Drug use and mental illness that led to the death of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh revealed in new book
Tony Hsieh was considered a visionary. Not just pushing for changes in the way his mega-corporation, Zappos, did things, but for downtown Las Vegas.
When he decided to move Zappos to Old Las Vegas City Hall in the urban core of Las Vegas, he also invested $350 million in a downtown revitalization project.
He was hailed as something of a savior for Fremont East, an area that had fallen into disrepair for many decades.
This revival happened for a few years, and then Hsieh disappeared from the spotlight. And during the pandemic, as a new book details, he fell into drugs and madness.
His death in late November 2020 shocked Las Vegas; it shocked the business world and people who had known of his quick wit, calmness and generosity.
It got people wondering, what led to his death in a locked shed by a stream in Connecticut?
Two Wall Street Journal reporters came as close to an answer as you’ll find. Their new book is titled “Happy At Any Cost: The Revolutionary Vision and Fatal Quest of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh”.
They said they wanted to tell his story completely and with empathy. They interviewed about 200 people and read thousands of documents.
Hsieh was known for Zappos, where he “grown” employee happiness based on the philosophy that happy workers mean happy customers, and therefore profit for the company. He then published a book on strategy.
“We discovered that there is this darker side to happiness, both in the workplace, focusing on it in the workplace, and for Tony himself,” said co-author Katherine Sayre.
The obsession with happiness was often clouded by Hsieh’s mental health issues and addictions to drugs and alcohol.
“This focus on happiness has created, in some cases, some critics would say, a cohesive workforce,” Sayre said.
Hsieh stepped down as CEO of Zappos in August 2020 after 21 years. He then purchased several properties in Park City, Utah.
“A lot of the reason he went dark at Park City was because Tony was there in his life at that point. He had now suffered from some pretty serious mental health issues. He abused drugs, first ketamine and then nitrous oxide. It was during the pandemic; he was completely isolated except for people who were willing to come see him, and it wasn’t his close friends who really helped him over the years,” said co-writer Kirsten Grind.
The book details Park City, the state of his home. He was extremely thin. The reader wonders why more people weren’t intervening or trying to intervene. During his last months, he was nearly saved several times. Attempts to intervene, trying to get her to a doctor. None of that worked, they said.
“It’s just devastating,” Sayre said. “You have someone dynamic, charismatic. When someone is in such a state of dependency, it is difficult to intervene.
Some took advantage of him to a point of normalization, when he weighed less than 100 pounds. and used nitrous oxide all day, Grind said.
“Nitrous oxide has this history of experimentation by psychologists and philosophers to create this truly religious experience. You can see how it fits into Tony’s drive to find these great answers in life was actually fueled by this drug,” Sayre said.
“So few people were around him at this point,” Grind said. It was getting harder and harder for him to trust people. He hired stenographers to follow him and record his conversations. “He started to feel like he was losing control of the situation.”
A few months later, Hsieh died in a fire in New London, Connecticut, at a house believed to belong to a former Zappos employee. He was 46 years old. The exact events of the fire and his death have yet to be resolved.
His estate was then inundated with lawsuits from people who claimed to have entered into contracts with Hsieh, which were often written on sticky notes and posted around his house. Many of these cases are ongoing.
Grind calls her a rare and ultimately inspiring person for so many people. “Some aspects [of Zappos] didn’t work out, of course, but he was definitely someone you can look up to and look up to,’ she said.
Sayre notes his ambition and generosity. “I think if he had been able to somehow resolve his inner struggles, his mental health addiction, who knows what he could have done and brought to the world.”