Why The Tech House Wants Extra Innovators Like Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh

LAS VEGAS, NV – MARCH 27: Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos.com, speaks on stage on the final day of CinemaCon … [+] Lunch and special presentation during CinemaCon, the official gathering of the National Association of Theater Owners, at Caesars Palace on March 27, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Charley Gallay / Getty Images for CinemaCon)

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I was sitting on the roof of one of those trendy Las Vegas restaurants.

Not the wrong ones at the Venetian hotel modeled after an Italian villa with the walls and sky painted blue, but you are actually in a casino. Instead it was a real roof under brightly lit stars.

I took care of an Arnold Palmer (I haven’t had a proper drink since high school) and had a bad headache after a few days at a technology conference. I was sitting on an outdoor sofa with a couple of PR agents and a photographer friend. The restaurant was downtown, and in the distance I could barely see what a couple of Airstream campers looked like. It seemed a little strange, but then the whole atmosphere in the city center was strangely calm.

A man walked up to him with his dog and made a joke about the weather. My photographer friend started petting his dog and we talked about puppy training, downtown revitalization and airstreams. I’m a little less sociable, but at some point we established a relationship and he gave me a business card. I didn’t really realize it at the time, but the humble guy was actually Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos, who had a net worth of around $ 840 million.

The news late last week that Hsieh had died as a result of a house fire hit me personally. Not that we were friends, but as a journalist I’ve been following his innovative approach to business for many years. I remembered that rooftop meeting and a couple of email exchanges about a company called Zirtual (he was an investor). I remembered a legacy built around putting the customer first and treating people with kindness.

One thing that surprised me when I met him on that rooftop was that I didn’t even realize he was a multimillionaire who had started a successful business. He had a cool demeanor and didn’t even mention his background (he just said his name was Tony), but I could tell he was insightful. There was something appealing about his views. At the time he was living in an Airstream trailer, although I’m sure he could have afforded a villa.

More importantly, he showed tremendous empathy. Again this was a brief conversation on a rooftop bar, but I still remember it. I must have looked tired because he saw us sneak through the tech show. I also remember how the PR rep seemed to have the same nondescript vibe without realizing that he was a famous tech CEO strolling by with his dog.

I wish more technical lights had the same approach. As a journalist, I have met countless entrepreneurs over the past 20 years who seem to be practicing the aesthetic “until you get it”. They seem proud and overly reassured with their own abilities revealing some deep insecurities. If your idea has merit, it will endure – people will notice. I remember meeting Steve Jobs once too and he had a similar humble attitude (at least in a crowded press pool; I know he could be aggressive) because he didn’t have to prove anything. He didn’t have to impress us.

If 90% of the idea for a tech company is based on a false narrative (I’m thinking of something like Theranos), all you will see is poses and attitudes. However, make sure that the idea is actually new and groundbreaking. Innovation sings a tune that neither of us has heard before, and when we hear it we know it’s unique. We are drawn to it because we recognize brilliance. We can’t help but want to be a part of it because it changes everything.

Hsieh was like that – a true giver of ideas and an idea magnifier.

I was sad to hear the news because it seems like the truly brilliant innovators that we all look up to and respect are rare. We all need those sparks now that the pandemic is raging. My condolences go to his family and may his legacy live on with other innovators.

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