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Drug use, mental illness that led to Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh's death revealed in new book

Happy at Any Cost: The Revolutionary Vision and Fatal Quest of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh
Happy at Any Cost: The Revolutionary Vision and Fatal Quest of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh
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Tony Hsieh was seen as a visionary. Not just by pushing for changes in the way his mega-business, Zappos, did things, but for downtown Las Vegas. 

When he decided to move Zappos into the former Las Vegas City Hall in the urban core of Las Vegas, he also invested $350 million into a downtown revitalization project. 

He was hailed as a savior of sorts for Fremont East, an area that had fallen into disrepair over many decades. 

That renewal happened for a few years, then Hsieh disappeared from the limelight. 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 his quick mind, calm demeanor and generosity. 

It made people wonder: what led to his death in a locked shed on the edge of a waterway in Connecticut?

Two Wall Street Journal reporters have come as close to an answer as you’ll find. Their new book is called “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 empathetically. They interviewed about 200 people and read through thousands of documents.

Hsieh was known for Zappos, where he would “develop” happiness for his employees under the philosophy that happy workers mean happy customers, and thus profit for the company. He later released a book on the strategy.

“We did discover 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 struggles and drug and alcohol addictions.

“This focus on happiness created, in some cases, some critics would say, a homogenous workforce,” Sayre said.

Hsieh stepped down as CEO of Zappos in August 2020 after 21 years. He then bought several properties in Park City, Utah.

“The reason it turned dark in Park City was in large part because where Tony was that in his life at this point. He had now suffered a couple of pretty serious mental health breakdowns. He was abusing drugs, first ketamine and then nitrous oxide. It was during the pandemic; he was completely isolated except for the people that were willing to come to him, and it wasn't his close friends who had really helped him throughout the years,” said co-author Kirsten Grind.

The book details Park City, the condition of his home. He was extremely underweight. The reader wonders why more people weren’t stepping in or trying to step in. In his last few months, he was almost saved multiple times. Intervention attempts, trying to get him to a doctor. None of it worked out, they said.

“It's just devastating,” Sayre said. “You've got someone who's dynamic, who's charismatic. When someone is in that deep of a state of addiction, it's difficult to intervene.”

Some were taking advantage of him to a point of normalization, when he weighed less than 100 lbs. and was using nitrous oxide all day, Grind said.

“Nitrous oxide has this history of experimentation by psychologists and philosophers for creating this really religious-like experience. You can see how it fits into Tony's drive to come up with these big life answers was actually being fueled by this drug,” Sayre said.

“So few people were around him at this point,” Grind said. It was becoming 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 reportedly owned by a former Zappos employee. He was 46. The exact events of the fire and his death have yet to be solved.

His estate was then flooded with lawsuits from people who claimed to have entered into contracts with Hsieh, which were often written on sticky notes and posted around his home. Many of those cases are ongoing.

Grind calls him a rare person, and ultimately inspiring to so many people. “Some aspects [of Zappos] didn't work out, of course, but he really was someone that you can look up to and admire,” she said.

Sayre notes his ambition and generosity. “I think if he had been able to somehow address his inner struggles, mental health addiction, who knows what he could have done and brought to the world.”

Kirsten Grind, reporter, Wall Street Journal; Katherine Sayre, reporter, Wall Street Journal

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.
Kristen DeSilva (she/her) is the online editor for Nevada Public Radio. She oversees and writes State of Nevada’s online and social media content.