(Your Free Tale)
A Path of Worms
Lesson: To find your path to success, experiment with wild ideas.
To this day he can smell the dirt and feel the flecks of mud and grime as it packed into his fingernails.
At 9 years old, Tony Hsieh crouched on his knees and frantically began digging. No doubt he appeared like a dog after a bone. Dirt, consisting of slivers of wood, clumps of grass and soil went flying all around the little boy.
Where are they, he thought. This can’t be happening. In his hand was a clump of soil and nothing else. He let it slip through his fingers.
That was that. No worms.
His parents had purchased a $33.45 box of mud guaranteed to contain at least one hundred earthworms. This was to be the start of a grand empire. Taking all the stored up wisdom of a 9 year old, he built a worm box in his backyard. This consisted of the most sophisticated materials he could manufacture: a sandbox with chicken wire for a bottom. His next feat was to encourage them to multiply—however one accomplished that. He decided to dump raw egg yolks on top of the farm. This had to work, he figured; since professional athletes ate egg yolks to get bigger and stronger, perhaps worms could use them to multiply.
Later in life, he would have gained solace by having conversations in his mind with great men. Men he “met” on a consistent basis after having read and studied their lives. One day they would inspire him. But not yet; not at 9 years old. He knew of no great men. Men like Gandhi, who could have stopped by to tell Tony “first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” The wisdom from the great man could have given young Hsieh courage to face his parents, and inspiration to continue his dream of making a fortune breeding and selling earthworms.
But the evidence of his failure was inescapable. In his hand was an empty bit of mud that smelt of rotten eggs.
He informed his parents that the worm breeding business was not fun for him anymore, but really he had just failed and did not wish to admit the truth.
If only another great man, Thomas Edison, would have walked into the house to provide this sage wisdom “I failed my way to success.” That would one day be a lesson Tony would learn from ample experiences.
While in middle school, Tony received a magazine that promised money for selling christmas cards. He ordered the package and in a burst of excitement ran next door to begin building his empire. His neighbor was a nice middle aged woman. She opened the door and smiled down at him. With eager anticipation he held out the cards and started showing her his wares. She waited patiently and then in the kindest voice she could muster she said “Oh Tony! It’s August. I don’t need Christmas greeting cards quite yet. Come back in a month or two.”
Devastated he threw the box of cards aside. She was right. He would just have to open a business that wasn’t so seasonal.
Next he created a newsletter. He included stories he had written, a few jokes, and some word puzzles. He only sold four copies to his friends. He figured that he would have to go make more friends or attempt another venture.
Even in our youth, that special rare moment of serendipity doesn’t always feel like anything special when it occurs. Not until later do we see the moment as serendipitous. Tony’s moment came, when his friend brought over a copy of Free Stuff For Boys and Girls. In the book were loads of items that could be paid for with a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope (SASE) and one dollar. As he perused through the book he came across an advertisement for a button-making kit.
He had found his “million dollar” idea.
He would place an advertisement in the book. Any kid who sent in a picture of themself, an SASE, and one dollar would receive back a button with their picture on it. Of course, he needed some upfront capital for the button making kit, so he asked his parents for $100 investment with the promise to pay it. Being privy to inside information regarding worms, greeting cards and newsletters, they were certain he would not pay them back. But still they took a gamble.
After Tony wrote a letter to the publishers of Free Stuff for Kids, he was informed that his offer to make buttons for kids would be in the next issue.
Trepidation and Eagerness are the two close friends of the budding entrepreneur. Every day, Tony watched the postman walk the streets as though nothing special was presently in his mailbag. Funny, he thought, how other people don’t share one’s sense of urgency. Then, something magical happened, and it took the form of a little 12-year old girl wearing a plaid dress and holding a French Poodle—and paying one dollar. Tony Hsieh was in business! He made the button from the picture she had provided and immediately he sent it out. Proudly, he presented the money to his parents who were shocked he’d sold anything at all.
He pulled out his ledger, marked “paid one dollar.” There was only $99 to go.
Like a snowball growing into an avalanche, or just a bigger snowball, the orders poured in. Tony became a button making fiend. Soon, he invested in automated machines and was making around $100 a week. Not bad for a middle-schooler.
There was only one problem. He discovered that he didn’t enjoy making buttons. The orders piled up, and with school work he was finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with all the buttons. He pushed off making them until the weekend. Then found that he spent five to six hours each weekend making buttons.
Like any good entrepreneur, he hired help. Mainly, this fell to his brothers.
After leaving middle school he passed on his button making business to his brother. The business had taught him numerous lessons. Lessons he would take with him for the rest of his life.
In the 90’s he saw a market need for a click banner ad website. So he founded LinkExchange, which created and sold click banner ads on websites. In 1998, he sold it to Microsoft for $265 million dollars. In 1999 he invested in a wild idea to sell shoes over the internet—not unlike selling buttons through the post. Over the course of ten grueling years, he built it into a mega brand and had successfully developed a company around delivering profits, passion, and purpose: Zappos.com.
In 2009, he stood at an all-hands meeting for Zappos. Tony was now a man with many business success—and many failures. While everyone was cheering and happily shedding tears at the wonderful creation they had all built, Tony reflected back on that frantic feeling of digging in the dirt as a 9 year old boy. That’s where his path had started. He had begun by attempting to build a worm farm, and he had succeeding in building an online shoe retailer.
Tony smiled at the employees. His mind was in the dirt, but he still looked up to the sky. Amazon had just purchased the company for over $1 billion. This, he knew, was merely the beginning.