Button-making, internet advertiser, shoe entrepreneur, Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh

30 12 2008


You know, part of the reason why I started the Asian Heroes Project is because I didn’t know who my hero was. For over a decade now, I have looked up to folks like Richard Branson, David Novak, Warren Buffet, and  Kevin Rose. Today, with help from a friend, Jasmine Kuan, I might have found a hero who also happens to share my cultural heritage. Read on and be inspired.

His beginnings

At age 12, Tony Hsieh, CEO of  Zappos.com, ran a button-making business by sealing photos between a sheet of plastic and a metal disk. After advertising in a directory aimed at other kids, he was soon bringing in a few hundred dollars a month.

Pizza Partners

A lot of success stories in Silicon Valley were started by two guys. Hewlett-Packard. Apple. Microsoft. Oracle. Google. Tony found his partner in fellow Harvard classmate, Alfred Lin.

As a Harvard undergrad, Tony was selling pizzas out of his dorm. Another student, Alfred Lin, was equally enterprising: He bought whole pizzas from Tony, took them upstairs, and resold them by the slice.  Today, they work together at Zappos.com


In 1995, Tony graduated with a B.A. in computer science from Harvard. He went on to work as a Software Engineer at Oracle while starting an Internet advertising company called LinkExchange (www.linkexchange.com).

The Internet Link Exchange allowed anyone with a web site to advertise their site on banner ads on thousands of other participating web sites for free. In order to participate in the Link Exchange, members agree to insert some HTML code into their web pages. This will cause banners of other members to automatically appear on their site. Other members will be doing the same thing, and the end result is that members will all be displaying ads for each other, and everyone who participates wins! The number of times a site was advertised was directly proportional to the number of times that site has advertised for other sites.

To date, these services have been used by over one million users with a reach of over 50% of Internet connected households.  They grew the company to 100 employees and, in 1998, 24-year-old Tony Hsieh sold his company to Microsoft for $265 million.

Tony then went on to co-found Venture Frogs (www.vfrogs.com) with Alfred Lin. Tony met Alfred Lin (COO/CFO) at Harvard, when Tony was running a pizza business and Alfred was his #1 customer. Venture Frogs is an incubator and investment firm that reported making more than 20 investments — each ranging in size from $100,000 to $3 million — from a fund of some $27 million. Some of the companies receiving investment money from Venture Frogs: Ask Jeeves, Entango, NeoPlanet, and Fusion.com.

Fun fact? Tony has a restaurant too

At Venture Frog, Tony  Hsieh’s co-workers met and ate at the company’s restaurant wheres speciality dishes were named after well-known technology companies.

Tony hired his parents to run the restaurant. For them, it was a way to spend more time with their son.

Sometimes I visited him,” says Judy Hsieh. “He wasn’t available. He wasn’t there. He was on the phone. He was busy or he was sleeping by the desk on the floor. Doing this, I’m able to see him more often.

Zappos.com almost didn’t happen

A voice mail from a young entrepreneur Nick Swinmurn brought him to Zappos.com. First Tony was about to delete the mail:

Nick left a message saying he wanted to start a company that sold shoes online. I didn’t think consumers would buy shoes sight unseen, and Nick didn’t have a footwear background. It sounded like the poster child of bad Internet ideas. But right before I hit “Delete”, Nick mentioned the size of the retail shoe market – $40 billion. And the more interesting thing was that 5% was already being done through mail order catalogs. That intrigued me.

He soon invested $500,000 in ShoeSite.com (they soon changed the name to Zappos, after zapatos, which is Spanish for “shoes”). Within six months, he and Swinmurn were running the show together. Early this year, Swinmurn moved on, leaving Hsieh at the helm of a company that had sales of $252 million in 2005.

Tony originally got involved with Zappos as an advisor and investor in 1999, about 2 months after the company was founded. Over time, Tony ended up spending more and more time with the company because it was both the most fun and the most promising out of all the companies that he was involved with. He eventually joined Zappos full time in 2000. Under his leadership, Zappos has grown gross merchandise sales from $1.6M in 2000 to $840M in 2007 by focusing relentlessly on customer service.

Which customer-service elements make Zappos.com stand out?

Tony says,

It’s free shipping both ways. We have a 365-day return policy. We promise customers that they’re going to get their shoes in four to five business days, but actually, for almost all of our customers, we do a surprise upgrade to overnight shipping.  […] On any given day, [repeat business] is about 75 percent of our orders.

Tony Hsieh will be the first to tell you he’s not motivated by money — he makes $36000 a year — but by the prospect of creating something different.

It doesn’t matter which position you [accept]. You can be an accountant or a lawyer, and you still go through that same training that our call center representatives go through […] If we want our brand to be about customer service, then customer service needs to be the whole company, not just a department.

In fact, customer reps are given $1000 to leave the company during the training if they feel that they don’t fit with the culture of customer satisfaction. He focuses on continuing to grow the business at a rapid pace while maintaining the culture and feel of a small company.

You can tell the most about people in the little details…

We figure the best way to have an open-door policy is not to have a door in the first place. I think, for employees, it’s good because they can just walk by and say hi or ask a question.

I think it helps humanize all of us and makes us more approachable. We have, for example, happy hours for different departments and the new classes, and I try to attend as many of those as possible. I also host a New Year’s party and a Fourth of July barbecue at my house every year, and all the employees are invited.

What’s next?  Tony Hsieh’s top 10 eCommerce Lessons (from http://www.good2work.com/article/6353)

  1. The e-commerce business is built upon repeat customers.
  2. Word-of-mouth really works online.
  3. Don’t compete on price.
  4. Make sure your Website is 100% accurate.
  5. Centrally locate your distribution.
  6. Customer service is an investment, not an expense.
  7. Start small, stay focused.
  8. Don’t be secretive. Don’t worry about competitors.
  9. You need to actively manage your company culture.
  10. Be wary of so-called experts. No one knows your customers better than you.

Follow him here. Also, from the Venture Frogs website:

Venture Frogs, LLC
1000 Van Ness, #201
San Francisco, CA 94109
Tel: 415-345-6260
Fax: 415-928-4606

If you are visiting their offices, they are located at 1000 Van Ness in San Francisco, at the corner of Van Ness and O’Farrell.

Image from: http://chrisguillebeau.com/3×5/files/2008/04/tony-hsieh-bw-photo.jpg


Innovative confectionary products, Pocky, Ezaki Glico

30 12 2008

The Ezaki family has been creating and innovating confectionary products, including the immensely popular Pocky, since 1922. Their company, Ezaki Glico is currently run by Katsuhisa Ezaki, who has been serving since 1982.

First sold in 1966, Pocky consisted of a biscuit stick coated with chocolate. Simply enough, right? It had sales of ¥30b yen in its first two years (roughly $30.2b USD) and was an instant hit among Japanese teenagers.6267 osaka ebisu bashi glico kanban - entertainment district

Founding Father

After the death of one of his sons, Riichi Ezaki had retreated to a fishing village and noticed a group of very healthy and active children playing. Further investigation yielded the villagers’ high consumption of oysters which contained elevated levels of glycogen.

Convinced of the diet-to-good health relationship, Riichi began extracting glycogen for use in foods, particularly in confectionery, in order to improve the health of Japanese children.

The result was a caramel candy containing glycogen named “Glico” in 1921. The following year, their company was born. By 1925, the company was forced to expand its production capacity and moved to a new manufacturing facility.  Glico was on its way!jp3_glico_500-217x300

They were clever at PR too

Glico was an innovator on other fronts as well. Early on, the company adopted a successful publicity campaign called, “300 Meters on a Single Piece,” featuring the Glico Running Man, the company’s mascot. The implication was that a single piece of Glico candy provided enough energy to run a 300-meter race.

Fun fact?

“Pocky,” after the sound Pocky makes when bitten. The original was followed by “Almond Pocky” and today includes mousse, green tea, and coconut flavored coatings.

Life is like a box of chocolates

The early 1980s were marred by a series of crimes conducted by the “Phantom with 21 Faces” gang targeting Japanese confectioners including Glico, Morinaga, and food companies: Marudai Ham and House Food Corporation. The gang laced a dozen packages of chocolates with cyanide, causing a national panic and forcing a number of confectioners to withdraw all products. Glico had a resulting loss in sales of more than $21 million and laid off 450 part-time workers.

In 1984, the gang kidnapped then (and current) Glico president, Katsuhisa Ezakia, in return for a ransom of ¥1 billion and 100 kilograms of gold bullion. Katsuhisa escaped three days later but Glico’s headquarters were firebombed for more money. By 1985, however, the crime wave ended when the gang suddenly declared that it would not engage in further attacks. They never caught the gang but you can learn more here.

The innovation continues

Glico has continued to innovative and today has a market cap of $119b. In 2005, they announced the development of a process to transform wood cellulose, which was normally indigestible by human beings and most animals, into amylose, a substance which can be digested. Net net? It means we can one day eat wood and make it taste like candy!

World hunger? Pst!

Image from: http://manga.about.com/od/imagegalleries/ig/Manga-Tour-2008-Gallery/PJT-Manga—-Glico-Evolution.htm

Indonesian singer/songwriter, Anggun Cipta Sasmi

30 12 2008

To date, Anggun Cipta Sasmi has become the most successful Asian artist outside Asia. She has sold approximately 3 million copies of records worldwide and  her success has spread throughout Europe as well as several parts of Asia. 


Anggun says, 

I dreamed of an international career, but the American and English record companies weren’t going to come to Indonesia looking for a new talent, when there is so much available in their own countries. So, I had to bring my talent to the West. 

Anggun Cipta Sasmi is an Indonesian singer/songwriter with French citizenship. Having already had tremendous success in her homeland Indonesia since she was 12, she decided to pursue an international career and left Indonesia in 1994.  After a year in London, she settled in Paris, France and met producer Erick Benzi, who later helped her sign a record deal with Sony Music France and recorded her first French album, Au Nom de la Lune, in 1996. Her name means “A grace born out of a dream” which is definitely a true statement about this remarkable singer.

Anggun left Indonesia in 1995 and started her singing career in France, where she recorded her first french album, in 1996 ,called Au Nom de la Lune. In 2005 she released her new last album Luminescence. Her first single from the French album is Etre Une Femme and the second single Cesse La Pluie (translated asSaviour) was featured in the film “Transporter II”

Today, Anggun has sold about 3 million copies of records worldwide and has become the most successful Asian artist outside Asia; she is particularly well known in Europe .
Anggun has been involved with several charities and received several awards such as “Best International Artist” at 2006 Indonesian Music Awards.

Recent news:
As I heard from my sources, Anggun is working her way over to make it big in America so keep a look out!

Official Website

Tony Award-winning playwright, Screenwriter, David Henry Hwang

21 12 2008

david-hwangTony Award-winning playwright, David Henry Hwang, is known as the preeminent Asian American dramatist in the US. His breakthrough play, M. Butterfly—a complicated story of espionage and mistaken sexual identity—received a Tony Award in 1988 and a Pulitzer Prize in 1989.

Born in Los Angeles to a father who worked as a banker and a mother was a piano professor, David himself is educated at Stanford University, from which he earned his B.A. in English in 1979. He became interested in theater after attending plays at the American Conservatory in San Francisco and quickly gave up his marginal interest in law.

David Henry Hwang has been awarded numerous grants including fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Guggenheim and Rockefeller Foundations, New York State Council on the Arts, and Pew Charitable Trusts.

How did he get started?

David Henry Hwang had written and produced his first play, FOB (”fresh off the boat”) by his senior year. He talks about immigrants being expected to abandon Chinese identity if they are to fit into mainstream American culture. Portraying major characters as figures from Chinese mythology, and produced by Joseph Papp at New York’s Public Theater in 1980, David Henry Hwang still attributes much of his success to Jean.

It’s important to realize that when F.O.B. was produced at the Public, I was twenty-three […] Joe said that he would produce anything I wrote, and subsequently he was quite good to his word and produced my next four plays. To have that sort of context and that confidence from a producer so that one is not working in a vacuum is a wonderful luxury for a developing writer. […] Always having had the resources of the Public, knowing that I would have access to actors and a stage and directors since a very early age and a very early point in my career, I think really helped me develop as a playwright.

Educational Pedigree 
After a brief stint as a writing teacher at a Menlo Park high school, David Henry Hwang attended the Yale University School of Drama. Although he didn’t stay to complete a degree, he studied theater history before leaving for the professional theaters of New York City.

David Henry Hwang is best-known for his play M. Butterfly, based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. Soon after premiering on Broadway in 1988, he became the first Asian American to win the Tony Award for Best Play. He has since pursued interests in opera, film, and the musical theater.

David Henry Hwang is also at work on a new musical —Bruce Lee: Journey to the West, with music and lyrics by David Yazbeck— as well as the screenplay version of the novel Across the Nightingale Floor.