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How Tony Hsieh Delivered Happiness to the Shoe Industry

As the CEO of Zappos.com, Tony Hsieh revolutionized the footwear industry and the way that shoes are sold. But beyond that, his emphasis on customer service and company culture forever altered our expectations about about how people should be treated.

And in his own interactions with partners and friends, he lived the values he so adamantly promoted.

Here, executives from the footwear industry remember the man who changed our culture and brought joy wherever he went.

Kenneth Cole
Founder, Kenneth Cole 

“Tony always inspired me. He was smart, insightful and oddly sensitive. He had a unique ability to reimagine how to connect people with ideas. He inspired a new business model as well as an imaginative business culture to support it. He is leaving his footprints on the shoe industry he transformed, on Las Vegas where he did it and on countless people he touched along the way.”

Steve Madden
Founder, creative & design chief, Steve Madden

“I was on Twitter early in the morning when I saw the news. My first thought was, ‘It can’t be him.’ At the same time, I had a sinking feeling in my chest. While we were not close, I had met Tony many times. Frankly, I was in awe of him. I was friendly with his lieutenants: Steve, Richard and Fred. Tony was like nobody I had ever met. I wanted to talk to him, in hopes some of his brains would rub off on me. My wife and I went to a party at his house and had a great time. The Zappos team was out in full force; there was a lot of love and power in that group. It was like being at a party for a team that had won a championship. When he found out I had just gotten back from prison, he became obsessed with me. Asking me 100 questions about everything from the food and bathrooms to if I got lonely and saw any fights. His curiosity was intense. We instantly hit it off.  I wanted to know all of his secrets; the guy was clearly on another level. The shoe business was like ‘Jurassic Park’ until Tony came along. Since I have been in the shoe business, there is nobody that has changed the industry more than Tony Hsieh.”

Steve Madden - American fashion designer and businessman. Founder and former CEO of Steven Madden, Ltd. Photographed in New York City October 10, 2019
Steve Madden
CREDIT: Courtesy of Steve Madden/ Brad Trent

Sonny Shar
Former president, Pentland US

“He was an icon. He was so kind and wanted everyone to do well. For me, he was a very close friend. About eight years ago, he came to my home for dinner with Fred [Mossler], Steve [Hill]. Richard [Zech] and their respective partners. Everyone told me, ‘You’re privileged. He doesn’t go to people’s homes.’ I was told he was coming at 5:30 because he had to go back to New York at 8:30 to get on a train to Washington, D.C. for a speech. Well, at 2:30 a.m., I ordered a stretch limo, and I had him delivered in time for his speech.  Tony texted me that he had left his book, ‘Delivering Happiness,’ in a [surprise spot] at my home, and I should find it. It was 15 feet up in a tree branch.”

Danny Muskat
SVP of strategic business development, Deer Stags Concepts

“Once, my wife (girlfriend then) joined me on a Vegas trip. She was in business school and I thought she would be intrigued by the culture, so I took her to Zappos. We ran into Tony and he said, ‘when you’re done, let’s grab a drink.’ So that afternoon the three of us talked over beers at Claim Jumper. He excitedly told us about this new company he felt was going to revolutionize the world. I had never heard of it and could barely understand the concept. My wife fiercely debated with him whether this company had a chance. He calmly countered her every point with that inquisitive Tony Hsieh monotone. I remember telling her afterward that this was a smart guy, his instincts may be sharper than his quiet demeanor and sly smile let on. The company was called Twitter.

Tony’s genius was bringing the company together to create true principles everyone felt ownership for. But I always suspected he knew all along where he wanted it to go. I believe the first core value is the core value: ‘Deliver WOW Through Service.’ The concept is not revolutionary: Do whatever will make your customer happy. But I do not think any retailer had truly done this before. Everyone they dealt with — employees, vendors, the local community, even competitors — Zappos wanted to wow them.

Zappos is the company that empowered consumers to believe what they wanted should determine what and how it was offered. They changed everything! I believe that will be Tony’s legacy. But the legacy is also personal. As I wrote this, my kids came down and asked what I was doing. I explained that I was missing a friend.” 

Isack Fadlon
CEO, Sportie LA

“Tony reimagined the perspective of a leader. Whether it was a formal talk at a conference or just hanging out socially, you wanted to spend time with him, because for one thing he was approachable, and for another, you knew there would be some nugget — something he’d say or do — that would shake the way you thought about your business. Shortly after the Amazon sale, Tony did a Q&A with a group of aspiring entrepreneurs. One kid asked, ‘Come on, you can tell us, how much did you make on that deal?’ ‘I really don’t know,’ Tony responded convincingly. Another asked, ‘What did you do with the money?’ Tony thought for a moment. ‘I didn’t buy a lot of stuff,’ he said. ‘I’m more interested in experiences. And creating them, like we’re doing with Downtown Project…’

Walking with Tony through DTP any time of day, all we had to do was look around us to see dreams being realized. Whether gathering at those infamous parties or hanging around Inspire for a Fernet after a screening or a dinner, there was modesty about what had been accomplished, and excitement about the next thing in development. While it’s easy to get jaded over time by a very entrenched business, one individual can single-handedly change the course of an entire industry. And everlasting change he did achieve.”

Tony Hsieh Isack Fadlon
Tony Hsieh and Isack Fadlon at a 2014 FN Platform cocktail party.
CREDIT: Jim K. Decker

Debbie Ferrée
Vice Chair & President, Designer Brands

“Tony was a pioneer of innovation and an inspiration to all of us in the industry. I met him after a show at a party he hosted in the city he helped revitalize – Las Vegas. It was clear that despite being a private person, he was energized in large groups. He was so innovative in building culture and developing people and I admired his entrepreneurial spirit for many years. He revolutionized the selling of footwear online, just crashing through boundaries the rest of us never thought possible.”

Bob Goldman
Founder & CEO, Cels Enterprises

“The first time we met was in San Francisco when Tony was getting started with Fred [Mossler]. He became a personal friend, and we spent time together at all the parties over the years. We have a home also in Las Vegas, and we had parties there. Then when he moved to Vegas and had the whole operation, we experienced a lot of time with him around his project of developing Downtown Vegas. We helped with some of the thought processes, giving them ideas of where it was going to go and so forth. It was really fun learning from Tony about how the e-commerce business was going to change our business. Looking at it today, it has been a major, significant part of our new business and the new world. He really was the creator of that. It’s horrible that he’s gone, but we have to remember all the good things that he brought to all of us: a new industry, a new idea of what our distribution was and what the world is going to be about.”

Caspar Coppetti
Co-founder, On 

“During one of my very first visits to the U.S., I picked up a copy of Tony’s book, ‘Delivering Happiness.’ I just devoured it. I immediately drafted a memo to my business partners outlining my key takeaways and elements I thought we needed to adopt as a company; we even changed our customer service team to Happiness Deliverers. During the first few years of On, I gave every new employee a copy of ‘Delivering Happiness’ to demonstrate the importance and impact his philosophy had on our business and we can continue to give new employees it today.”

Diane Sullivan
Chairman & CEO, Caleres Inc.

“When Tony launched Zappos, it was one of the biggest disruptions in our industry. His business model challenged every leader to think about how they do business, both externally with the consumer and internally through company culture. He made everyone think. His approach was transformational beyond the walls of Zappos, and so many of us will be forever grateful for that.”

Diane Sullivan
CREDIT: Courtesy of Caleres

David Kahan
CEO, Birkenstock Americas

“I’ve known Tony since the early days of Zappos, but it wasn’t until we were back-to-back speakers at a 2009 USRA event that we really connected. While he was soft-spoken on stage, he was dynamic in sharing his beliefs, largely focused on the concept of happiness. This was before he wrote his book, ‘Delivering Happiness,’ and afterward, while we sat together outside the hotel, he recommended a book called the ‘Happiness Hypothesis.’ He said, ‘David, you HAVE to read it.’ Anyhow I did, and it changed my thinking dramatically. I could tell he embodied those principles — in his professional and personal life — the idea of having ONE really integrated life of happiness. Following this, he and I would recommend books to each other very regularly. A few I recommended ended up in the
Zappos lobby library.”

Philippe Meynard
CEO, Earth Inc.

“I met Tony 15 years ago in Dongguan China at a down-to-earth local restaurant, along with his father, Richard, and a small group of Zapponians. I was surprised they would be hanging out at this place, but after having lived in China for many years, I was totally in. The energy, the ideas and fun coming out of these guys made me look at life and shoemaking in a very different light — it’s not just about shoes. We have lost an icon of the footwear world, e-commerce world, customer service world and, most of all, an executive with a true heart, creating happiness all around him.”

Karl Moehring
CEO, Washington Shoe Company

“The first time I met Tony I was dressed as Officer Dangle from Reno 911 and we bonded over shots of Fernet-Branca. It was at their annual Zalloween charity golf event. I’ll never forget how un-corporate the vibe was. Zappos as a company doesn’t have the ego or baggage that you typically run into. It’s a reflection of Tony.”

Gary Champion
President, Clarks Americas

“Clarks was one of the first brands to sell directly to Zappos. I’ll never forget going with Tom Austin to meet with Tony. That was the start of our friendship and a successful partnership. When we were ready to launch Clarks’ e-commerce business in the U.S., we used the Zappos platform to build our site. Throughout the process, Tony was always willing to share his expertise. He was brilliant and inspired those around him, including me. Tom Austin and I were with Tony and Fred Mossler when Zappos celebrated their first $2 million day. In that moment and throughout our partnership, we felt like we were part of the Zappos family. That was because of who Tony was, the caliber of his team and how their leadership permeated the Zappos business.”

Gary Champion Clarks
Gary Champion
CREDIT: Courtesy of Clarks

Diana Hagerman
Director of sales, Seychelles & BC Footwear

“I met Tony more than a decade ago while visiting the Zappos offices. As a vendor, I was always so amazed at the warm welcome I received when I arrived. He was never too busy to have lunch, dinner or enjoy a beverage with his vendors. The challenge was trying to pay the bill before he got to it! I was successful only once and that was with a well-planned approach prior to getting to the restaurant. His culture of happiness and giving was so obvious and so unique.  Tony created something truly special and his legacy is one that will no doubt continue to bring joy.”

Dave Grange
VP of sales, K-Swiss

“I first met Tony about 10 years ago in Vegas, at the WSA show. I was introduced to him by Sonny Shar and had my drinks with him that evening. He was unique and viewed a very traditional industry in a very different way. The environment at Zappos was like no other, and he grew a positive or happy culture in ways I’ve never seen before. He was a real pioneer and visionary. As we go deeper into a digital world, he was there first with Zappos. Think of the parties, the Vendor Appreciation activations, his book, the customer services at Zappos and the culture of his team. Many have looked — including me — at ways to add a little of that Zappos magic into our own brands. Rock on, Tony.”

Steve Libonati
President, Ralph Libonati Co. 

“I only met Tony a handful of times, and while I did not know him well, I have the utmost respect for the legacy he built. Even from the startup days, he was incredibly hands on, trying to convince people to sell shoes online when no one was doing it. He cared about the little guys, opening doors for so many small businesses. Visiting the Zappos office is always a treat — the culture Tony built is something to aspire to. It’s palpable the minute you walk through the doors. His staff are smart, passionate, fun and all-around good people, which makes Zappos such an amazing partner to work with.”

Erik Burbank
Chief brand officer, Keen  

“I met Tony in 2001, when Zappos was starting to gain traction and they were looking to get into outdoor footwear. It was clear that he had a singular vision for the company based on an obsessive focus on the fan and their experience. He wanted to blow them away with service, to wow every one of them. He was on a mission. His belief in a premium customer experience through e-commerce broke new ground and laid the foundation for so many businesses that followed. He won them over with service — making the [shopping] experience easy, and — dare we say — enjoyable. Unquestionably, he had a massive impact on footwear e-commerce — and ecommerce in general.” 

Melissa Worth
SVP of North America, New Balance

“Tony’s impact on the footwear and e-commerce industries, world of entrepreneurship and community of Las Vegas were profound. He was an innovator and visionary in the truest sense, particularly when it came to culture. The fruits of his unique approach are embodied in the Zappos culture and people that we have come to know and love.”

Melissa Worth, New Balance SVP of North America and GM
Melissa Worth, New Balance SVP of North America and GM.
CREDIT: Courtesy

Scott Savitz
Founder & former CEO, Shoebuy.com

“It was during ‘life after Shoebuy’ that I was fortunate to develop a wonderful friendship with Tony, and when I discovered that he was much more than just a genius operator. There is a movie, ‘Say Anything,’ where John Cusack is at a party and he can be seen peering over the crowd, checking to make sure the person he brought along is having a good time. This was Tony. He’d make sure you had a place to stay if in town, had plans while visiting, invite you to dinner, a show, a concert. He would insist upon you joining him on his bus or van to get to wherever the event was. Then after being an incredible host, he’d invite you to get together after, and when you felt like you had already been totally spoiled, he would invite you to brunch the next day.”

Greg Marchini
VP of Sales, Ecco

“The first time I met Tony, he had graciously agreed to engage with our sales team at one of our product conferences. I remember feeling a little intimidated, hosting such a highly revered individual in our industry. But I quickly learned that Tony didn’t like to be fussed over or given any VIP treatment. He was a very authentic person, choosing to talk on a personal level rather than about business. He clearly felt very comfortable in his own skin (in faded denim and a green T-shirt), speaking with strangers with as much ease on the stage as he had socializing around the hotel pool with us. I think that’s part of Tony’s legacy. The person I met that day was a humble, ordinary guy who, at a very early stage in his life, had truly mastered the art of living in the moment, living without fear and living exactly how he enjoyed.”

Faryl Robin Morse
Founder and designer, Faryl Robin

“I met Tony Hsieh for the first time not long after starting Faryl Robin. We were both attending a CEO conference where Tony was speaking, and he spoke so thoughtfully and generously that it stopped me in my tracks. I made a point to thank him for his message. He happily took the time to have a real conversation about his learnings and kindness. He told me he had instituted a Zappos office shared library of books, so I sent him a book on kindness, generosity and giving back — qualities that were meaningful to him. The next time I saw Tony several years later, he instantly remembered me, the conversation and the book I sent. That was the kind of person he was. To say he was a genius would be an understatement — he was able to change an entire industry.” 

Faryl Robin Coronavirus Donations
Faryl Robin Morse
CREDIT: Courtesy Image

Sean Mannion
VP of sales, Asics America

“The first time I visited, I had the pleasure to meet Tony at the HQ in Las Vegas as we entered a partnership to launch a new brand at Zappos. From the minute I saw the severed ties on the wall and the ‘nap room,’ you could tell he was building a company that was certainly unique in our industry. First and foremost, his foresight to sell footwear — which typically people want to try on — on the internet was very forward thinking. But most importantly, I believe his obsession with customer service is one of the most important aspects of his vision. In many industries, customer service leaves a lot to be desired, but Tony was steadfast in the fact that servicing his consumer was the No. 1 priority. His thought leadership and genuine desire to make his employees and customers happy will live on in our industry for decades.”

Leon Hill
Director of sales, Traq by Alegria

“I remember meeting Tony and two amazing Nordstrom buyers who went to work with Tony to start Zappos in 1999: Fred Mossler and John Alteio. We had all started on the Nordstrom sales floor. We met in a small office above a movie theater in San Francisco off of Van Ness. It was such a new and unbelievable concept: buying shoes online. I think I was around the eighth brand to sign up with this crazy concept. What a joy Zappos has been: setting new standards for company culture and also valuing the vendor — actually celebrating the vendor partner. What a concept. I am eternally grateful for Tony, Nick, Fred and John for changing the way we value and appreciate each other. I feel cheated that such a visionary was lost so soon. I personally and professionally am changed and refocused on what success means. I can only aspire to have a small bit of what Tony had and shared with this world. I hope to see you again, my mentor and inspiration. Humbled by you, Tony.”

Stephen Pereira
Independent sales representative for Dansko

“One night, a year before Zappos planned to move its HQ to Downtown Las Vegas, I walked into the Downtown Cocktail Room and Tony was at the back bar holding court. I shared with him that I was moving from California to Downtown Las Vegas and he gave me a giant hug. He had a vision for Downtown Las Vegas and I wanted to be a part of it. Looking back, I would have never moved to Las Vegas if Tony didn’t have his sights set on doing what he did with the Downtown Project. The way he saw Zappos being able to contribute to the community and the way he saw the vendor community contributing to Las Vegas had a huge impact on me.Tony was never unavailable or too busy for any of us.  He would take the time to connect, and he truly made himself present in conversations. Often probing, often mischievous, he listened, and he valued his connections. He was always building something or tearing something apart to see how it worked, and we were all invited.”   

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