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November 26, 2014

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Zappos’ shy CEO has the company running on happiness

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TIFFANY BROWN / LAS VEGAS SUN

Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, takes a break last week with employees in the merchandising department for athletic performance footwear to enjoy a game of desk volleyball at the company’s call center in Henderson.

Zappos.com anniversary

Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh poses with some of his company's merchandise. Launch slideshow »

Beyond the Sun

Tony Hsieh is the CEO of Zappos, an online shoe store that employs 1,300 people, half of them in Henderson. Last year Zappos had sales worth $1 billion. Hsieh regularly appears on the cover of business magazines. He’s been on Oprah.

The company is ... different. Walk inside the Zappos office (and you can, the company offers tours) and you find the kind of zany, perk-filled office that was supposed to have gone extinct with the dot-com crash. There’s a nap room, a tiki bar and a bowling alley. Player pianos — two of them, so they can duel — are waiting in the mail room, freshly delivered. Employees dress how they like and take breaks to bop inflatable balls around. There’s free food and a life coach.

Finding such a business alive and well in 2009 is like going to the park and bumping into an iguanodon.

But even odder than the existence of Zappos is that it was created by Hsieh, who is not, by all appearances, zany. He speaks softly, measuring each word and thought, speaking in perfect sentences with almost audible punctuation. He is also intensely shy. Even Oprah couldn’t open him up.

Consider this exchange we had with Hsieh when we asked him what he does when he’s not at work.

What kind of movies does he like?

“I’ll watch almost anything,” Hsieh says.

OK. What does he read?

“Mostly business books.”

Does he play video games?

“No.”

Right. So, does he have a pet?

Well, a cat wandered into his back yard three years ago and he still feeds it.

Does it have a name?

El Gato.

Meaning, he calls the cat “the cat.”

You can get a little more out of Hsieh on his basic biography. He was born in Illinois in 1973. When he was 4 years old, his family moved to Lucas Valley, in Marin County, Calif. He learned programing on a Radio Shack computer when he was still in elementary school. In middle school he started a mail order business, making buttons. He went to Harvard, where he ran a pizza business. When he graduated, he and a friend started an online advertising company in 1996. They sold it to Microsoft two years later, for $265 million.

Hsieh and another friend started a firm to invest in and advise new businesses. One of those was Zappos.com, which Hsieh joined as full-time CEO in 2000. Four years later he moved its corporate office out of the Bay Area and to Henderson, drawn by 24-hours-a-day convenience (Zappos’ call centers are open every hour of every day) and a workforce that was willing to make a career out of a call center.

And here’s where Hsieh gets, for him, talkative.

Hsieh says the point of Zappos is to create happiness. He’s very serious about happiness. He reads books about happiness. He wants happiness for his customers and suppliers and especially his employees.

The hiring process is, to say the least, unique. No matter their technical qualifications, applicants are offered a job only if they pass the company culture portion of the interview. The application asks prospective employees what superhero they would be, to choose their theme music and whether they consider themselves lucky. Those who consider themselves unlucky are not hired. And at the end of a four-week training program, they’re offered a cash payment to quit.

Because Hsieh says the real question is, “If you weren’t being paid, would you still want to do your job, to be with your co-workers?”

For Tony Hsieh, a whisper-quiet man surrounded by smiling and gregarious people, the answer seems to be a carefully constructed “Yes.”

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