Tony Hsieh, the former head of Zappos, who catapulted the shoe company into the big leagues with a sale to Amazon and then used the proceeds of his success in a huge project that technology boosted the regeneration of a rundown part of Las Vegas, Nevada broader corporate investment, died at the age of 46.
The cause was injuries sustained from a house fire, a spokesman for Hsieh confirmed to TechCrunch. He was in Connecticut with his brother at the time of the fire. It is not clear if anyone was injured.
The ultimate cause of death for Hsieh is still being investigated. We'll update this as we learn more. The full explanation of the DTP companies that ran the Downtown Project (Hsieh's mammoth initiative to regenerate the shabby, older part of Las Vegas) can be found below.
The news sparked shock waves in the middle of Thanksgiving weekend and through a community in a city heavily dependent on tourism, which were extremely hard hit by the global Covid-19 health pandemic.
Hsieh was a brilliant, unconventional and – for many people often very direct – kindhearted person who was regularly described as a visionary.
It wasn't an exaggeration. Growing up in the Bay Area, he sold his first company – a marketing tech company called LinkExchange – to Microsoft in 1998, when he was only 24.
With a portion of the proceeds, he started a venture capital firm called Venture Frog. One of his early investments there was ShoeSite.com, founded by Nick Swinmurn in 1999, when he saw a change in the way people shop and do a lot more of shoes online.
Entrepreneurial in his investing instincts, Hsieh subsequently took on a more hands-on role in the startup that eventually became Zappos. As CEO of Zappos, Hsieh moved the company from the Bay Area to the outskirts of Vegas in 2004 to build greater customer service under a particularly strong ethos of flat management to empower and inspire employees. His leadership helped drive the growth into tremendous growth: by 2009, he had sold Zappos to Amazon for around $ 1.2 billion (a really huge sum for an e-commerce startup at the time).
He then managed the company and used the proceeds from this work to concentrate on his next big project: urban renewal.
Las Vegas is a city that leaves little to sentimentality. Located in the middle of the desert, the city's relentless focus has long been on growth and is breaking new, seemingly limitless ways to do it. For years this meant huge numbers of “older” Vegas businesses just stood empty in the downtown area, leading to the larger area eventually becoming a hotbed of crime and poverty. As in many other urban centers, it has been a vicious circle: people are focused on building newer homes and businesses elsewhere, and that makes the older areas even more neglected and vulnerable.
Recognizing the charm of the downtown area, which was among the more obvious signs of decline in the twentieth century modernist bloom, Hsieh bought up huge swaths of the area: apartment buildings, houses, small business structures, old casinos and hotels, and empty lots.
His vision was not just to be a real estate tycoon – although that clearly interested him – but to regenerate Vegas from what he knew best: technology.
He's invested in a large number of startups assuming they move to Vegas to build their businesses downtown and bring entrepreneurs and jobs to the area.
The effort had many quirky elements: it wasn't just about die-hard deals, and some of them were just about having fun on a large scale. For example, inspired by Burning Man, Hsieh paid to have some of the buildings erected in the desert for the festival transported and permanently installed in the city center.
A few memorable evenings that I spent with him in Vegas really showed me his profile in the city.
Hopping from the casino via the bar to the restaurant one evening we ended up on an excellent karaoke dive where his childhood best friend and I sang Duran Duran duets and he pushed Frenet Brancas back. Everywhere he went, people flocked around him (so many breathless "Hi, Tony" from many women we passed). I remember wondering if it used to be like that to be a mafia boss (with a friend playing the role of a consigliere or me as a guest for the night).
Of course, the Downtown Project, as it was called, was a great vision, and like many great visions, it has had its ups and downs.
Some of this is not surprising: it is not always enough to just want something to exist, and the hit rate for technical success is actually very low. And the unusual approach didn't always play out optimally and sometimes masked what might actually be going on. Case in point: Hsieh abruptly resigned as CEO of Zappos earlier this year without providing an explanation for the move after serving in that role for 21 years.
Between Zappos and what Hsieh built in town, his work and bigger ideas have been and are important evidence of the impact the tech industry can make with a little imagination and a lot of hard work and persistence.
Our condolences go to his family and many friends, as well as those he has helped shape the tech and business worlds.
Explanation from DTP below:
Hello, my name is Megan Fazio and I do public relations work for DTP companies formerly known as Downtown Project whose visionary is Tony Hsieh. With a heavy and devastated heart, we regret to inform you that Tony Hsieh passed away peacefully on November 27, 2020, surrounded by his beloved family.
Tony's kindness and generosity touched the life of everyone around him and lit the world forever. Bringing happiness has always been his mantra. Instead of mourning his transition, we ask you to celebrate his life with us.
On behalf of all DTP Companies staff and employees, we would like to extend our heartfelt condolences to Tony's family and friends, all of whom have lost Tony as a valued loved one, visionary and friend. Tony was held in high regard by all of his friends and colleagues in the close-knit family of DTP Companies, so this heart-wrenching tragedy affects many.
We ask that you continue to respect family privacy during this most difficult and challenging time.