As family and friends gathered in new ways to celebrate Thanksgiving this year, we were dealt another tragic loss with the death of retired Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. The pain is especially acute because of what he stood for in both his work and his life.
Beyond founding a multi-billion-dollar business, Hsieh showed us a new way to do business with a focus on human connection and working with passion. He also dedicated himself to revitalizing downtown Las Vegas, where Zappos is headquartered.
Connection, passion, and community. These are all things we could use more of—especially in a year as challenging as 2020. To honor Tony Hsieh’s life and passing, I want to share two of his insights that stand out to me. From brand building to life living, here’s what I’ll work to remember each day in my own work.
Branding Through Bigger Beliefs
In 2010, I had the privilege of seeing Tony onstage at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City as part of his Delivering Happiness book tour. During that event, which took place amidst social media’s meteoritic rise, Hsieh offered a simple counterpoint to our focus on new media: “The phone can be a pretty effective branding tool.”
Zappos gained notoriety under Hsieh’s leadership for its focus on exceptional customer service—including staying on the phone helping customers for great lengths of time (reportedly hours in some cases). Hsieh carried this customer-first mindset to social media, famously eschewing a formal policy for the simple ethos: “Be real and use your best judgment.”
Hsieh viewed all media—new or old, digital or traditional—as tools for building customer relationships. As he noted that night at the Englert, when you concern yourself first and foremost with your customers’ happiness you’ll reap long-term dividends in terms of customer loyalty and brand affinity.
Tony Hsieh never focused on the fact that he was in the shoe business. As I wrote in my own book Get Scrappy years later, he grounded the Zappos brand with something much bigger—his own personal mantra of delivering happiness. Through this lens and with an intense focus on customer connection, Hsieh built a standout brand. That’s because your brand isn’t just what you say or do. It’s what you believe.
Have you given your people—both your employees and your customers—something to believe in?
Living and Working with Passion
Nine months in, I’ve gone through many different stages of quarantine coping. I’ve binged countless TV shows. I’ve learned new cocktail recipes. I’ve cleaned and organized various rooms including my home office. As an author, educator, and podcast host, I had books stacking up all over the place. Channeling my inner Marie Kondo, I said goodbye to about two-thirds of my business books, keeping only those with useful insights and special connections. Tony’s book made the cut as it offers both.
With news of his passing, I got Delivering Happiness down and opened it. On the title page, scrawled in Sharpie from that night 10 years ago at the Englert it says: “Nick—Live in the WOW! Tony Hsieh.” Honestly, I don’t know exactly what living in the “wow” means but I would venture a guess and say that that’s the point.
Tony led a business but we all have work—from 9–5 jobs to passion projects to community service. And when it comes to that work, we do what we do for many different reasons. Tony’s inscription is a reminder to find what it is about your work that wows you and center yourself in it. The wow is the spark that lights your fire.
Again, Tony’s wow was delivering happiness to Zappos employees and customers, the City of Las Vegas, and beyond. For me, it’s helping organizations and individuals tell their stories. This underlies everything I do—teaching, consulting, speaking, writing, and podcasting.
Because Tony lived his wow, we aren’t mourning the loss of a shoe retailer. We’re mourning the loss of someone who delivered happiness and spent his time helping others get that much closer to their own.
How will you live your wow?