Home Bookend - Where reading meets review Wonder Boy: TONY HSIEH, ZAPPOS and the MYTH of HAPPINESS in SILICON VALLEY – Angel Au-Yeung and David Jeans

Wonder Boy: TONY HSIEH, ZAPPOS and the MYTH of HAPPINESS in SILICON VALLEY – Angel Au-Yeung and David Jeans

by Venky

(Image Credit: http://www.amazon.com)

When he was all of 24, Tony Hsieh found himself a millionaire when his first venture, LinkExchange was snapped up by Microsoft for a mouthwatering $265 million. Almost exactly a decade later, the buccaneering and egregious entrepreneur – as though demonstrating that his original success was no flash in the pan – sold his second, and most iconic venture, the online shoe retailer Zappos, to Jezz Bezos and Amazon for an eye popping $1.2 billion. However there would be no third decadal milestone for Tony Hsieh, for at the age of 46, he was found dead under mysterious circumstances. This tortured and eccentric genius represented everything that made Silicon Valley tick, and, when not ticking, implode from within. Angel Au-Yeung and David Jeans in their wistful, disturbing and dramatic book recount both the halcyon days and harrowing events experienced by one of the most influential and tragic minds of our time.

A mild and modest school kid who outgrew himself in both maturity and ambition, Tony Hsieh was brimming with grandiose ideas. Adorning the walls of his office with Post-It notes scribbled with furious impulse, Hsieh was alternatingly warm and vulnerable. With a desire to making Zappos the ultimate consumer and employee experience, Hsieh came up with absolutely contrarian plans such as paying new recruits generous sums to quit the company after their induction, in the event there was a mismatch of philosophies and incompatibilities in interest.

Hsieh also was a firm believer in a controversial principle called The Holacracy. Pioneered by the founder of Ternary Software, Brian Robertson, Holacracy represented a decentralised system of management and organisational governance. Holacracy prided itself on distributing authority and decision making through a ‘holarchy’ of self-organising teams rather than being vested in a management hierarchy. Zappos was thus a bustling den of rambunctious youngsters, booze laden parties and unending party nights under strobe lights.

But a desire to be surrounded by people also proved to be Hsieh’s biggest Achilles Heel. People buzzed around him like bees, hoping to take advantage not just of his generosity, but his generous cache of money as well. While some introduced him to the perks of recreational drugs, others piled him with a continuous supply of alcohol, when not keeping him busy with a sustained supply of ketamine.

After selling Zappos to Amazon – he continued to be the CEO of the acquired entity – Hsieh came up with a fantastical plan of transforming Las Vegas. Under the unimaginative moniker of Downtown Project, Hsieh sunk millions of dollars in eateries, speakeasy bars, art museums and the like. Greedy and opportunistic ‘entrepreneurs’ materialized out of thin air and swarmed the place to divest Hsieh of his considerable net wealth, which had now burgeoned to $840 million following the Zappos sale. The primary objective behind the Downtown Project was to create a $350 million tech utopia that would facilitate ‘serendipitous collisions’ between people that would lead to the germination and sprouting of innovative and phenomenal ideas.

A spate of suicides and negative publicity later, Hsieh abandoned the Downtown Project, only to retreat to the scenic setting of Park City, Utah. His downslide began from this juncture onwards. Pumping himself with Ketamine, continuously inhaling nitrous oxide, and refueling himself with crazy doses of alcohol, Tony Hsieh began to degenerate both physically and mentally. Just a year before his untimely death, Tony Hsieh was snorting approximately three to five grams of ketamine daily. Possessing a skeletal frame and utterly sleep deprived, he started lighting innumerable candles, breaking stuff and littering the walls with scribbles.

Angel Au-Yeung and David Jeans recollect this tormenting period in a detailed and uncomfortable fashion. The research conducted by the duo in bringing to life the most disturbing phase of their protagonist’s life, is immaculate and impeccable! The number of painstaking hours put by them in conducting interviews bears testament to this fact. Paraphrasing the authors, “What emerged in the hundreds of hours of interviews we conducted with people who witnessed Tony’s descent was that there were no heroes or villains…Some well-meaning actors gave into the temptations of greed, while supposed bad actors had complicated histories that gave their roles context.”

While people were uncompassionately and deceitfully taking advantage of the steadily deteriorating state of mind and failing health of Tony Hsieh, there were some genuine well-wishers to make a last-ditch effort to get Tony Hsieh back on track. The singer Jewel who paid a visit to Hsieh’s sprawling mansion in Park City was appalled to find feces on the floor and rotting food under the bed and on the walls. Penning a heartfelt letter to him upon her return, Jewel pleaded Hsieh to be careful about the cronies surrounding him and to make the journey back to sanity. A particularly telling excerpt from the letter is worth recounting. “When you look around and realise that every single person around you is on your payroll, then you are in trouble. You are in trouble Tony. I cherish you & can’t in good conscience not speak up. Anyone who sees you would be worried. It is not healthy or sane.”

But Jewel’s warnings came a bit too late. Following a heated argument with a former girlfriend – Hsieh believed in maintaining a polyamorous relationship and attitude when it came to girlfriends – Hsieh retreated to a storage shed and surrounded himself with an assortment of peculiar and dangerous objects such as nitrous oxide, marijuana, a lighter, pizza and a few candles. A few hours later he was found unconscious on account of smoke inhalation and after spending nine days in a hospital, was pronounced, dead.

“Wonder Boy” is one of the best business books to have been penned this year and is worthy of an award, if not a clutch of them. The unfortunate life of Tony Hsieh is not just a lament of what could have been, but is a manifesto for navigating in a judicious manner the vicissitudes of human life.

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1 comment

Weekend Ruminations of an over wrought mind – 2nd July 2023 - Blogternator July 1, 2023 - 11:13 pm

[…] Wonder Boy: TONY HSIEH, ZAPPOS and the MYTH of HAPPINESS in SILICON VALLEY – Angel Au-Yeung and Da… […]


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