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A Tribute to Tony Hsieh

The months leading up to Responsive Conference 2016 were a whirlwind. Earlier that year, I had opened Robin’s Cafe, and the cafe was scheduled to cater the first annual Responsive Conference. I had never run an industry-defining business conference before and was learning the ropes on the fly – balancing cafe inventory alongside sponsorship calls with Microsoft. 

Somewhere along the way, I met Rachel Murch, who headed up organizational design and transformation at Zappos. Rachel gave me a tour around Zappos’ campus, and I remember her specifically pointing out Tony Hsieh’s desk and commenting “though he’s never there”. 

I invited Tony to speak at that very first conference, but he declined. Then, at the beginning of the first day of the 2016 conference, just as Adam Pisoni was about to go on stage to give the opening keynote, I got a call from the volunteers at the front desk. The volunteer told me that there was “somebody named Tony” at the front door with an entourage – or as I came to know them – a group of his closest friends. I dashed up to the front entrance and met Tony Hsieh for the first time before running back to the mainstage in time to introduce our first speaker.

Throughout Responsive Conference 2016, Tony, Rachel and about half a dozen other Zappos employees sat in the very back of the amphitheatre and took notes. At the very end of the event, Tony summoned me up to where they were all sitting and complimented me on a successful first year conference. He then insisted that I return the favor and visit him at the Life is Beautiful Festival in Downtown Las Vegas, which was taking place the following weekend.

I do not actually like music festivals, and I had not spent much time in Downtown Las Vegas, but my incredible hosts, most notably Rachel, made me feel extremely welcome. I will never forget Tony inviting me to sit down with him at the bar and starting a conversation with someone over my shoulder, only to find out later that my fellow barmate was Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress and Automattic. 

As so many have, I was particularly struck by Tony’s Downtown Las Vegas Airstream Trailer Park, known as Ferguson’s, and the community he built. I began to wonder if there might not be potential for a future collaboration with Zappos.

There was a brief moment when someone on Tony’s team learned that I ran a successful restaurant and suggested that I open up a second location for Robin’s Cafe in Las Vegas. We even toured several abandoned buildings together as potential venues!

For the next several years, one or two members of Tony’s team attended Responsive Conference. Then, halfway through the 2018 conference, as I was sitting at the hotel with Zapponian, John Bunch, the conversation came up as to where I should host Responsive Conference 2019. John and I together thought of Zappos HQ and Downtown Las Vegas. John sent a quick text to Tony, and just like that, we were confirmed. The very next day, John and I made the announcement in front of 350 attendees that the 2019 conference would be hosted at Zappos. Having had a Zappos culture book in my library since 2009, this was a big moment for Responsive Conference.

Throughout 2019, my team and I toured Zappos and Downtown Las Vegas, and made plans for a variety of different ways we could design delight for our conference attendees. We were given a behind-the-scenes tour of the Downtown Project, as well as the nuts and bolts of running a conference in the Zappos mainstage theatre space. This being a new offering for Zappos and their team, we were struck by Tony’s team’s enthusiasm to collaborate and create the best possible experience for us and our attendees.

I knew Tony Hsieh as a friend and an extraordinary, quirky creator. Though we only spent a handfuls of hours together over several years, I was a very real recipient of his impact and legacy.

I will never forget arriving at Ferguson’s, where Tony was putting up the Responsive Conference team, and being offered Fernet. Or coming ‘home’ to my airstream at Ferguson’s from a very full day on stage at Zappos to find Tony sitting in the hot tub amidst a raging party. Tony asked if I was enjoying the party, if I would like to join them in the hot tub, or if I wanted a drink or some food. Having just given a keynote, and amidst the party going on around him, his desire for me to feel welcome and included in his home and community was palpable.

Responsive Conference 2019 culminated in this fireside chat on stage.

Some people have an outsized impact. Tony, for his curiosity, odd brilliance, and willingness to bet on people and new ways of working, was one.

RIP Tony Hsieh. Thank you.

By Robin Zander

Robin is the author of this blog. He is a dancer, producer, and entrepreneur, and passionate about learning and behavior change.

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