amanda Slavin, he asked her if she'd consider doing something similar in downtown Vegas.
Hsieh had a gift for eyeing talent and hidden genius early and recognized in Slavin someone who could do the same - a skillset that made her an excellent event curator and host, just like Hsieh was himself. He helped her incorporate her events company, CatalystCreativ, and she helped him launch his Downtown Project.
Given the opportunity of a lifetime Slavin delivered tenfold, regularly flying in a compelling array of social entrepreneurs and influencers who were curious about Hsieh and what he was building. Hsieh was also curious about them, and asked guests to "speak on whatever you're passionate about."
The first CatalystCreativ event included Adventure Project CEO Becky Straw, Andela cofounder Christina Sass, and social enterprise consultant Richard Demato, who spoke on "Surfing, Neuroscience, and Accelerating Social Change."
The weekend culminated in a "vulnerability night," where attendees shared their biggest fears and insecurities with the group. The entire weekend had an emotional arc to it, which crescendoed at the end, providing participants with a strong sense of community and belonging - and a willingness to contribute to the Downtown Project.
Hsieh was masterful at cultivating community wherever he went. He always had an entourage and delighted in surprising friends when he toured celebrities like Steve Aoki and Richard Branson around downtown. His entourage often included Zappos and Downtown Project employees, as well as other local residents and friends from other parts of his life.
At community events it wasn't uncommon to encounter Hsieh's friends from high school or those who knew him from his LinkExchange and Venture Frogs days.
He had broadcast his bold "community-focused" mission to the world, which inevitably attracted old friends who were in personal crises - whether it be a divorce, or some other difficult life circumstance - and he welcomed them with open arms. He secured one a place to stay in his Airstream Park and put her on payroll as an assistant. Hsieh was highly attuned and generous to those who were hurting or at a crossroads in their lives. When possible, he sought to be the bridge to getting them back on their feet.
"Tony finds a place for everybody," his longtime driver, Steve ("Steve-O") Moroney, shared with me in 2013 during a car ride with Hsieh, who had stepped into a doctor's appointment. Moroney had a unique vantage point with an ear to countless conversations Hsieh had while conducting business while traveling in his car or on the Delivering Happiness bus.
By that time, Hsieh had found a place for me, too. After attending that first CatalystCreativ event, which had a life-changing effect, I committed to finding a way to contribute to the Downtown Project. Hsieh asked me if I might do something similar - perhaps inviting creators into town for a monthly event, because he knew I was part of a creative community in Brooklyn - but I told him I didn't think I had a big enough network to pull it off successfully. Searching for an idea, a couple months later I pitched him on writing a book about the project. He immediately said yes, suggesting that it would be an "opportunity for personal growth."
Early Zappos investor Erik Moore made a similar observation about his friend's generous spirit. "Tony loves a lot of people," he told me at a 2012 social outing organized by Hsieh in Manhattan, surveying the many people from different walks of life who had come out to spend time with Hsieh. Slavin was there, as was former boxer JillKerry Ward (now Toolen), whose clothing line Hsieh featured at Zappos, and Miki and Radha Agrawal, serial entrepreneurs known as much for their social ventures as they are for hosting "Daybreaker" dance parties around the world.
Hsieh saw the way the Agrawals build community wherever they go, too, and invested in a downtown Vegas location for Miki Agrawal's farm-to-table restaurant WILD. He loved people by inviting them into the tapestry and funding or supporting their dreams in one way or another.
Hsieh was the consummate master-of-ceremonies who relished bringing people together. Despite his massive fortune, up until 2020 he chose to embrace micro-living with friends in his Airstream Park at the edge of downtown Vegas, which is still plagued by homelessness even though the broader area has meaningfully improved thanks to his $350 million investment.
The term friends use most often to describe Hsieh's social circles is "motley crew." Everyone was always welcome - wandering or grounded souls - it didn't matter where you were on your journey, or what title or lack of title you came with. Having experienced great success at a young age, Hsieh saw the world differently and chose to prioritize people and experiences above all else. It was just one more way he was ahead of his time.
Friends and family are collecting memories of Hsieh at HonoringTonyHsieh.com, an interactive website that was built and designed by Wix founder Avishai Abrahami and his team: Roee Kuperberg, Niv Farchi, Michael Mishan, Anna Kuntsman Rozenberg and Yamit Haddad. Michael Garvey, Tyler Williams, and Amy Jo Martin have also contributed to the project. The website - which showcases memories of Hsieh in the form of stories, photos, and videos - is the brainchild of Lauren Randall, founder of ecommerce company Melonhopper and a close friend of Hsieh's who participated in his Downtown Project. You can also email photos and videos to email@example.com.
Aimee Groth is the author of "The Kingdom Of Happiness: Inside Tony Hsieh's Zapponian Utopia," which was published in 2017 by an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
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