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Tony Hsieh, Former Zappos CEO, Dies at 46

Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, pictured here at a 2015 event in Laguna Beach, Calif, died Friday at the age of 46.
Frederic J. Brown
AFP via Getty Images
Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, pictured here at a 2015 event in Laguna Beach, Calif, died Friday at the age of 46.

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 Companies, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that Hsieh died from injuries sustained in a house fire in Connecticut. The local CBS affiliate reports that Hsieh died peacefully in Connecticut, surrounded by family.

Hsieh graduated from Harvard 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 Thisin 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 voice mail 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 U.S. Second, mail order catalogs were, at the time, the fastest growing segment of the footwear industry in the U.S.

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.

"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 2009, facing potential cash flow problems, Hsieh sold Zappos to Amazon for $1.2 billion. He stayed on as CEO until stepping down earlier this year.

In addition to Zappos, Hsieh was known locally for his venture DTP Companies, 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."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Matthew S. Schwartz is a reporter with NPR's news desk. Before coming to NPR, Schwartz worked as a reporter for Washington, DC, member station WAMU, where he won the national Edward R. Murrow award for feature reporting in large market radio. Previously, Schwartz worked as a technology reporter covering the intricacies of Internet regulation. In a past life, Schwartz was a Washington telecom lawyer. He got his J.D. from Georgetown University Law Center, and his B.A. from the University of Michigan ("Go Blue!").