Tony Hsieh, bestselling author and longtime former CEO of ecommerce pioneer Zappos.com, died at age 46 on Friday. Few knew Hsieh like venture capitalist Alfred Lin, his college classmate and former colleague at LinkExchange, Venture Frogs and Zappos.
By Alfred Lin
Over the last few decades, you and I have traded countless messages via Post-its, texts, or emails, beginning with rudimentary tools that date us, such as P.I.N.E running on TRS-80s in the Harvard Science Center or the first Blackberry pager. Most of our notes were brief, sometimes a few words, oftentimes a few sentences to a couple of paragraphs. Since this will be my final letter to you, I will take a little more space.
As you watch the world turn from above and debug some metaphysical anomaly that you’ve just observed, I hope you also notice the impact you’ve had on so many lives. Your family and close friends are being flooded with messages starting with, “I’ll never meet Tony, but he’s had a major impact on my life…” Some of these people, we haven’t met either.
Many of these messages are about your profound contributions to entrepreneurship. Being a twice Sequoia-backed founder who built companies in vastly different industries that later sold for hundreds of millions (LinkExchange) and then billions (Zappos) of dollars puts you in rare air.
Many will remember you as a pioneer of company culture, customer service, the online shoe industry, Downtown Las Vegas, and web advertising. I will remember you for those achievements. But first, I will remember you for your gentle soul and how you gave a part of yourself to countless people. I will remember you for delivering happiness to the world and to me.
As I reflect on our friendship and business partnership over the years, these are some of the lessons from you that I will never forget.
Quincy House Grille. Eons ago, we met at a dorm party at Harvard and we bonded over your crazy idea to run the Quincy House Grille (a late-night, student-run food joint) for two years with your roommate Sanjay Madan. You talked about buying a pizza oven, renting arcade games, and putting in TVs to play reruns of Star Trek or your favorite movie at the time, Pretty Woman.
You never saw challenges, you only saw opportunities. And you saw an opportunity that no junior at Harvard had ever contemplated. You said it was simple – everyone else bidding was a senior and was calculating their bid by assuming they would run the Grille for just one year. “Assuming all bidders are rational, I can afford to outbid them, so logically, I should bid ‘highest bid + $ 1’,” and you won. Harvard awarded you a B.A. in Computer Science. They should have included a B.A. in Game Theory as well.
The Daring. At LinkExchange, you, Sanjay, and Ali proved you were daring founders when we rejected acquisition offers from Lenny Barshack at Bigfoot and Jerry Yang at Yahoo – even though we had only received $ 100K in seed investment from your childhood friend Alex Hsu’s parents. Jerry expressed his disappointment at Yahoo’s next board meeting, which caught the attention of a young Michael Moritz at Sequoia. He showed up to meet LinkExchange the next day. A week later, Sequoia invested $ 2.75M for 25% in our Series A. That investment would return 17x in 17 months. Those 17 months were fast and furious. We dared to take on serious challenges with no prior experience, acquiring two companies, attempting to take the company public with Danny Rimer of Hambrecht & Quist, and eventually selling the company to Microsoft. Throughout all that seriousness, you never took yourself seriously. After a board meeting, Ali and Alan Shusterman egged you on to ask Michael Moritz to join our All-Hands for a “Macarena” dance-off challenge. How many founders dare to ask their investor to do something fun and a little weird?
Venture What? After LinkExchange, you and I wanted to start a fund and an incubator. We loved getting startups off the ground and wanted to build a community around them. We didn’t have a name. We were also trying to recruit Kami Hayashi, who loves frogs. As part of recruiting Kami, we included her in our naming brainstorm. We wanted a name that signified green in multiple ways: inexperienced, money making, just go, and leaping forward. She proposed the name Venture Frogs. You and I didn’t love it, but it was better than the T&A Fund. We thought, “What the heck, we can always change the name later.” We told her we would do it if she joined us to run our incubator. We then hired Millie Chou as our lawyer to set everything up. The rest is history. We started Venture Frogs in 1999 and our first and only fund was a 7.5x fund, net of fees and carry, for a vintage where over 90% of the venture industry called for a mulligan due to the Dot-com bust and struggled to even return capital.
Years later, we would still lament our biggest mistake – passing on Confinity. Perhaps it was the company’s tag line of beaming money from PalmPilot to PalmPilot. Perhaps it was because they dismissed your product advice to build off email addresses vs. PalmPilots as conventional wisdom – those words always got underneath your skin. Maybe it was because Peter Thiel, Luke Nosek, and Max Levchin named their company Confinity rather than PayPal, which it later became.
Take Ordinary To Extraordinary. Zappos’ many successes have been chronicled, but it all started with your fascination with how to take ordinary to extraordinary. Your observation was that it takes more – but surprisingly little – additional effort. You applied this to ideas, products, and most importantly, people. Fred Mossler shared with me, “Tony always said everyone had an internal superpower. He would bet on someone without knowledge or prior experience…People rose to the occasion…Twenty years ago, a shoe salesman from Nordstrom met an accomplished Internet pioneer. Twenty years later that shoe salesman has far exceeded anything he thought possible.”
To Inspire and Be Inspired. Somewhere along your journey to take the ordinary to extraordinary, you took on the personal motto, “to inspire and be inspired.” This led you to question why the Zappos culture and knowhow should be confined within Zappos. You started inviting friends and business partners to tour Zappos. You even invited competitors who were trying to poach our employees. It was one of those Jedi mind tricks that created confusion. But in the end, those competitors would feel bad about poaching our employees, whether they took the tour or not. Eventually, when we formalized the tours, you gave many tours under the guise of a team member. When people asked you what your role was you would simply say, “I work at Zappos.”
Downtown Las Vegas. I remember exactly ten years ago this Thanksgiving weekend getting a bunch of calls from various Zapponians about whether you had jumped the shark. You and Chris Nielsen were working on a proposal to move Zappos HQ to Downtown Las Vegas. Chris remembers you had been excited about moving to this often forgotten area of town from the day he joined Zappos. Per Chris, “Tony’s motives were so pure. He believed in the people who lived and worked there, and he thought that Zappos could be part of a bigger change for the area.” Giving back and revitalizing the community became important to you.
Years later, to honor Chris before he left Zappos to become CFO of Redfin, you organized an unforgettable going-away event, as you did for so many of us. Chris recalls, “[Tony] knew that I liked sports, so he arranged for me to throw the first pitch at a minor league baseball game, and of course, we all walked to that game through Downtown Las Vegas, a procession of Zapponians led by a llama.”
Gratitude. Thanksgiving weekend always had a special place in your heart. You would invite lots of people to your place to be part of your extended family, especially those without a place to go. Giving thanks and hearing how others gave thanks was also your way of inspiring and being inspired. Invariably, we would learn a fun fact about a friend, we would hear of an idea to adopt to make another person feel special, or there would be some joyful crying. Well, it’s Thanksgiving weekend and there was a lot of crying this year. I want to thank you for being such a major part of my life for the last three decades. You will be missed at future Thanksgivings.
Rest in Peace, Tony.
P. S. To Richard, Judy, Andy, David, and all of Tony’s dear friends and loved ones, my sincerest condolences. There are no words that can take away the pain and anguish of Tony’s untimely passing. “The pain of grief is just as much part of life as the joy of love: it is perhaps the price we pay for love, the cost of commitment.” – Colin Murray Parkes
Alfred Lin is a partner at venture capital firm Sequoia.