Tony Hsieh’s Entrepreneurial Spark: Cultivated in the Early Years
How it works
Throughout his early life and well into high school, Tony Hsieh, author of Delivering Happiness, has had many, many significant decisions which helped shaped him as a person and an entrepreneur. Of the of the very first significant events in his entrepreneurial life came when he was very young: he tried to create a worm breeding company at age 9. After having been gifted a box of mud that was supposed to contain dozens of earthworms, and dutifully nurturing said box with extra nutrients, he began digging, trying to find the fruits of his labor.
Instead, he found nothing, only mud. While this may have been a soul-crushing experience for the young boy, it did ultimately end up helping him greatly: it ignited a passion for success within him and germinated the entrepreneurial seed within him. Moreover, this failure taught him one very important lesson that one of the best ways to gain experience is through failure, and that sometimes even the best-laid plans can go awry at any second.
Another one of Hsieh’s early business that did not go according to plan was his Christmas card selling business. He saw an ad in a magazine for where the seller could earn cool and interesting prizes, like a skateboard or other toys, by selling greeting cards and then redeeming the points for the prize. Clearly, it was doomed from the start since those types of businesses are almost on the same level as pyramid schemes, but young Tony Hsieh had no knowledge of that. He marched out into his neighborhood and began selling to one of his neighbors. She politely told him that since it was August, she had no need for Christmas cards, which Tony agreed with and decided to stop selling the cards. He realized that he needed an idea with much less seasonality to it, but on a deeper level, he likely realized the he needed to really consider all aspects of the idea before he went out and tried it in the future.
Not all of Hsieh’s early businesses were failures, however; another one of the most influential events of his young life was his creation of a button business, this time during middle school. This business gave him his first taste of success and perhaps more importantly, it showed him how to identify an opportunity within the marketplace which is a key skill for entrepreneurs. Hsieh recounts his love for reading magazines at that age and especially how much he loved to look through the advertisements in the magazines. He saw an ad for a button machine that he could use to print custom, pin-on buttons, and inspiration struck. He bought the machine, began buying advertisements in a magazine for children, and sold custom buttons for $1 a piece.
Orders began rolling in, and soon after starting his company, Hsieh made back his original investment and was making a substantial amount of money per month. The significance of this event is twofold: first, it was the first business that Hsieh had created that was successful and profitable, meaning that he had gained his first experience with a successful business plan and model. Second, it showed him the importance of being able to identify and unfilled need or want, or an opportunity, within the economy or market. Both of these things were crucial for his development as an entrepreneur and the fact that he learned them at such a young age set him up for success as an entrepreneur.
College Through Pre-Zappos
Attending university or college is one of the most significant transitional periods in life; as a result, the years during college as well as the years after are full of significant choices. Upon closer examination, one can see many of these choices that Hsieh made during his time at Harvard. For example, he chose to run a restaurant within his dorm, the Quincy House Grille, and made numerous expansions to it during his time there. There are two main significant aspects to this event: first, it helped him find future business connections, and second, it solidified his ability to identify opportunities in the market and subsequently react to them. Believe it or not, Hsieh actually found his future top financial advisor, Alfred Lin, through running this restaurant.
Lin was Hsieh’s best customer: he would go to the restaurant and order multiple whole pizzas several times a week. Hsieh loved seeing him walk through the door because it meant that he would be making a lot of money on that purchase. However, it wasn’t until later that Hsieh found out that Lin had been selling those whole pizzas by the slice at a profit to his roommates and other people near him in his dorm, and from their mutual entrepreneurialism, a friendship was formed that later turned into Lin become Hsieh’s top financial advisor. Another significant aspect of this decision was that Hsieh cemented his ability to identify and react to an opportunity. He saw that students who bought food there wanted more options to choose from, and so he decided to buy pizza ovens to give them that option. It was an instant success, with students flocking to buy pizza from him. This ability to identify an unmet need or an opportunity is incredibly important, and Hsieh was second to none at it.
The next two significant events both have to do with the job that Hsieh took out of college. As time progressed and Hsieh was nearing the end of his college career, he began receiving job offers from several companies. The societal norm today is to get a job that makes you the most money, and so he, along with his best friend Sanjay Madan, ended up taking a job at the technology corporation Oracle. In the early stages of his career at Oracle, Hsieh loved what he did the tests he had to run on his computer took hours to complete and he didn’t have to be present while they were completing themselves, and he was also being paid much more than his college friends at other companies. However, he became extremely unhappy there because he had no way to be creative, and at their core, true entrepreneurs are extremely creative and long to have the freedom to create new ideas.
He quit his job at Oracle, because he realized that it was not what he was passionate about this is where the significance of this event comes from. Realizing that early on that doing something you are not passionate about is untenable is something that many people do not realize until it is too late and their career is almost over; Hsieh realized this in his early 20’s, which allowed him to shift his focus to something he was truly passionate about which paved the way for his future success.
Hsieh and his close friend Sanjay Madan both quit Oracle at the same time and became business partners, creating a company for internet banner ads called LinkExchange. This company became wildly successful, and with this success came many lessons. One of the biggest things that Hsieh learned from this was that passion is crucial for success. He was offered $1 million for his company at one point but declined because he enjoyed working on it and knew he could make it better. He eventually sold for $265 million. At Oracle, he was working without any passion; each day he dreaded going in to work even more, and eventually it became too much and he had to quit. However, working with his close friend and on a project that they created together, his passion knew no bound, and ultimately, he learned that you must have passion, or a why, in order to attain success.
Zappos Core Values
Zappos has ten core values that according to the Zappos website, …are more than just words, they’re a way of life. However, of these ten values, the three that I identify with the most are to be adventurous, creative and openminded, to pursue growth and learning, and to be passionate and determined.
Being adventurous, creative, and open-minded are incredibly important not only in the world of business but also in day-to-day life, and I believe that is why it is one of the core values at Zappos. I strongly identify this because I believe that without adventure, life is pointless. I make it a point to push myself out of my comfort zone as often as I can. Being a cadet in Army ROTC, I am often faced with this challenge as well. This past Friday, we were learning how to rappel using the military technique, and we were rappelling from over 70 feet at an EMS training facility. While I do not have a debilitating fear of heights, I don’t particularly enjoy the feeling of leaning backwards into space with nothing to anchor me except a rope.
However, I knew that I could either embrace this challenge with an open mind and accept that I would get through it unharmed, or I could freeze up and make the whole process more difficult. I chose the former, and after a few moments of visualization and breathing, I was ready to begin the long climb up the stairs to the top of the tower. Thanks to my love for adventure, my ability to stay open-minded about the whole process, and my creativity to use visualization and breathing techniques, I ended up getting down just fine which is why I strongly identify with this value.
The second value I identify with the most is the pursuit of growth and learning. Personal and intellectual growth are both extremely important to me, and I strive constantly to better myself in any way that I can. This is one of the main reasons that I joined ROTC this year.
Last year as a freshman here, I found that I was not challenging myself at all. Yes, I was doing very well academically, and I was involved on campus through USG and my fraternity, but I always felt like I was missing something. I would waste hours of my day on the internet, doing nothing of value, while I knew that I was wasting some of the most opportunity-rich times in my life. So, towards the end of last year, I decided to follow up on my idea to join ROTC (which began in high school) and began the program from the first day of class this year. So far, it has challenged my immensely: balancing my academics and going to class with getting up at 4:30 a.m. was and still isn’t easy, but I believe that I have found somewhat of a good balance.
I also am learning about things that I never thought I would get the opportunity to learn about, such as weapons maintenance, tactics, military ceremony, and much more. Ultimately, I have grown immensely, both personally and intellectually, from the few short months that I have been in this program; I have loved every second of it, which is why I identify so much with the core value of pursuing growth and learning.
The last value that resonates most strongly with me is to be passionate and determined. We all saw how important passion was for Tony Hsieh in starting LinkExchange, and it is no different in terms of activities I am passionate about. Being the sixth member of Beta Theta Pi in my family, I hold an immense amount of pride being able to continue the legacy that my grandfather started. However, if I was not passionate about that organization and about constantly improving it, dealing with all of the time commitments and responsibilities that accompany men in fraternities today would likely overwhelm me. Similarly, for ROTC, if I did not enjoy what I did there, waking up at 4:30 am every weekday to go work out and then endure another 3 hours of class two of those days would be untenable. Without my burning passion for these two activities, I would be lost, which is why I identify so strongly with the core value of being passionate and determined.