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Tony Hsieh, the founder of Zappos and an oft-cited expert on management and leadership, has died at age 46.  Hsieh, who retired from Zappos just a few months ago, was hurt in a New London, Connecticut, house fire on November 18 and died from those injuries.

The Wall Street Journal provided this recitation of Hsieh's background:  "Hsieh, a Harvard-educated son of immigrants from Taiwan, in his early 20s co-founded an online ad company and sold it to Microsoft Corp. for about $265 million in 1998. The next year he invested in what became Zappos, nursed it through the dot-com bust and became chief executive. Amazon. com Inc. bought Zappos in 2009 for more than $1 billion."

Zappos was successful despite an unlikely value proposition - that people would buy shoes without trying them on, and that the company could make money despite the fact that at least as many shoes would be sen t back to the company as were actually bought.  

Hsieh was a believer in what is called "holocracy," which is a belief that companies can best thrive in an atmosphere where authority is distributed throughout the organization, as opposed to being invested in a hierarchy.

Hsieh also was a believer in the core importance of customer service, and famously encouraged Zappos shoppers to reach out via phone rather than email.

In a note posted on Zappos, the company's CEO, Kedar Deshpande, writes, in part:

"The world has lost a tremendous visionary and an incredible human being. We recognize that not only have we lost our inspiring former leader, but many of you have also lost a mentor and a friend. Tony played such an integral part in helping create the thriving Zappos business we have today, along with his passion for helping to support and drive our company culture.

"Tony’s kindness and generosity touched the lives of everyone around him, as his mantra was of 'Delivering Happiness' to others. His spirit will forever be a part of Zappos, and we will continue to honor his memory by dedicating ourselves to continuing the work he was so passionate about."

KC's View:

In the Innovation Conversation that posts on Wednesday, Tom Furphy and I will spend some time talking about Hsieh and Zappos within the context of a broader conversation.  One of the points that Tom makes is that in part it was the customer service obsession at Zappos that made it so attractive to Jeff Bezos and Amazon.

And the thing is, I think Amazon has gotten much more accessible to customers since it bought Zappos - a great example of how an acquiring company can learn from a smaller business and even absorb differentiating cultural imperatives.

I always liked the story about how Hsieh wanted the customer service folks to have the best views from the company's Las Vegas headquarters - he understood that if the people talking to shoppers were happy, it would go a long way towards making customers happy.