The Vision and Fatal Quest of Zappos CEO – Kirsten Grind
The Vision and Fatal Quest of Zappos CEO – Kirsten Grind
He was a beloved entrepreneur and famous for spreading happiness … But Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh struggled with severe addiction and mental illness. After covering his story for The Wall Street Journal, award-winning reporter Kirsten Grind wanted to dig deeper. She joins host Charles Mizrahi to discuss the brilliant entrepreneur’s life and the truth behind his tragic end.
- An Introduction to Kirsten Grind (00:00:00)
- Tony’s Beginnings (00:4:14)
- The Happiest Workplace (00:11:04)
- Secret Darkness (00:20:45)
- The Mansion in Park City (00:30:31)
- Mental Illness and Entrepreneurs (00:37:34)
- A Tragic Death (00:46:44)
- Digging Deeper (00:50:23)
Kirsten Grind is an author and Wall Street Journal enterprise reporter, where she covers technology companies. She has received over a dozen national awards for her work, including a Pulitzer Prize finalist citation and a Loeb award. Grind’s first book, The Lost Bank, was named the best investigative book of 2012. She co-authored her latest book (below) on the story of Zappos’ former CEO.
Before You Leave:
KIRSTEN GRIND: Exactly. It was unbelievable. I’ve never heard of an executive like this. He was generous, not just with this money, but with his time. If any of his thousand employees walked up to him at Zappos and said: “I want to talk to you,” he’d hand them his cell phone and say: “Put in a meeting.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: My guest today is Kirsten Grind. Kirsten is an enterprise reporter for The Wall Street Journal. She has received more than a dozen national awards for her work, including a Pulitzer Prize finalist citation and a Lobe Award. Her latest book — which she co-authored with fellow Wall Street Journal reporter, Kathryn Sayer — is Happy at Any cost: The Revolutionary Vision and Fatal Quest of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Tony built Zappos, an online shoe retailer, into an industry powerhouse that was later acquired by Amazon in 2009 for $1.2 billion. Tony was also a Las Vegas developer and an all-around beloved entrepreneur and was famous for spreading happiness. He lived and breathed his philosophy, instilling an ethos of joy at his company and outlining his vision for a better workplace in his New York Times bestseller, Delivering Happiness. When Tony died suddenly in November of 2020, the news shook the business and tech world. I recently sat down with Kirsten and we talked about how Tony’s obsession with happiness masked his darker struggles with addiction, mental health and loneliness, and how we can conceptualize success and define happiness in our own modern age.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Kirsten, thanks so much for coming on the show. I greatly appreciate it and I really look forward to it. A couple of weeks ago, when your publicist sent us the book, and I couldn’t get in contact with you for whatever reason, my producer couldn’t get in contact with you. And then when we did finally get connected, I had this book. I read it and it was sitting on my dresser and it was disturbing. You’re smiling. For those who are listening in on the podcast, Kirsten is smiling because it really is.
KIRSTEN GRIND: I’m smiling but it is a disturbing book. Thank you so much for having me, though. I really appreciate it.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Folks, the name of the book is Happy at Any Cost: The Revolutionary Vision and Fatal Quest of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. Before we even begin in why you wrote this book it … By the way, it’s a really, really powerful book. And I’ll tell you why in just a moment. Who is Tony Hsieh from a business perspective? And what is his impact in the online world?
KIRSTEN GRIND: Yeah, it’s a great question. So, Tony Hsieh, he’s most associated as being the longtime CEO of the online shoe company, Zappos. Now, listen, everything’s online now, right? But back in the day, in the early 2000s, Tony really revolutionized online shopping with Zappos. And Amazon bought Zappos in 2009 for $1 billion. He became famous because of that. He’s also really well known as a developer of downtown Las Vegas — which, by the way, is not the strip area that everyone knows.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: The other side of Las Vegas.
KIRSTEN GRIND: It’s a forgotten corner of Las Vegas. And he dedicated $350 million of his own money to redevelop this area. He was also really well known as a workplace visionary. He wrote the bestselling book, Delivering Happiness, all about how you should make your customers and employees happy. So, those were all the reasons Tony became quite famous.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And I want to tell you, literally before I came here to the studio, in my house are three boxes of Zappos that just came with Zappos on them. My wife loves the company. After reading your book, there was one part there about the customer service and we’ll talk about that a second. I said: “Ellen, did you have the same experience?” She goes: “Yeah, they’re really good customer service people. They’re just amazing.”
KIRSTEN GRIND: It’s really amazing. Yes.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Okay. So, before we get into Tony’s other world, let’s talk about the business side. Here’s a kid who his parents are immigrants from Taiwan. They’re pretty successful people. They’re upwardly mobile people. What were their professions? I forgot. The met in high school, I think it was.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Yes, his dad basically moved from Chicago. They moved to Chicago. They immigrated to Chicago, then moved to the Bay Area. His dad worked in the oil gas industry. His mom became a therapist. So, they lived in a very, I’d say, high- and middle-class area here in the Bay Area. So, they were doing really well.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And Asian people — with the stereotypes of upwardly mobile people — you mention in the book he goes right into Harvard. Right? He goes to Harvard.
KIRSTEN GRIND: He goes to Harvard. He immediately after Harvard gets a job at Oracle back in the early nineties. I mean, Oracle, we all know Oracle. But even back then, it was such a Silicon Valley giant. He’s just immediately bored out of his mind.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Even before that, his mother has him practicing — not one instrument, what was it? Four instruments I believe it was. Or five?
KIRSTEN GRIND: It was many instruments, many languages he had to learn. He had a very pretty strict childhood where he was really brought to study quite a bit with the goal of going to somewhere like Harvard and having a career — both him and his two younger brothers. His parents were well known as very nice and just friendly in the neighborhood. But yes, had these expectations for their sons, for sure.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And Tony’s a brilliant guy. He’s not your average kid, right?
KIRSTEN GRIND: No, he’s not your average kid. He’s smart from the start with also this sort of business acumen from the start. Like he’s always kind of on the side trying to start these small businesses, like this worm farm, and then he does this button business and is actually raising money. And he just has all these cool ideas.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And then he hits on one idea in 1996 or so. So, he’s 24 years or 25 years old or somewhere around that, maybe a little younger, 23 or 24. I remember this. I remember this company when the Internet was just starting out — LinkExchange. That was his idea.
KIRSTEN GRIND: That’s right. So, Tony was actually part of this first group of Web entrepreneurs. This was almost one of my favorite parts to research of the book, because it was such nostalgia. It was the nineties before the tech bubble. And he was in San Francisco. He had quickly quit Oracle because he was bored out of his mind. And him and his business partner came up with this idea to sort of revolutionize online advertising. Like, you remember those terrible banner ads…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: With spinning and flags flying, it was terrible.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Yes, it was just a mess. So, he basically created this way that the community could supply their own ads back and forth. And it really just took off and was growing rapidly.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, he starts his company with two other partners. Eventually, they sell it to, I think it was Microsoft.
KIRSTEN GRIND: To Microsoft, yeah.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: $265 million, and they sold it in 1998. So, folks, just to give you an idea, this is around the time where Google is just coming up with their idea. And it’s only three or four years since Jeff Bezos is packing books into boxes in his garage. So, these are the early, early pioneers. And he already booked a $265 million sale.
KIRSTEN GRIND: That’s right. Yeah. I mean, he was really part of that era of “get rich from the Internet,” when people were discovering all the cool things they could do on the Internet. So, he was very young when he became a millionaire.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Okay. So, now money doesn’t really impact him that much in the sense of he doesn’t go out and buy flashy cars or an island or anything like that. He starts an incubator and investment firm. Right, Venture Frogs?
KIRSTEN GRIND: Mm hmm. That’s right. And they’re sort of like rooting around for the next big thing. And in walks this guy with this crazy little start up, selling shoes online, called Zappos. The timing is kind of terrible because it’s like right when the bubble is starting to burst. But Tony is very convinced by statistics and research. And the founder of Zappos, Nick Schwimmer, really convinced him that this was a great idea. And so, Tony took it on.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. And just for those who — I hope you’re not that young — listening to the show, back in the day selling clothes online was a big deal. People didn’t think that you had to try them on. What about returns? It was all virgin territory.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Oh, that’s right.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Especially the shoes. It’s like, you don’t go into a shoe store and try one shoe on. You try three or four different shoes on. So, here was a revolutionary concept of: let’s sell shoes on the Internet.
KIRSTEN GRIND: That’s right. I mean, it’s hard to overstate that, like what a big deal it was back then. And now we can get something on Amazon in three hours. But back then, he had free returns, fast shipping — all the stuff that we would all get very used to, but was not around back then for sure.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, that’s another thing. A couple of weeks back on the show, we spoke about Elon Musk. And what most people don’t know is Elon Musk didn’t found Tesla. Tesla was an ongoing company. He became part of Tesla. So, Tony Hsieh didn’t invent or come up with Zappos. He wasn’t a founder. He just took it to the next level. You know, the idea was there, but his brilliance — and the same thing with Musk — their brilliance is to see an idea and say: “We’re going to take this from just an idea and turn it into a major company.”
KIRSTEN GRIND: That’s right. Yeah. I mean, everyone kind of associates him as the founder because he quickly took over as CEO when the company was really struggling during the dot com bubble burst. But yeah, he was not the founder. He was just a very long time CEO.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Okay. So, now he’s a CEO and he moves the headquarters to Henderson, Nevada. And the way he does business is so amazing. It’s so different. I shouldn’t say amazing, so different than what you’re taught in business school and the way most businesses are going that CEOs and managers throughout the country are coming to Zappos just to watch and observe. I think what you said in the book, thousands came to Zappos to learn from them.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Yeah. It was almost like these people were making pilgrimages to learn about the workplace. Because here again is something that seems common now. You’re always hearing about quirky tech office spaces — WeWork and Google has all of this. But back then, Tony had Zappos like literally it was a fun house. Everyone described it as Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. People had toys everywhere. There were games going on. They were all having fun. I mean, personally, to me it sounded like how did anyone get any work done? But everyone from that era at Zappos just loved it and they loved working there. And Tony had come up with these core values for the company that everyone really followed. And one of them was to be a little quirky and weird, and everyone was quirky and everyone was a little weird.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, your own area, you could design it any way you want, if you wanted stuffed animals. It was that kind of freedom that people were just happy to be there. Right?
KIRSTEN GRIND: Exactly. It was like the anti-office space. Right. And they would they would cut off the ties of people who came in in business suits and just all that stuff. And so, they were becoming very popular for this — getting on TV and all these features. And Tony’s star was really starting to rise.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And during this time also, they create — which I found fascinating — he creates something that becomes ubiquitous in Silicon Valley and tech companies: an office of happiness, or something to that effect. I think McDonald’s was the first to have something like this. What’s the title called, The Happiness Officer?
KIRSTEN GRIND: It sort of became this gimmick, unfortunately, in a way — this happiness officer. But Tony, he really believed in this happiness mantra. I mean, that was his whole thing. He really thought that customers and employees should be happy and that the company should be working to make that the case. So, I don’t think they actually had a happiness title at Zappos, but they really definitely believed in it.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But everyone else started taking it, right? I think in Google there was someone.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Exactly.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: These were all trailblazing … Putting a ping pong table in and a bar — those were new things when he was doing it. Okay. So now, we’re still in the good part of the book, folks, because it takes a real sudden turn. It takes a really sad turn. So now also — which I found also very, very interesting and telling about the company — was that Tony himself, because customer service was so important. Customer service — let’s flesh that out. What did customer service mean?
KIRSTEN GRIND: Well, it’s funny because just today at The Wall Street Journal, I wrote a story about the lack of customer service at Facebook and Instagram. So, when you have trouble with your account, you can’t reach anyone. It was completely the opposite at Zappos. That was Tony’s whole thing — that a customer could call in and there was no there was no script. You could spend three hours on the phone with that customer. And they literally did, like Tony himself would work the phones and talk to people about anything they wanted to talk about. Definitely not just shoes.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Quantum computing, right?
KIRSTEN GRIND: Quantum computing, yes! Just all kinds of crazy things. And so, this became what they were known for — is this amazing customer service.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know, what I find so interesting is, back in the day when you’d order shoes … For example, I’ll give you example: Alan Edmonds. I’ve worn Allen Edmonds for close to 30 years. When they started to sell them online, you could buy them online, but what about returning them? They couldn’t be worn outside. They had to be in the same perfect condition that you got them. Meaning, try them on in your house and just wear them on carpeting and don’t even wear them. There couldn’t be creases, there couldn’t be anything. They have to be returned in the exact same box, exact same way. If not, there was a restocking fee. It was just a pain in the butt. So, ordering shoes online was just impossible. But Zappos breaks that mold. It becomes just as easy as ordering a t-shirt.
KIRSTEN GRIND: It does. And Tony actually started thinking this way at his earlier company, LinkExchange. He theorized — because I want to be clear, Tony was a businessman. Right? Like he also wanted to make money, needed to make money for the company. So, he theorized that if customers were happy, they were going to spend more. And it definitely was paying off big time for them.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And some nerdy-looking guy in Seattle, Washington was thinking the same exact thing. Jeff Bezos — customer’s number one. Satisfy the customer is the only thing that we do here.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Exactly. And Jeff Bezos really looked at Tony and his team and he saw what they were doing with the culture. And really for Amazon, when they bought Zappos in 2009, it was almost a bet on Tony because Bezos was selling shoes, right? Why did he need Zappos? He wanted to see how that culture was going to play out. And he made a really unusual deal, which is he let Tony keep running the show autonomously from Las Vegas — which was really unheard of.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Amazon’s a very buttoned-up company. And that was one of the stipulations Tony put in the deal, right?
KIRSTEN GRIND: That’s right. He really wanted to make sure that Zappos could retain that culture even after it was being sold.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Okay. So, it sounds like heaven to work at. This place was fun, exciting. And we didn’t even talk about how Tony would walk around, there’d be a bar there. There’d be liquor that you could drink at meetings. It’s not during lunch only or after hours. You could walk around with a drink. Not a problem.
KIRSTEN GRIND: That’s right. So, alcohol unfortunately became interwoven in this culture in a way that in the early years of Zappos — and I’d say maybe up until like 2015 — wasn’t unusual. Like this is a fun culture. You might even say it’s kind of a party culture. It definitely was. They were throwing these amazing, huge parties. So, it just kind of fit that there was also alcohol interwoven.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Why shouldn’t there be?
KIRSTEN GRIND: Right. Why shouldn’t there be? That definitely started to change later, which we can get into. But in those years that made sense for sure.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, he also writes a book — or two books I think it was Delivering Happiness is one of them, right? It becomes a New York Times bestseller. And here’s a guy that you look on the surface just epitomizes happiness, like his whole being was to make others happy.
KIRSTEN GRIND: He really seemed like if not that he was happy and self, but that that’s all he cared about is making sure others were happy. And this book just took off in a way that I think probably surprised them as well. I think it hit a nerve with the American public because everyone was kind of looking for happiness. And here was this young entrepreneur saying: “You can run a successful business and be happy and you can have it all basically.” And you know, the book, I personally have trouble sometimes reading these business self-help books. And this book was unusual because it just kind of went into Tony’s stories and how he did things, and it was less preachy than some of them can be, if that makes sense.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And also, it wasn’t only your own happiness, it was the happiness of everyone around you. Like he took such a vested interest in making sure that person who worked in the corner cubicle, they were happy.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Exactly. It was unbelievable. I’ve never heard of an executive like this. I mean, he was generous, not just with his money, but with this time. If any of his thousand employees walked up to him at Zappos and said: “I want to talk to you,” he’d hand them his cell phone and say: “Put in a meeting.” He would support you no matter what. He was the best friend. Ehen I first started researching Tony, everyone would say: “I’m a close friend of Tony Hsieh’s.” And I realized, he has thousands of people that will say that about him because of his generosity, basically.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Okay. So, everything seems to be going great and happy is the culture, the business world is seeing that, Jeff Bezos is seeing that. They buy it for $1.2 billion and incorporate and let them run it independently. So, today it’s still run as Zappos. You don’t get something from Amazon. It’s Zappos, which is amazing — lets them have their independence and the company seems like one big party. But you write in the beginning of the book — and I think the forward — “Tony story will serve as a warning to many others not to ignore looming mental health and addiction issues.” So, underneath this whole beautiful story about a beautiful guy, there’s a darkness.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Yeah, it’s really sad. And it took us, honestly, a while to get to the bottom of because he had constructed this whole facade so well. But he suffered from likely a number of things. Probably maybe the biggest was severe social anxiety. And he had built his whole life around people. He lived in an Airstream trailer park surrounded by people. And here he was trying to cope with this kind of crippling anxiety, which he was using alcohol to deal with. He had told friends he was on the autism spectrum. He also had some form of face blindness where he had trouble recognizing even sometimes his close loved ones.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, face blindness, hang on a second. Because that I never heard of and it was so shocking to me that when he was looking in the mirror, someone had to tell him that that was him — or something like that, you write in the book.
KIRSTEN GRIND: So, that was an example of someone else, yes, that suffered from face blindness. The face blindness thing with Tony — because he just refused to get traditional treatment for a lot of these things, he always thought he could treat himself — a lot of this was undiagnosed. So, with the face blindness, it was really hard to tell how severe it is. He did tell one person like: “I would have trouble recognizing even my mom sometimes,” which sort of indicates that’s a severe case. And again, imagine that you are surrounded by all these people all the time, dealing with anxiety, some form of face blindness, possibly your autistic anxiety often comes with depression. So, he was really keeping all this together for so long by drinking copiously throughout the day.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Copiously, wow, that’s a big word. I can tell you’re a Wall Street Journal reporter. So, he has social anxiety, some degree of autism, this face blindness. And by the way, folks, this is all self-diagnosed because Tony — under the stigma of mental health issues, especially from the community and background he had — you never discussed these kinds of things, right? So, he never went to a therapist to get these diagnosed.
KIRSTEN GRIND: It’s possible. We don’t know that for sure. We never heard that he did. I will say he also had the unfortunate Silicon Valley problem of believing that he could treat himself, which here is called biohacking — where you’re just going to come up with all kinds of nontraditional methods to make yourself feel better. So many times while I was researching this, I was like: “Why can’t he just get on an antidepressant?” I feel like it would have solved so much.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know, my wife’s a pharmacist and I was asking about some of the drugs in here — you mentioned nitrous oxide, he was on ketamine, I think it was. And she goes: “What are you reading about?” I go: “It sounds like someone is trying to self-medicate.” I guess if you think you’re master of the universe in a company, you could figure out … and you go through all of these things he was trying to hack — his sleeping, trying not to sleep, eating. You know, I could control everything about my body, which was just not only false, but dangerous.
KIRSTEN GRIND: He unfortunately is not the only tech executive to try that. So, a lot of these guys really believe that there’s sort of a shortcut or better way to influence their health. Yeah.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Okay. So, social anxiety, autism, face blindness, ADHD. He can’t sleep, so he takes Ambien to sleep. Adderall for ADHD, Xanax for his social anxiety, amazing amounts of alcohol throughout the day. I think you wrote in the book that someone who was double the size of him would be totally out of it. And Tony was walking around with 13 drinks before lunchtime.
KIRSTEN GRIND: And this was the trick he actually pulled because he was able to drink so much without really having an effect. And the way he did it was he would have a shot at a meeting and then go to a next meeting with different people, have another shot. So, there were very few people. He doesn’t have a traditional family. He’s not going home to a wife or kids who are seeing this. Right. He’s able to get up at seven and start the day all over again. So, he was able to convince the people around him that he had this under control. It took us a long time and honestly research and rehab facilities and talking to experts to realize that this kind of drinking is not normal. Because so many people were convinced that it was until it kind of went more downhill.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, the world gets a lot darker for him. And before we go into the darkness of his world, he’s really suffering from a lot of mental health issues.
KIRSTEN GRIND: He is. And then a couple things happen around the same time that make it more challenging to deal with these issues. The first one is he tries this really revolutionary workplace experiment called “holacracy.” So, that in a nutshell, there’s a lot more to it. But in a nutshell, it basically flattens the corporate hierarchy. You have no bosses at work. And this is a challenge. I mean, it’s a big deal. A lot of Zappos employees don’t like it. He’s trying it for a few years. It’s unclear if it’s really working out. There’s benefits. There’s not benefits. And then at the same time, so this is around like 2019, Amazon has now owned Zappos about 10 years. And they’re like: “Okay, 10 years is up. Where’s the money?” Basically, they start putting more pressure on Tony and Zappos to deliver profits and to meet growth targets.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Let me ask you a question. When you looked into that, were you were able to get numbers to see — because they folded right into into Amazon — to see how the business was operating with all of these shenanigans, were they still making money or not?
KIRSTEN GRIND: I was able to find out they were still making money, but they were only meeting like 30% of their growth targets with Amazon. So, not a lot. Right. And here’s the thing. Like, Tony did not care about that stuff. What he cared about was trying to revolutionize the workplace. He didn’t care about selling shoes, to be honest, you know? And so, this was hard for him. He suddenly was under this pressure to come up with the next billion-dollar idea, basically, at Zappos around 2019. And it’s then that he starts turning towards something else because alcohol stops working, and that’s ketamine — which is usually used in medical procedures.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But even before that, isn’t he going off the rails a bit, starting to not know where he is? Do silly things, have paranoias? Isn’t there like a series of events happening on the bus where he thinks people are shooting at him?
KIRSTEN GRIND: That comes a bit later after he’s been on ketamine a while. The progression leading up to the pandemic is more like he starts drinking a lot more. He starts his actual good friends start disappearing and his friend group is getting younger and crazier and he’s getting older. He’s like 46 now, right?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And all the original friends are now getting married and settling down.
KIRSTEN GRIND: They’re getting married. They’ve had kids and he’s still single. He doesn’t believe in a traditional family structure. He’s becoming more isolated, basically. So, he starts turning to ketamine and he starts abusing it to an extent that his friends start getting very worried. He’s not making much sense. He’s walking around downtown Las Vegas, spouting ideas and talking to strangers.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And the irony is the man who’s selling shoes doesn’t wear any. He’s running around barefoot. I found that to be amazing.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Exactly. And so, by the winter, right before the pandemic starts in 2020, they convinced him into rehab near Park City, Utah.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s the first time.
KIRSTEN GRIND: And he goes for two weeks. Yes, exactly.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, really, you see here a change with not only his behavior, but also, as you pointed out, the people who are surrounding him. Because the people surrounding him are no longer friends. They’re — I wouldn’t say enablers — really, parasites. They’re really living off him and his wealth. They’re taking I wouldn’t say advantage 100%, but here was the motherload and here was a guy worth hundreds of millions of dollars — kooky ideas, crazy things, and he was pretty free with his money.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Another thing happened that is crucial to understand why that group changed. And that’s the pandemic, right? So, remember back to early 2020, the world was just shut down and Tony basically got stuck in Park City, Utah, after rehab. And at that point, there were few people he could get to join him there because everyone was on lockdown. Even his good friends, you know, they’re with their families there. So, the people he was getting were this second tier, not really his true people coming to Park City to see what he was going to do next there.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. So, he goes to Park City. Let’s discuss that for a second. He goes there with … It sounded like Jim Jones, you know, building a town. It got crazy. Because he really did— not in a negative sense — but he had a cult-like personality. He didn’t develop that and say: “I’m going to be a cult leader.” But people gravitated to him — I got this from the book — as if he was a cult-like figure. Just to be in his inner circle and being in his sphere was a big deal.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Definitely. And he was accused of jokingly running a cult for years, that wasn’t a new thing. But in Park City, the tenor of it really changed. It became less joking and more like: “We’re here for Tony.” He has this grand vision for Park City — which, by the way, was to solve world peace. He was going to solve world peace in Park City and transfer that blueprint to other communities.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right there is red flag number four. You know, as soon as you hear about world peace in Park City — not saying Park City is not a peaceful place — but when you have those grandiose ideas, there’s a detachment from reality. The world doesn’t work that way. I don’t mean to be a debby downer, but that’s what it is.
KIRSTEN GRIND: No, it’s totally true. And unfortunately, by this time, Tony has become — this is not real Tony. This is an addict speaking. This is someone who has now had a couple of really severe mental health breakdowns. You mentioned the one on the bus when him and his friends were driving from Park City to Montana. He suddenly is having all these hallucinations after having so much ketamine.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: What does ketamine do? I think my wife was telling me it’s a veterinary drug for animals?
KIRSTEN GRIND: Exactly. And it gives you this weird spiritual high. Now, to be clear, ketamine actually can be used in the correct way under medical supervision to treat things like depression. But, Tony, again hacking his own health, was using it in the way he thought it should be used. So, he was basically abusing it. And then when his friends finally took ketamine away, he turned to another kind of party drug, nitrous oxide — or whippets. And that’s when you’re getting a high from a whipped cream canister dispenser.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Nitrous oxide is laughing gas that you get at a dentist office?
KIRSTEN GRIND: Yes. And the high lasts like 30 seconds. And then you have to keep doing hits to keep it going. So, he was just searching around for whatever would help him through this time.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And it’s during this time that he has this mansion — a big, huge house in Park City. I don’t know, a ranch? What was it?
KIRSTEN GRIND: Yeah. He buys this giant mansion, and it becomes this sort of hub for this group of people who are now surrounding him — taking his money, coming up with ‘business ideas.” And they call it “the ranch.” It’s this 17,000-foot mansion on a lake in Park City.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And he has security guards outside.
KIRSTEN GRIND: He has gotten really paranoid. So, there’s like dozens of security guards stationed outside this ranch. He’s hired court reporters to follow him around in case he’s making any business deals. And by the way, he was always big on sticky notes. Now there are sticky notes all over his property, and that’s where they are writing down business deals — like actual contracts on these sticky notes. So, it’s just taken a turn. I mean, it’s just become crazy. This is the summer of 2020.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right, so, COVID has a big deal to do with this, right? This isolation for this guy who is losing touch with reality. Look, sane people started losing it during COVID. And now you have the worst of the worst around you, and you’re an addict, and you’re not getting help and you have mental health issues. It’s like, something’s got to give.
KIRSTEN GRIND: He was definitely a COVID casualty in a way, because that isolation was the worst for him. He was trying to build a group around him, but it was the wrong group.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. He’s really in dire straits. I’m just speeding up the story because I want to get to one point about the mental health/ because, folks, when you get this book and you read it, it’s troubling. It really is. I can’t say that when I put the book down, I was looking forward to picking it back up again, because you know how it ends. It really ends bad. I say that as a compliment because it’s not a linear timeline, you jump around — which I think is a great device to give the reader not only a break, but to compare and contrast to what the world was and what the world is. So, kudos to you and Katherine.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But this book has an appendix with mental health resources — National Alliance on Mental Health, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Crisis Text Line, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, the National Institute of Mental Health and National Alliance on Mental Illness. So, you don’t get many books about business leaders with all the information on mental health and suicide. So, why did you write this book? What was the message?
KIRSTEN GRIND: We’ve been asked that quite a lot. Why did you write this book? And I’m so glad you asked that, because it’s a very important point to get across. Number one, there would be no point in writing this book just about a sad story from this guy who unfortunately died. What we really hope people get out of this book is to actually pay attention to their own mental health issues. That is 100% why this is an important story, because otherwise, the fact that Tony was a brilliant business leader — yes, that’s always important. But his story has actually become more important, I think, since his death. And I personally just hope more than anything that someone’s going to read this and say: “You know what? Why not go to the therapist or why not go to the doctor and just check these things out? Why not start meditating?” Whatever it is.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Well, you knew you were on a journey when your first pages of the book, “note to readers,” by the last paragraph, you and Katherine write: “If you or someone you know is struggling, we have included an appendix with information on mental health and substance abuse resources. Our goal in telling Tony’s story is to break the cycle of silence and isolation around these issues with the hopes of destigmatizing reaching out for help when you’re struggling. People are there to help, even when it might not seem like it.” And the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, you give that number, and the crisis text line provide immediate around the clock assistance.
KIRSTEN GRIND: I think we just really felt like if we were going to write a book like this, we had to provide some resources too. And it’s especially a huge issue among entrepreneurs because a lot of these same traits — or afflictions, I guess — that Tony was dealing with is what make you a great entrepreneur, right? So, it’s sort of like a catch 22, in a way.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. You put in the book Dr. Friedman’s study. I don’t remember who Dr. Friedman was, but I just wrote that down. A psychologist or some scientist?
KIRSTEN GRIND: Yeah. Exactly.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Entrepreneurs were 2X as likely to have depression, 3X more likely to have a substance abuse disorder, 6X as likely to have ADHD and 11X as likely to have bipolar disorder as were non-entrepreneurs.
KIRSTEN GRIND: It’s shocking, isn’t it? I’m here in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, and I can tell you that it is basically never talked about. And in fact, if you’re a young entrepreneur — so many of them are like in their twenties or whatever — you can’t show weakness like that. You’re trying to get your next funding round, right? So, we have to change the way people are thinking about that. And if you’re having a mental health issue, it should just be like any other health issue, right?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You have like heart disease or you have cancer.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Exactly. Yeah.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You write here that: “across the U.S., 1 in 5 people experience a mental health condition each year. 1 in 20 experiences a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or severe depression and bipolar disease.” So, you’re talking about 5% of the population has a severe mental health issue, and 20% have a mental health condition each year. And you would think that this would be something on the front page or something that every fifth person you meet would … But not talked about.
KIRSTEN GRIND: It’s just crazy. And the statistics I know must also be low because half of these people aren’t reporting. So, it’s a huge problem. And so we really tried with this book to make it much broader than just about Tony. We really tried to get into these issues and happiness and all of that.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And what’s really astonishing is that it comes from the guy who was happy — who you thought, if he writes a book delivering happiness, his whole goal in life is to make people happy, every customer service call is an opportunity to speak to people and have a great day with them and talk to them. And here’s a guy just dying on the inside.
KIRSTEN GRIND: His whole business is happiness. It’s really unbelievable. And one thing that really stuck with me about Tony is he said this thing in an interview once, I think, to the New York Times where he said: “I really pick up from the people around me. So, if you’re an extrovert, I’m going to be an extrovert. If you’re an introvert, I’m going to be an introvert.” And I think that’s how he was surviving. He was just feeding off everyone else’s energy until he couldn’t anymore.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I want you to touch on — which I found so amazing. And I have such respect for her now, not just as a folk singer, but just as a human being. And that’s Jewel, who had a couple of great hits, great folk singer — who became friends with Tony and was so heavily invested in helping him through his mental crisis.
KIRSTEN GRIND: She was one of the few people that truly tried to save him in the end. So, they had become friends years earlier and ironically she had been trying to work on mental health issues for Zappos employees at Tony’s request. And then when they would do these sort of workshops to look into themselves, Tony would just disappear basically. So, they had known each other for a while. And she comes to see him in Park City while all this is going on. And she’s just shocked at the state of him. He’s emaciated, he’s hasn’t been eating, he’s on drugs. He’s talking nonsense about saving the world. And she writes him this letter.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You mention how the house, the floor — you can’t even see the floor. It was so many nitrous oxide canisters.
KIRSTEN GRIND: He’s surrounded by nitrous oxide. He — again, with this world peace mission he had come up with — he’s thinking he’s trying to save the world from waste. So, he’s trying not to throw away trash. So, there’s trash everywhere. And sinks and showers are just running because they’re trying to make it seem like waterfalls. I mean, it’s just total nonsense. But all the people around Tony are so terrified to tell him what is really happening or to pull him out of that. They just don’t know how to deal with it. So, they’re just going along with it basically.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Okay, I cut you off, I’m sorry. No, not at all. Jewel writes a letter, which is a tearjerker, which is really sad.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Yeah, she tries to. I mean, she clearly sees…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I’m sorry to interrupt you one more time. That’s my ADHD talking, so forgive me. So, Jewel, did you meet Jewel throughout your interviews or speak to her?
KIRSTEN GRIND: So, I have to give you this speech that I give about who we spoke to, which is a lot of people in general spoke on background — which means we don’t cite who we spoke to and we kind of explain that in the end notes, too, in our sourcing.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, Jewel writes this letter.
KIRSTEN GRIND: She writes this letter. So, she clearly sees that Tony needs help. And so she writes this beautiful, heartfelt letter telling him that he needs to get help and literally saying that he is going to die if he does not get help. And she tries to send it privately to him because she knows he’s surrounded by this group of enablers who are just at this point taking his money. And still, the letter ends up getting posted publicly on the walls of Tony’s mansion. And all the people around him are basically making fun of it on sticky notes. It’s just terrible.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Tragic. Okay. So, the last days of his life are really sad. He goes to New London, Connecticut?
KIRSTEN GRIND: He goes to New London. He first goes to Puerto Rico. Basically, Jewel starts secretly trying to come up with this plan to get him help. And I don’t know this for sure, but I think Tony may have figured something out because he suddenly starts traveling. He goes to Alaska, he goes to Puerto Rico, and then he’s in New London visiting a woman who he was living with in Park City. And they start fighting. They’re having this big fight because Tony has trash everywhere and he’s fascinated with fire. He’s always lighting fires and candles and they basically get in this big fight. It’s November 2020 and they’re supposed to all go to Hawaii the next morning. So, to kind of broker a peace until they leave for the airport, one of the other employees suggested that Tony sleeps in this adjacent pool shed next to the house.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Okay, what happens?
KIRSTEN GRIND: And then that is when it all goes downhill. So, it’s hard to know exactly what happened at that point because it’s the middle of a freezing night in Connecticut. The fire investigators — who I spent quite a bit of time with — only have grainy video footage to go on. But basically Tony’s in there with whippets, his drugs, with candles, with a propane heater that should not be inside. And suddenly at three in the morning when his brother goes to get him, there’s fire coming out of the shed and they can’t get him out. He has locked the door from the inside and they are eventually able to get the fire department over there to pull him out. He’s not badly burned, but he’s unconscious from the fire smoke. And he unfortunately passes away nine days later.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And all those who are around him, and when he passes away, the outpouring is just immense.
KIRSTEN GRIND: It’s huge. I mean, this was shocking to so many people. He was only 46. He was so well-respected and so beloved. It’s hard to overstate how beloved Tony Hsieh was. At first, I thought this had to be fake because so many people just loved him so much. But it’s true. I mean, he had this way of uniting everyone. And so, it was a real shock to so many people.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You’re at the Journal now. But at the time, you … I remember reading the article, I remember reading it, you know, they said there was a fire. And I thought, sad, he died in a fire. But then there were more stories that were coming out. And I think they were your stories in the Journal that you were reporting on. What made you say: “Let me do some digging here. This just doesn’t seem right”? Because the story would have, I wouldn’t say died — maybe someone else might have picked it up, but let’s put that aside for a second. If he would have died in the shed under mysterious circumstances and moved on, all right, it would have been a tragic story to begin with. But you and Katherine had this nose for investigative journalism and you smelt something was not right.
KIRSTEN GRIND: So, the circumstances on their face were very strange, yes. So, that’s number one. And also, there was some like police chatter about him being barricaded in that shed. So, right away, it was like, what is happening? But then Katherine covers Las Vegas and gambling. Both of us began to hear these crazy stories about what was going on in Park City. And no one had really heard anything about Tony from the pandemic. Most people publicly didn’t even know he had moved to Park City from Las Vegas. So, we just knew there was way more to that story, for sure. We just dove in.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You could have hit a dead end, right? But you started and you peeled away the first layer of the onion. You said: “Oh, my gosh, there’s a story here.” What was that? When you saw that first step and you said: “Boy, this is deep.” Because, look, you could’ve hit a dry well, right? You could have said no, he just got locked in by accident, and move on.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Totally. And that happens a lot in reporting, as you know. We were really lucky to reach a couple of his very good friends early on who knew kind of what was going on. And then, the friends in Las Vegas, they were incentivized to help because they couldn’t believe what had happened to him in Park City with these other people around him. So, there was a lot of convincing to get people to talk about what had been going on in Park City. So, it took us a while, but we were lucky enough to find people that trusted us with Tony’s story up until then. Yeah.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And what happened with his parents?
KIRSTEN GRIND: Oh, his poor parents. I mean, they tried to stage an intervention attempt in the summer of 2020 and just got completely shut out by the enablers surrounding Tony. And since then, they’ve been trying to wine down his estate. So, I mean, he he died without a well, with tens of millions of dollars. And if you can believe it, some of these people surrounding Tony in those last months have actually filed claims against the estate, trying to get money from it — some of them based on these sticky note contracts. And the family has really fought back saying: “Listen, he was clearly very sick. He clearly had no idea what was going on. And you’re asking for money.” And they’ve been actually mostly successful.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow. Of getting the money?
KIRSTEN GRIND: Of fending off those claims from these people.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Oh, the family’s been successful. These people haven’t, then.
KIRSTEN GRIND: The family has been successful, not the people, yes. Exactly.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow, it’s just wild. So, you spent, what, a year or two writing this book?
KIRSTEN GRIND: We been reporting it pretty much since he died in November 2020.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, almost two years, right?
KIRSTEN GRIND: Yeah.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Time flies, huh? Amazing. Just hearing of this, I got on my phone and saw the thing — Tony Hsieh — I said, what? It just didn’t make any sense. What did you learn about addiction, mental health and mental illness and the way most of society treats mental health?
KIRSTEN GRIND: Oh, my gosh. I’ve learned so much. I have been so lucky in my life to not have to deal with either of these issues — addiction or mental health issues — really firsthand. I spent a day at the rehab facility Tony went to in Park City, Cirque Lodge. The thing that I really had the most questions about — which I think applies to actually a lot of people — is when you can tell someone has a problem. And what I learned is if you are questioning it, or if someone is drinking as much as Tony was, or doing that many drugs, it doesn’t matter if they’re showing up to work on time or if they seem lucid and they’re not hung over. They’re clearly covering up another issue. And I didn’t know that, actually, if you can believe it. I mean, I didn’t realize that that kind of drinking definitely meant you might be suffering from something. And so, I think that was really instructive for me, and I’ve actually applied it to my own life.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: The behavior is symptomatic to the actual problem that the person has.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Yes, exactly.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, I was thinking about this … After all the research you’ve done, could Tony have been saved?
KIRSTEN GRIND: Oh, he was so close to being saved by Jewel, who was working with his brother to try and get this specialized doctor in to help him. There were so many instances he could have been saved in that last year, maybe even by the people around him. I will say that — and this is not to let anyone off the hook — but I will say that another thing I’ve learned is helping an addict is very hard, and even it can be impossible. Tony was constantly reassuring everyone he was fine. He was telling people he was in a metamorphosis and the next stage was sobriety. It’s very hard.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, I’ve been involved in an organization for a while now, that I’m not as actively involved, but in an organization that deals with addiction, people with addictive behaviors.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Well, good for you.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And the person running it — phenomenal, phenomenal human being. And he said: “No matter what, it has to come from the addict.” So, if the addict doesn’t acknowledge the problem there, you could stand on your head and spit wooden nickels, nothing’s going to change.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Exactly. It’s why Tony would only agree to two weeks in rehab. He never thought he had a problem.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: He never identified. And the people that he kept surrounding himself with — all the addictive behaviors and patterns were there. There’s nothing that you look at and you say this is atypical. This is typical behavior. It is, unfortunately. And reading this book, I give his mother … She saw through it. And she saw the problem, tried to get the intervention, coordinated with Jewel, the brother. They’re working. But when I put the book down the other day, I said, even if they did all that, it was still an uphill battle because he didn’t want it. He didn’t see the problem.
KIRSTEN GRIND: It would have been so hard. I mean, he would have been under conservatorship, which we all know from Britney Spears. And he would have probably been fighting that tooth or nail. The sad thing is, in those nine days when he was pulled from the shed and before he actually passed away, when he was just unconscious in the hospital, a lot of his friends actually thought that this would save him. Because that would have been nine days away from the enablers, time away from his drugs, he would have been put in a hospital. They actually thought if he woke up — which they thought he would — maybe he would be okay. And then he obviously wasn’t.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I read the end, and it was a lot of wishful thinking. Jewel even getting that professional great guy — I forget who that was — to speak to him. The whole plan pivoted on that, right? This guy was supposed to speak to Tony and turn him around. Like, please, if only it was that easy.
KIRSTEN GRIND: I know. It would have been a stretch. Agree.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You know, he didn’t see the problem. He didn’t have a problem. Everyone else around him had a problem. So, he was fine and he was managing it. So, what are you telling me? You’re coming here telling me I’m from Mars? No, you’re from Mars. I’m not. So, I wonder if there are people out there on the podcast who — if you read this, please put a comment if you deal addiction or you’re professionally trained in mental health, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this as to what you think after you read this book. If all of these plans would have worked. I guess the only thing was conservatorship. But he had money and he had power and he had lawyers and he had enablers that if he went down, they went down. So, gosh, you have several hundred million dollars against the other side. It would have been a hard deal.
KIRSTEN GRIND: It would have been really hard either way, for sure. It did certainly feel to me like there were spots where there could have been more attempts made — at least. But I think it does sound like he was going down a hill where it was inevitable.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And also, from his group that hung around him. These people … I hope there’s justice somewhere because they didn’t pull the trigger or they didn’t like the fire or they didn’t give them the drugs, but it was pretty close.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Right. And they’re just going on with their normal lives now.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Now suing the family to get money from a mentally ill person. I hope I’m missing something on that, but…
KIRSTEN GRIND: I don’t think you are.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: The end result is he died in a terrible situation and his family’s left to pick up the pieces and everyone else is left to wonder what his life would have been like. Maybe if anyone could have got world peace, it could have been him. He could have been the guy.
KIRSTEN GRIND: I mean, if anyone could have done it, it would have been him, honestly. Like he revolutionized workplace happiness. Why not world peace?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Who knows? It’s got to come from people who think totally different. Kirsten Grind, the name of the book, folks, is Happy at Any cost: The Revolutionary Vision and Fatal Quest of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. And I do want to warn you, it’s an outstanding, outstanding read, but it’s troubling. But I think we need to be troubled. I think, with 20% of the population having some mental health issue, if anything, this book should be a wakeup call to everyone around you that no matter who you are, people right under your nose could be having issues.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Right. Exactly. Thank you so much.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Oh, thank you for just an outstanding, outstanding job. You and Katherine, your coauthor. And this is not your first book, right? You have another book?
KIRSTEN GRIND: It’s not. Yeah. I wrote about the largest bank failure in U.S. history after the financial crisis. Washington Mutual. So, that book is The Lost Bank.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, definitely. And boy, oh, boy, I remember that like it was literally yesterday, 2008. I don’t know, I just think I’m financially crisised-out. I’ve read almost every book and you don’t want to get out of bed after you read these books.
KIRSTEN GRIND: Exactly, I know. Especially with what’s going on now.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. Kirsten, all the power to you. Continued, continued success. And thank you for bringing to the public a really difficult story, but one that hopefully might save people.
KIRSTEN GRIND: I hope so, too. Thank you so much.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Charles Mizrahi Show. If you’re a new listener, welcome! If you’ve been listening for a while, we’re glad to have you back. Either way, we’d love to know what you think of the show. Please leave a review if you listen on Apple Podcasts. Reviews make it easier for others to find the show. You can also see the video of the interview on The Charles Mizrahi Show channel on YouTube.
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