tony hsieh
Credit: Delivering Happiness

The inside story of the death of Tony Hsieh

After retiring from the corporate sector, the Zappos founder’s life – and eventual death – took a bizarre turn towards the extreme. This is his story.

The death of Tony Hsieh was a bizarre finale to a bizarre life. Having amassed a personal net worth of over $840 million after selling his online shoe business Zappos to Amazon for $1.2 billion, the American entrepreneur reportedly retired to Utah, experimenting with drink, drugs, increasingly severe diets, and pyromania. Ultimately, it would be injuries sustained in a fire on the morning of 18 November that would claim Hsieh’s life on the 27 November 2020.

According to reports, the fire occurred in New London, Connecticut when Hsieh was visiting family for Thanksgiving. Some reports say Hsieh became trapped in a basement, or had barricaded himself inside and would not answer the door. Others say he had retired to a shed on his girlfriend’s property in a state of distress, having asked friends to check on him every five minutes.

What caused the fire is still not clear, but Hsieh – who was said to keep up to 1,000 candles burning in his own home – was rescued by firefighters and taken to hospital. He died from his wounds two weeks later in what the Connecticut medical examiner determined an accident.

Prior to his death, Hsieh’s life had become increasingly erratic, with reports that he was experimenting with substances including ecstasy, mushrooms and nitrous oxide and was in the process of building up a cult-like group of associates around his Park City, Utah home. “Things were falling apart for him,” Philip Plastina, the founder of an electronic dance music group that regularly performed at Hsieh’s parties, told the Wall Street Journal.

Plastina claims to have received a call from one of Hsieh’s best friends explaining “Tony is in trouble”. According to Plastina, the caller asked him to travel to Park City as soon as possible to help Hsieh out of what the caller called “escapist tendencies”, including substance abuse.

tony hsieh
Credit: JD Lasica

Plastina reached out to Hsieh but received no response, however, there were friends around Hseih prior to the fire. According to sources quoted in the Wall Street Journal, Hsieh (who was 46 at the time of his death) had been suffering due to the isolation brought on by Covid-19 and had accepted he needed help. Apparently plans were even being made for Hsieh to enter a rehab facility in Hawaii shortly before the fire.

The circumstances surrounding his death are murky at best, characterised by hearsay, conjecture and rumour. But the death of Hsieh also marks the passing of one of the most successful businessmen of the past decade; a man renowned for being kind and generous, and someone who single-handedly changed start-up culture with his relentless outsider thinking. But, like the equally erratic Adam Neumann, was Hsieh ultimately the victim of a literal do-or-die mentality?

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Hsieh was born in 1973 to Taiwanese immigrants in Urbana, Illinois. 22 years later, he graduated from Harvard with a degree in computer science and founded his first online business, networking site LinkExchange, the following year. Within three years Hsieh had sold the business to Microsoft for $265 million.

In 1999 Hsieh and his partner Alfred Lin were approached with an idea for selling shoes online. Hsieh joined Zappos as CEO the same year. Initial sales were $1.6 million in 2000 – by 2009 it had grown to a $1 billion company. The same year, it was announced Amazon would buy the company for $1.2 billion, netting Hsieh a minimum of $214 million. He eventually retired as CEO in August of this year.

More recently, Hsieh’s interest seemed to lie in real estate. Reportedly, since stepping down in August, he had spent around $56 million purchasing properties around Park City, Utah where he had his main home. According to property broker Paul Benson, the spending spree included a number of condos in proximity to his own home — a 17,350-square-foot mansion which Hsieh bought for around $16 million earlier this year. The aim, apparently, was to create “a community of like-minded hard-partying friends.”

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