Tony Hsieh, who became a frequently cited and studied management guru by persuading millions of people to buy shoes online through Zappos, died Friday at the age of 46, said one of his companies, DTP. Cos.
The company did not provide a cause of death, but the Associated Press cited reports that he had been injured in a house fire while visiting Connecticut.
The Harvard-educated son of immigrants from Taiwan, in his 20s, co-founded an online advertising company, Link Exchange. It made about $ 40 million when that company was sold to Microsoft in 1998.
The following year, he invested in what became Zappos and later became CEO. Amazon bought Zappos in 2009 for more than $ 1 billion. Mr. Hsieh recently retired as CEO of Zappos.
In the early days of Zappos, he and his colleagues had to overcome deep customer doubts about buying shoes without trying them on first. Zappos overcame that hurdle by offering free shipping and free returns.
Amazon was so impressed by Hsieh’s management style that it allowed Zappos to operate as a stand-alone subsidiary.
Mr. Hsieh, whose 2010 book “Delivering Happiness” was a best-seller, became known for his management experiments that some found visionary and others outlandish. Among the 10 core values of the company was “Create fun and a little weirdness.” One of their conference rooms had a well filled with small plastic balls.
In 2013, Zappos began experimenting with a management philosophy called Holacracy, in which titles and bosses are eliminated. Many employees found it puzzling. When Zappos offered severance pay in 2015 for those who wanted to leave, 14% accepted the offer.
Mr. Hsieh was born in Illinois, where his Taiwanese-born parents were graduate students. When he was five years old, the family moved to the Lucas Valley area of Marin County, California. His mother was a social worker and his father, a chemical engineer at Chevron Corp.
At age nine, he demonstrated entrepreneurial drive by persuading his parents to pay $ 33 for a box of dirt that contained at least 100 earthworms. His idea was to create a worm farm in his backyard and sell his slide product to the public. He buried chicken wire in an effort to prevent his worms from escaping and fed them raw egg yolks. After a month, he discovered that everyone had escaped.
“I was only allowed to watch television one hour a week,” he wrote in his memoir, “and was expected to get excellent grades.” His SAT training began in sixth grade. His parents also demanded that he take piano and violin lessons. To make them think he was practicing, he recorded practice sessions and played them back early on weekends in the morning.
His mother expected him to go to medical school or get a doctorate. He preferred the idea of starting a business so he could do whatever he wanted. As a teenager he delivered newspapers, but quit after calculating he was making just $ 2 an hour.
In Boy’s Life magazine, he found an ad for a $ 50 kit that could make photo buttons out of pins and convinced his parents to buy the device. He advertised the service and was soon making around $ 200 a month through mail order. The company persuaded him, he later wrote, that he could run a successful business without face-to-face contacts.