Tony Hsieh, ex-CEO of Zappos and a guru of happiness, dies at 46

Hsieh was a luminary during the early days of online retail and inspired new ways of thinking with his book Delivering Happiness.

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Tony Hsieh speaks at the 2015 Life is Beautiful festival in Las Vegas.

Tony Hsieh speaks at the 2015 Life Is Beautiful festival in Las Vegas.

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Tony Hsieh, longtime CEO of online shoe seller Zappos and a celebrated proponent of making employee and customer happiness an end goal of business, has died at 46, according to the e-tailer. Hsieh had only recently retired from Zappos, in August, after two decades at the helm. 

"The world has lost a tremendous visionary and an incredible human being," Zappos said in a statement on its site. "We recognize that not only have we lost our inspiring former leader, but many of you have also lost a mentor and a friend."

Hsieh died Friday after being injured in a house fire on Nov. 27 in Connecticut, where he was visiting family, The New York Times reported, citing a spokeswoman for The Downtown Project in Las Vegas. Hsieh oversaw DTP, a redevelopment and revitalization project for Vegas, where Zappos is headquartered. 

Hsieh's story was "pretty much canon" in the dot-com world, then-CNET reporter Caroline McCarthy noted in 2009. He got his start as an entrepreneur during college by running a pizza delivery business, and eventually he co-founded the online-advertising network LinkExchange, which he sold to Microsoft in 1998 for $265 million.

After that, he founded a venture capital firm that wound up investing in Zappos. Hsieh moved into the CEO position at the e-tailer, and took it from $1.6 million in sales in 2000 to $1 billion by 2009, the Times noted. That same year, Hsieh sold Zappos to Amazon for a reported $1.2 billion.

Often referred to as a visionary, Hsieh became a regular speaker on the tech conference circuit during the early days of online retail. His then-unconventional methods at Zappos included encouraging employees to generate chatter on Twitter, offering potential hires $2,000 to turn down a Zappos job offer and placing customer service at the top of the priority list, with free shipping and returns.

He also wrote a best-selling book, Delivering Happiness, that discusses his road to success but that he said he wrote "to start a happiness movement to make the world a better place."

"My hope is that more and more companies will start to apply some of the findings coming out of the research in the science of happiness field to make their business better and their customers and employees happier," Hsieh wrote.

On the news of Hsieh's death, a variety of big names took to Twitter to pay tribute. 

"I'm devastated," wrote Kevin Rose, founder of social news site and Reddit precursor Digg. "Tony helped so many, generous and loving. He single handedly helped my sister build her business on Zappos, lifting her up as a single mom entrepreneur."

"Tony Hsieh was a visionary," wrote skateboarder and entrepreneur Tony Hawk. "He was generous with his time and willing to share his invaluable expertise with anyone. And he was very, very cool."

"I am stunned," wrote former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang. "Tony Hsieh touched so many lives and inspired so many entrepreneurs. His impact and legacy will go on and on."

"Tony Hsieh might be the most original thinker I've ever been friends with," wrote former investor and Shark Tank judge Chris Sacca. "He questioned every assumption and shared everything he learned along the way. He genuinely delighted in making anyone and everyone happy. The earth has lost a beautifully weird and helpful person. RIP."