“This is my friend Michael. He’s from New York and he’s in love with me.”
It was a line Tony Hsieh used hundreds of times when introducing me to his ever-widening circle of friends, acquaintances, co-workers and complete strangers. It endlessly amused him, and he relished the reaction.
Some laughed nervously, some were dumbfounded, but I was always flattered. After all, it was the truth. And it revealed the real Tony: funny, teasing and anxious to upend convention wherever possible.
Our love affair started in the early aughts. I met Tony during the first days of Zappos and I was immediately captivated by his smart, shy and clever nature.
He could be socially awkward but he knew that didn’t faze me. We were safe in each other’s company.
That is not to say our relationship didn’t have its challenges, ones that we imposed on each other. We both, as they say, liked to “get to the bottom of it.”
And we often pushed each other. Tony wasn’t keen on excuse making, something I had a habit of doing when too busy or stressed. “It’s up to you,” he would always say. “You can control that.” The advice was always sound and profound. We were secure in our mutual respect. That was the glue.
Very soon after we met, I asked him to speak at our CEO Summit. It was 2005 and the buzz around Zappos and the boy genius was starting to mount.
“What would I talk about?” he asked me. “Tell the crowd why people are going to buy things online,” I replied. “I don’t think anyone thinks it can happen.” An amusing exchange in retrospect!
My provocation seemed to ignite him. After much probing, I gave Tony a loose concept for the talk — “10 Reasons Internet Shopping Will Work” or something along those lines — and he ran with it.
He embraced the idea, emailing revisions as he brought it to life.
In those days, we hosted the event at the Four Seasons in Miami and the main ballroom had a decidedly corporate and chilly vibe. It was, as they say, a “tough” room and we had a number of designers and executives who found it quite intimidating.
But no one reacted like Tony.
The morning of his speech, I was doing my hosting bit when I heard that he was backstage, paralyzed by fear. I had no idea that this was his first speech. Ever.
Ducking behind the curtain, I could see the terror in his eyes. And even though we didn’t really know each other, I tried my best to calm him, eventually taking his hand. We stood for a minute or two holding hands, me uttering whatever nonsense I could think of to get him to calm down.
It seemed to work. I left him briefly to make his introduction to the crowd and once he hit the stage, he was home. Everyone there that day was in awe, and the great speaking career of Tony Hsieh was launched.
Over the next 15 years, there were many dramatic moments: Huge triumphs, big milestones and some absolutely crazy times. So many stories for another day and time.
What I will say here is Tony defined a lot of things for me and many others. His generosity knew no bounds. He could move mountains. His attention to detail, his incredible memory, his obvious love for fun and excitement could be hypnotic.
Tony wanted those close to him to always be close and that caused temporary friction. He wanted me to move to Las Vegas and become part of the team. I was never able to make that commitment and it frustrated him.
And yet, I showed up as often as I could. Between Vegas, New York, London and other common stomping grounds, we saw a great deal of each other. Over the years, our lives grew and changed, became more complex, and yet never did we stray too far. He was good at keeping in touch, good at finding ways to make a new plan for a new adventure. I give him enormous credit for touching so many lives and expending so much energy taking care of his friends.
A lot has been said about the challenges at the end of his life. I will simply say that he was a singular genius who left us too soon. And even in his final months, when he struggled mightily, Tony still tried to connect. His humor and the love of the tease stayed true to the end.
For years, he had made fun of the amount of time I spent in the Hamptons, ribbing me endlessly about not being able to meet him other places because I was “always in the Hamptons with people I cared about more.”
On my birthday in June, he sent me a video message with his latest plan. He would meet me in Montauk on July 26 at 2 a.m. Classic Tony.
He never made it.
Many of us close to Tony are still coming to terms with the fact that he’s gone. It’s hard to imagine life without his beautiful spirit. But it’s hugely comforting to see a world that has been forever changed by his beautiful soul.