What happened to Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh was tragic.
What Hsieh’s entourage did was abhorrent. They chose to ignore Hsieh’s alcoholism, drug addiction and rapidly deteriorating mental health to keep the party going and the money flowing.
While his “friends and associates” were inside getting ready to fly on a private jet to Hawaii, Hsieh was holed up alone outside in a poolside shed with a propane space heater, candles, bottles of Fernet and canisters of nitrous oxide. A fire broke out and an unconscious Hsieh was taken to hospital where he died nine days later from a cerebral edema. He was 46 years old and had hundreds of millions of dollars still left to his name.
While his death was sudden, Hsieh’s true friends and family saw it coming and tried to get him help.
“He began heavily abusing drugs, exacerbating lifelong mental health issues that he had always hidden from others,” Wall Street Journal reporters Kirsten Grind and Katherine Sayre write about Hsieh in their book Happy at Any Cost. “He spent tens of millions of dollars in just a few months, with people around him vying for pieces of his fortune. It all caught up with him one night in a riverside house in New London, Connecticut, when a shed he was in caught fire.”
Hsieh co-founded an internet advertising network that Microsoft bought for $265 million in 1998. Hsieh then served for 21 years as CEO of Zappos, the online shoe retailer known for outstanding customer service and a unique workplace culture. He moved Zappos to Las Vegas and dedicated $350 million of his own money to revitalize the city’s struggling downtown district. He wrote Delivering Happiness, which stayed on the New York Times best seller list for 27 consecutive weeks. Hsieh left Zappos and Las Vegas during the pandemic, relocating to Park City, Utah with plans to build a utopian community.
“By that point in his life, a new entourage surrounded him, including his brother,” say Grind and Sayre. “At their best, many of these people, paid handsomely from Tony’s fortune and beholden to a man they worshipped, simply stood by as he unraveled before them. At their worst, others enabled all his most terrible instincts and drug use.”
Grind and Sayre say there are two lessons to be learned from Hsieh’s devastating story.
We need to quit idolizing tech titans and dismissing self-destructive behavior. “Silicon Valley doesn’t just accept strangeness from its titans, it expects and celebrates it. But some of the same traits – mania, magnetism and almost singular focus – that can catapult leaders to stardom can ultimately spell their downfall.”
Hsieh wasn’t acting strangely when he boarded a bus for a weekend retreat wearing nothing but pajama bottoms and carrying a box of crayons or when he began writing all over himself with magic marker and giving away millions of dollars to half-baked business ideas scribbled on Post-it Notes left by his entourage. It was a sign that something was seriously wrong and Hsieh needed immediate help.
Grind and Sayre also say we need to finally break the silence and end the shame around mental health and addiction. “The gulf between how people viewed Tony and his private struggles exposes a much greater societal problem: the taboo surrounding mental health problems and addiction. Both issues are still discussed in whispers, willfully ignored, unacknowledged even when they are in plain view.
“Without a dialogue surrounding addiction and mental illness, those who are suffering must do so alone, hiding their problems and putting on happy faces. They use drugs and alcohol to mask their pain and anxiety. Tony embodied that lonely struggle.”
It’s also worth asking what we would’ve done. Would we have tried to get Hsieh help and risked being banished and cut off or would we have stayed silent with our hands out and bags packed for yet another all-expense paid adventure?
Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.