Recent article with some more backstory, from Wall Street Journal (desktop version has a paywall, but cell phone had full article)
I’ll try to revisit the article later in full, but on the surface seems like he feels like borderline traits, maybe more quiet flavor, or with Asian avoidant features over dramatic?
Chasing high emotional states, with difficulty spending time alone or one-on-one, gotta keep busy and active chasing after dreams.
Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh Bankrolled His Followers. In Return, They Enabled His Risky Lifestyle.
The group that surrounded the late Zappos boss helped sustain his drug habit, protected him from outsiders and lived off his largess
By Kirsten Grind and Katherine Sayre
March 26, 2021 9:26 am ET
Andy Hsieh banged on the door of a shed at a waterfront home in New London, Conn., and said it was time to go. Chauffeurs were waiting to take everybody to the airport for a trip to Hawaii.
His brother Tony, the mastermind and former chief executive of Zappos Inc., had locked himself inside with a propane space heater and canisters of nitrous oxide, a mind-altering gas he habitually used. He asked Andy for five more minutes.
Soon, smoke began pouring out of the shed.
A recording of a predawn 911 call on Nov. 18 captured people yelling for the security code to open the shed’s electronic lock. A chorus of voices screamed “Tony! Tony!” over and over.
Nearly all of the people trying to break into the shed, including Andy, were on Mr. Hsieh’s payroll, part of an entourage of paid followers enlisted in his spiritual journey.
For most of the year before his death, the retired 46-year-old entrepreneur bankrolled an assembly of longtime friends, former Zappos employees and aspiring musicians who had followed him to Park City, Utah. The entourage lived in and around Mr. Hsieh’s 17,350-square-foot mansion, a dozen or so men and women drawing salary and commissions from Mr. Hsieh’s $840 million fortune. He had offered to double the existing salaries of people who moved to Park City to work for him.
The group was ostensibly in the service of Mr. Hsieh, who was searching for his next big project and hoping he could help people live in harmony and discover their true purpose. In practice, Mr. Hsieh stood at the center of a communal enterprise where followers enabled his drug and alcohol habits while jockeying for control of projects that paid financial rewards.
This account is based on interviews with Mr. Hsieh’s friends and employees, as well as documents related to Mr. Hsieh’s last months, including notes, photos, schedules and videos; public records from police and fire agencies in Park City and New London; emails from Park City officials; filings in Mr. Hsieh’s estate case; and court records.
Mr. Hsieh believed inhaling nitrous oxide, legal for medical and industrial uses, would help people reach spiritual enlightenment, and he wanted to attract the like-minded to live in Park City. He paid for a 34-minute video to show newcomers espousing the intoxicating gas and its use by 19th-century philosopher William James. Mr. Hsieh had scribbled in a cardboard box what he described as an algorithm that would bring world peace and showed it to visitors.
Seeking to be close to nature, Mr. Hsieh’s group at one point gave up cleaning inside and out, and dog droppings littered the property. Faucets ran constantly to mimic waterfalls.
During police interviews after the fire, a member of the Park City entourage told an officer that he and his fiancée worked for Mr. Hsieh. The business, he told the officer, didn’t have a name. “I asked how the business makes money and he laughed saying that he didn’t mean ‘business’ in that way, as in making money,” the officer wrote in his report.
While Mr. Hsieh lay unconscious in the hospital, his followers in Park City and those with him in New London appeared to carry on as normal. One entry from an assistant’s schedule noted: “Cleaned after the fire, dealing with police and fire department…Priorities this week: getting a quote on wrapping the tree on the patio with LED lights, would really add to the space.”
Mr. Hsieh’s companions pursued loosely connected business ventures that he financed. Some received six-figure salaries, and others received commissions for coming up with ideas and business plans, such as a hotel and bar named after Mr. Hsieh’s dog, Blizzy, a small terrier mix.
The Park City patron belonged to an early generation of Silicon Valley startup stars, making his name at age 24 with the 1998 sale of his first company, an internet advertising outfit. With his new wealth, around $32 million, Mr. Hsieh became known as a generous companion and surrounded himself with friends, enjoying vodka, cigarettes and raves.
After the dot-com bust, Mr. Hsieh championed a novel and profitable way to sell shoes, offering online customers multiple styles, sizes and brands—without having to make them or stock them. Zappos didn’t need storefronts or salespeople, and it didn’t rely on passersby at the mall or on Main Street. Customers could shop 24/7 on their computers.
Mr. Hsieh put a premium on customer service, swift deliveries and easy returns. The company’s business model expanded, and, in 2009, Mr. Hsieh sold Zappos to Amazon.com Inc. for more than $1 billion and stayed on as CEO until August. His leadership style: Work hard, party hard.
At Zappos, Mr. Hsieh directed a high-profile management experiment in which the company operated without managers or job titles. He gained a broad following of business leaders and government officials who made pilgrimages to the company’s headquarters each year to see it.
Mr. Hsieh, who was known for never missing a meeting or running late, spiraled in the last months of his life. He was sometimes so high on nitrous oxide and other drugs that he couldn’t speak properly during meetings about real-estate investments and other business.
His Park City entourage, loyal to his desires, discussed how to grow hallucinogenic mushrooms instead of buying them, according to sticky notes viewed by the Journal. They set aside time to clear Mr. Hsieh’s bedroom of empty nitrous oxide canisters, according to schedules viewed by the Journal. Family and friends who had worried about Mr. Hsieh’s health said these companions kept him isolated and resisted outside efforts to help. Mr. Hsieh regarded intervention as disloyal, and none around him wanted that label.
New London’s police and fire departments launched an investigation to learn how the fire started and whether anyone was to blame. The state medical examiner’s office concluded Mr. Hsieh’s death, nine days after firefighters rescued him from the burning shed, was the result of complications from smoke inhalation.
Among the many friends the entrepreneur made over his life, some said the cause of his death had spanned many months, in plain sight to those who surrounded him. Last summer, his Park City companions hired an on-call doctor. Unless Mr. Hsieh moderated his drug and alcohol use, the doctor said, he would die within six months.
A spokeswoman for the Hsieh family declined to comment. Some people named in this article didn’t return calls for comment; others declined to comment.
By the time Mr. Hsieh moved Zappos headquarters to Las Vegas in 2013, the company had more than 1,500 employees and yearly revenue greater than $2 billion.
He bought 60 acres and converted more than a dozen 40-foot shipping containers into a retail development known as Container Park. It was part of a $350 million or so investment he made in a neglected section of the city’s downtown. At the entrance to Container Park, Mr. Hsieh erected a sculpture of a praying mantis that he had retrieved from the Burning Man festival. The 40-foot-tall insect had its own operators, and, every night, its two mechanical antennae shot twin streams of fire into the sky.
“The whole thing was brand new and fresh, and it was part of this whole hope of a greater revitalization of downtown Las Vegas,” said Doug McPhail, a former director for Mr. Hsieh’s downtown Las Vegas development, which included Container Park. He got a heads-up before first meeting Mr. Hsieh. “If he doesn’t say anything throughout the entire lunch, don’t be offended,” he recalled hearing, though Mr. Hsieh turned out to be chatty.
On stage at a tech event or at Zappos, Mr. Hsieh was well-spoken, witty and self-confident. He was less comfortable in one-on-one conversations. Yet he found new friends in Las Vegas, and many moved to be near him and Blizzy, Mr. Hsieh’s dog, in a cluster of Airstream trailers near Container Park. The tiny residential community had a stage for visiting performers and threw parties almost every night.
The entrepreneur’s attempt to revitalize downtown Vegas later floundered. And, at Zappos, the no-titles management experiment caused friction among employees. By the end of 2019, close friends worried about Mr. Hsieh’s physical and mental health. His behavior was becoming erratic. He attended shaman-led retreats outside of Las Vegas that focused on hallucinogenic drugs. To try to boost his mental performance, he began taking ketamine, a medical anesthetic that was commandeered by street users as a party drug.
At Zappos, he seemed checked out. Meetings at local bars that had once started at 4 p.m. moved to 10 a.m.
Early last year, friends persuaded Mr. Hsieh to enter a rehabilitation program at the celebrity facility Cirque Lodge in Park City. After spending two weeks there, he intended to remain in town a month. Mr. Hsieh often attended the annual Sundance Film Festival in Park City, and he traveled there from Las Vegas other times of the year.
The coronavirus upended his plans, triggering lockdowns across the U.S. He was stuck, and then he decided to stay.
Mr. Hsieh was obsessed with creating what he called collisions between people to spark the next great idea, and he believed communal spaces made that easier. That was his hope for Park City and the sprawling mansion property he called the Ranch.
In the months after leaving the rehab program, Mr. Hsieh persuaded a handful of people to move to Park City. They eventually formed what he called his core team. He envisioned a mecca focused on mindfulness and personal growth, a spiritual journey fueled, in part, by alcohol, nitrous oxide and psychedelic mushrooms.
Ideas flowed onto thousands of handwritten sticky notes that formed green, yellow, blue and orange mosaics on the walls of the Ranch. Mr. Hsieh spent about $70 million on Park City real estate, mostly houses, as investments and to make room for newcomers. One set of sticky notes showed plans for new real-estate deals totaling tens of millions of dollars more.
Mr. Hsieh hired a team of court reporters to follow him around and keep track of his ideas.
One member of the core team, Suzie Baleson, had met Mr. Hsieh in Las Vegas around the time she started her business, Wellth Collective. She acted as Mr. Hsieh’s business manager in Park City, while planning fitness- and wellness-theme events.
Ms. Baleson worked with Park City officials on a citywide wellness program, and she hosted Park City Mayor Andy Beerman at the Ranch. He was excited by what he described as the group’s positive energy. “Your ‘stoke’ reminds us of why we are so lucky to live here,” the mayor wrote in an email to Ms. Baleson in late September.
Mr. Hsieh’s core team also included Elizabeth Pezzello, who had worked as an aquatics coordinator at a YMCA in Florida. Her fiancé, Brett Gorman, a former investment manager, was paid a salary that amounted to more than $500,000 a year for duties that included putting out a daily newsletter called “Blizzy Ranch Daily News,” according to people familiar with this role and notes viewed by the Journal.
One string of green sticky notes named “Tony’s staff [whose] happiness depends on him.” The list included Ms. Baleson, Andy Hsieh and Ms. Pezzello.
Mimi Pham, Mr. Hsieh’s longtime personal assistant, didn’t live in Park City but nonetheless arranged travel and managed contractors for her boss, collecting a commission equal to 10% of the bills, according to a Hsieh estate claim filed by Ms. Pham in Las Vegas and people familiar with the matter.
Rachael Brown, a former Zappos executive and longtime companion, didn’t play a large role in Mr. Hsieh’s business plans but was often by his side, bringing him nitrous oxide, according to people who were there.
Tony Hsieh was using the gas soon after leaving rehab. Nitrous oxide, usually associated with medical procedures, is sold commercially in small canisters typically used in restaurants for whipped-cream dispensers. It triggers varying degrees of euphoria, confusion and slurred speech and, longer term, can cause brain damage. The gas grew popular at raves and music festivals, where fans inhale lungfuls from balloons for an intense minutes long high.
Mr. Hsieh also consumed alcohol and other drugs. He ate psychedelic mushrooms during a group bus trip to a ranch in Montana last June and had what friends described as a psychotic break, shouting and pacing the aisles. Later that month, Mr. Hsieh was high on mushrooms at one of his Park City houses and began wrecking the furnishings, in a rampage that trapped two women inside.
Ms. Baleson helped the two women escape, part of efforts by the group to keep word of Mr. Hsieh’s troubles from reaching media outlets. Another member of the group persuaded police officers to take Mr. Hsieh to the hospital, rather than arrest him.
In August, Mr. Hsieh abruptly stepped down as chief executive at Zappos. That month, after learning about Mr. Hsieh’s hospital stay, his parents, Richard and Judy Hsieh, hired a drug-and-alcohol counselor to stage an intervention with their eldest son. The counselor tried twice to see Mr. Hsieh at the Ranch but each time was turned away at the door.
Mr. Hsieh’s parents sent one of his younger brothers, Andy Hsieh, who had earlier worked at Zappos. Tony Hsieh offered his brother $1 million to stay in Park City, and Andy was soon swept up in the group. Andy was assigned to get a “helicopter charter from and to vegas and homestead” and “met with tequila suppliers,” according to work schedules. He also stored canisters of nitrous oxide in his room, according to photos and people familiar with the matter.
The singer-songwriter Jewel, one of Mr. Hsieh’s longtime friends, played a private concert in mid-August at the Ranch in which she mentioned her Inspiring Children Foundation, which sponsors education and mental-health programs. She later wrote Mr. Hsieh a two-page letter, saying she was worried about his drug use and didn’t believe the people around him were looking after his best interests. Parts of the letter were first reported by the business magazine Forbes.
“You need to ask yourself one question: do you want to die this year or next—are you done helping the world?” she wrote. “I say this with love, and as possibly the only person in your circle not on your payroll.”
The letter ended up displayed inside Mr. Hsieh’s mansion and surrounded with comments written on sticky notes that appeared to mock Jewel’s concern.
“I feel compelled to write,” one sticky note said, quoting from the letter.
“I don’t think you’re well…” another said.
Mr. Hsieh told people he was doing fine, and he viewed as a betrayal any move to restrain his behavior. He had stopped speaking to at least one friend involved in getting him to the Park City rehabilitation clinic. He used a rating system, tallied on sticky notes, that showed his team who was in his favor. No one wanted to fall short.
Some group members tried to help in ways they believed Mr. Hsieh would tolerate. One plan was hiring the on-call doctor. But Mr. Hsieh declined to follow his medical advice, and the physician quit.
Park City police were frequently called to Mr. Hsieh’s mansion last summer, to check for dangerous fire conditions, as well as to investigate noise and parking complaints. Mr. Hsieh often had hundreds of lighted candles around the Ranch and kept a hot-air balloon in the backyard large enough to give rides. The group had planned to amass a fleet of them around the city.
When officers arrived, members of his core team would keep them from speaking with Mr. Hsieh.
Police visits also were triggered by calls from friends asking for authorities to check on Mr. Hsieh’s health.
Friends who didn’t belong to the Park City group said Ms. Baleson told them to stop asking police to check on Mr. Hsieh because it made more work for her. Among the chores, she told them, was getting rid of nitrous oxide canisters and drug paraphernalia, as well as making sure Mr. Hsieh was dressed when officers arrived, the friends said.
In a written statement to the Journal, Ms. Baleson said the “allegations about me are shameful and without a scintilla of truth.” She also said in the statement that “it has been unbearable to witness the exchange of gossip, innuendo and outright lies after Tony’s untimely passing.”
Ms. Baleson helped spearhead plans for a wellness center at the Ranch, hoping to pull Mr. Hsieh out of his spiral. The plans were canceled in September after a disagreement in the group over who should get a commission for the project.
Andy Hsieh and his parents enlisted Jewel and her team in a plan to persuade Mr. Hsieh to visit a local hospital for a physical evaluation. With the help of attorneys and another intervention counselor, they hoped to initiate a psychological evaluation and, eventually, a conservatorship.
In late October, members of the Park City group flew to Alaska on a last-minute trip after Mr. Hsieh insisted on helping a longtime friend, Brock Pierce, who had initiated a quixotic campaign for U.S. president. Mr. Pierce, a former child actor and cryptocurrency entrepreneur, was running as an independent.
In early November, the group went to Puerto Rico, this time to celebrate Mr. Pierce’s 40th birthday. Afterward, they planned a trip to Maui after a stop in New London, Conn.
While in Puerto Rico, Mr. Hsieh’s dog, Blizzy, also on the trip, died, and Mr. Hsieh cut the trip short. The entourage traveled to Ms. Brown’s home in New London to bury Blizzy, a pet Mr. Hsieh had come to view as a spiritual guide.
On Nov. 17, the day before the group planned to leave for Hawaii, Mr. Hsieh and Ms. Brown quarreled. Mr. Hsieh went to the adjoining shed until it was time to leave for the airport.
After the fire started, Andy Hsieh and Mr. Gorman broke the window of the locked shed to try to rescue Mr. Hsieh, and Ms. Pezzello called 911.
“Why did they barricade themselves?” the 911 operator asked. “Were they trying to harm themselves?”
“I don’t know,” said Ms. Pezzello, who wasn’t sure of Mr. Hsieh’s age when asked by the operator. “Please hurry up. This is urgent.” She started to cry.
Mr. Hsieh was kept on life support until his removal on Nov. 27, at the family’s request. He didn’t leave a will. His father and Andy Hsieh were appointed executors of his estate. Because many of Mr. Hsieh’s commitments were written on sticky notes, the Hsieh family has struggled to unwind the estate.
In late January, fire and police investigators in New London concluded their investigation. The fire marshal said the department couldn’t determine the fire’s cause, but it didn’t rule out “carelessness or an intentional act” by Mr. Hsieh. Authorities found no criminal behavior, he said.
New London Fire Marshal Vernon Skau was asked at a news conference whether the fatal fire could have been avoided. “Any situation such as this,” he said, “things can be prevented.”
Write to Kirsten Grind at firstname.lastname@example.org and Katherine Sayre at email@example.com