I couldn’t answer the email fast enough.
A representative from Simon & Schuster offered me the opportunity to preview a book about former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. Hsieh was a enigmatic business leader in the Las Vegas Valley. His mysterious death at the age of 46 was a shock to many.
The authors are Wall Street Journal reporters Kirsten Grind and Katherine Sayre. Their book is Happy at Any Cost: The Revolutionary Vision and Fatal Quest of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. The authors’ premise was that the happiness which Hsieh wanted to bring to workplaces, living environments and his own life could not overcome his demons.
I never really knew Tony Hsieh’s story. I had read accounts of how this young man with money had taken over a faltering online shoe company, Zappos, and changed its destiny. He also had a vision (using an open checkbook) of turning downtown Las Vegas into an arts, entertainment, and retail center that would be the envy of the world. I heard Tony Hsieh speak at one of the large conventions I attended in Las Vegas; his words about changing workplaces into happy and creative environments drew a standing ovation. I also saw him touring the 15-block “Life is Beautiful Festival” downtown Las Vegas festival which Hsieh had backed financially. Everything seemed fine.
And then I hadn’t heard about Hsieh, in a while and we read about Hsieh’s strange death, while locked in a fiery shed in Connecticut in November 2020.
Happiness at Any Cost does a good job in giving the reader Hsieh’s background. The son of Taiwanese immigrants, Hsieh graduated from Harvard University with a degree in computer science. He co-founded a tech start-up, Link Exchange, which was ultimately sold to Microsoft, giving the 24-year-old Hsieh $32 million.
Hsieh had money, but his behavior was such that at times he didn’t seem to care he had it. He spent it. He was an early investor in Zappos. When the company experienced hard times, Hsieh stepped up as CEO, made changes in the operation, brought the company back to profitability, pledged millions of his own money, and obtained loans to revitalize Downtown Las Vegas. He is credited with creating the flawed Downtown Project. In 2009, Hsieh sold Zappos to Amazon for $1.2 Billion dollars which gave him the means to extend the reach of his business & philanthropic empire.
But as the authors of Happy at Any Cost point out, the private life of the charismatic Hsieh was unusual and ultimately deadly. He drank on the job, though he was so respected that daytime drinks did not seem a big thing. Some of the businesses that came to town failed. A couple suicides took place when the stresses of new businesses became too much. According to this book, the charismatic Hsieh was forced out of Zappos by Amazon as his behavior grew odder. Hsieh, the party giver, retreated to locked rooms; his actions distressed family and friends.
Hsieh’s life, with its extreme highs an lows, would be a hard-to-buy science fiction story if it weren’t all true. I am grateful my life isn’t worthy of a book like this.