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Remembering Tony Hsieh (1973-2020)

Tony Hsieh was a pioneer in employee happiness and wellbeing, and firmly believed they were essential to business success. As an early friend and supporter of Friday Pulse, our Founder & CEO, Nic Marks offers his own personal tribute to Tony.

I read Tony’s book, Delivering Happiness, before I met him. In it, he wrote about how he felt trapped in a “golden handcuff” agreement after he sold his first business, Link Exchange, to Microsoft in 1998. I was impressed how he recounted that three months into this agreement he left the job and several million dollars on the table to pay for his freedom. An amazing example of someone taking his own happiness seriously.

A couple of years later, I met Tony after I’d done my TED Talk in 2010. We had arranged to meet for an after-dinner drink with Chip Conley — another TED speaker. The three of us sat down and had a great and lengthy conversation. Tony then introduced me to his long-term friend and collaborator Jenn Lim, who was setting up the Delivering Happiness Movement. This connection led to Jenn, her brother James and I creating our first product – The Happiness at Work Survey. For several years we were the measurement partners for Delivering Happiness in the US. 

Tony was kind enough to fly to London to help us launch in 2012. He drew a large crowd of young entrepreneurs to the advertising agency that hosted our event, creating quite a buzz. It was a great start to our work together. Over the next few years, I met with Tony several times as we often spoke at and attended the same conferences.

To this day, I still hear echoes of our chats and feel inspired by him. He was successful with Zappos and one of the reasons for that success was because he placed company culture first. He set out to create an environment where his people could be enthusiastic about both their jobs and their lives. He wanted an environment where people were joined by a higher purpose and happy with what they did. For the most part, I think he succeeded in that. 

Happy Employees: the essence of customer service

One of Tony’s strengths was his ability to encapsulate the core essence of what you needed to do to create great customer service. He firmly believed that if you want happy customers, you need to have happy employees. 

He once shared he had two rules about how his staff were to talk to customers over the phone: be yourself and use your judgement. He knew that forcing people to conform would have been a miserable experience for everyone. So, he paved the way for his employees to be true to their authentic selves. He believed that when people were themselves, they would be able to form emotional connections with customers. 

He encouraged his people to do this, “If you hear a dog barking and you like dogs, ask them about their dog. If they come from a city or a state you know something about and you have a relative there, try and make the connection.” At the same time, those connections shouldn’t be forced. “If they don’t pick up on it after two attempts, two is enough.” 

These emotional connections went beyond sales, he saw it as an expression of the company brand and key to customer service and retention. Zappos is an excellent example of the impact that happiness at work has on the bottom line with its focus on company culture powering the growth of a billion-dollar business.

Tony took happiness, and positivity seriously at work. For that alone, I will greatly miss him. 

Contribution: a life well lived

But, my admiration for him goes further than that. Tony was a contributor and contribution, for me, is an essential component of personal happiness. 

In happiness research, there’s often a discussion about the tension between pleasure and meaning. The debate goes back to ancient Greece with hedonists emphasizing pleasure and Aristotle philosophizing about the “life well lived”. I’m of the firm opinion that both of these are critical in our lives. 

We can think about the pleasurable life as being what we receive, what satiates us. The meaningful life, in contrast, is more about what we contribute and what we give. It’s a case of giving and receiving. It is this reciprocity that we want to achieve in our personal relationships and our work. And when we do, we feel a deep sense that we are living our lives to the full. 

Tony lived life on a larger scale than most of us. One of his core mantras was to “think bigger”. But, critically, he also had an extraordinary ‘can-do’ attitude. He was able to take a big idea and act on it. Even on the scale of changing the face of a city such as Las Vegas, he was also deeply connected to the individual level. I know several people who had their lives changed by the time they spent working on the Downtown Project or at Zappos, and they have spoken about how grateful they were that they met him. His actions could be enormous, market shaking. They could also be very personal: life-affirming and life-changing. 

In the years I knew him, I was always impressed by Tony’s commitment to helping people be themselves, to use their own judgment, but also how he helped people connect to a larger vision. He was only 46 years old, and I think we all feel robbed of what he might have been able to do across the next 46 years of his life. 

However, while we mourn, we can celebrate that he achieved a lot in the short time he walked this planet. 

Thank you, Tony. 

Nic Marks
Founder & CEO, Friday Pulse