This is a guest post by Andrew Baisley who recently won a trip from us to have dinner with Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh.
Way off the Strip, at The Beat, in downtown Las Vegas, you’ll find decent coffee, a fantastic brisket sandwich on pretzel bread, music playing from vinyl records that the patrons control, some local artwork and something totally unexpected: the heart of a movement.
I recently won a trip from Startup Weekend to visit Las Vegas. I expected a visit to Zappos and some dinner conversation with the CEO, Tony Hsieh. What I got was a an entirely new perspective, not just of downtown Las Vegas, but of what’s possible when you have a lot of passionate people working towards a single purpose.
Thursday morning after arriving in Vegas, I walked over to The Beat at about 9am. Inside I saw Tony sitting with several other people: a VC from San Francisco, Jessica Mah of inDinero (Startup Weekend company!), Travis Reeder of Iron.io, a couple of guys working on a product called Rumgr (Another Startup Weekend company!) and two young guys from a company called Romotive. They were driving their iPhone-controlled robots around the coffee shop, giving everyone a turn at wheel.
That scene exemplified the changes happening in downtown Las Vegas, as I would learn over the next few days. Through an organization called Downtown Project, Tony is transforming the area in a way that is seemingly unheard of in Las Vegas. He isn’t looking to build casinos or shopping malls. Rather, he’s developing, for example, grocery stores, florists, a donut shop, schools and a coffee roaster.
Downtown Project is aiming to bring in, or start and fund, local businesses, which will in turn build a community downtown. This is a far cry from the traditional Vegas way of building big for the tourism industry, which then ships most of that money out of town.
At Triple George, where we had dinner, I asked Tony why he was doing all this. He explained to me that after selling LinkExchange to Microsoft that he didn’t technically need to work. He came into Zappos with the idea that, “if I’m going to work, I might as well be surrounded by passionate people that I enjoy being with.” That turned out to be a highly effective business model, as evidenced by the success of Zappos. He is simply extending that same idea to his neighborhood. “If I’m going to live here, I want to be surrounded by a community that I enjoy being in.”
Enter Zach Ware and Patrick Olsen. Zach, who heads up Downtown Project, and Patrick, a passionate rock climber and former Zappos engineer, are the duo working tirelessly to make this community happen. It was difficult not to run into Zach and Patrick around downtown whether it was at a Jelly co-working pitch session or an Inspire Las Vegas event where Patrick spoke about rock climbing.
Tony, Zach, Patrick and many others live in a building in the middle of downtown called The Odgen. If you’ve ready Tony’s book, Delivering Happiness, then you know the stories about Zappos’ early days, when the crew lived and worked together in what was to become the Venture Frogs building. Tony has recreated a bit of that in The Odgen. The top few floors are full of Zappos executives, Downtown Project employees and guests of the company. And, while I wouldn’t quite call it a dorm, there’s certainly a sense of community on these floors that you’d be hard-pressed to find in other residential buildings outside a college campus. Tony’s door is generally open and there’s a handwritten sign reading “Welcome to Tony’s!”
I was fortunate enough to score a stay at The Ogden. My apartment was a 1 bed, 1.5 bath on the top floor with a balcony overlooking City Hall, the future home of Zappos HQ, and several empty lots. This is where Downtown Project aims to bring in over 75 new small businesses in the next 5 years.
Greg Baine, a recent transplant from LA who is in charge of helping with guest arrangements at The Ogden, said to me, “I used to put in my time and count the seconds until I was off work. Now, at 6pm, I wonder what I can do next. When you’re given the freedom to follow your passions there’s never the feeling of being at work. You’re just living every day.”
Greg wasn’t pitching me anything. He told me this, drink in hand, on the balcony of Zach’s Ogden apartment during a big BBQ that was being held for no apparent reason other than an excuse to hang out. And this is exactly what Tony and Zach do – they surround themselves with groups of talented and passionate people.
While visiting, I certainly felt surrounded by passionate people. I was welcomed with open arms by individuals proud to show me what they’ve been working on. And it wasn’t all work – I had a lot of fun while I was there. Tony is easy going and very laid back, but clearly intelligent and introspective. We spent most of our dinner laughing and joking about topics I’ll hang onto as inside jokes: asparagus (asparagui?) and wontons. The “crew” was just as much fun. Zach was like the Energizer bunny. He never, ever stopped and it was dizzying trying to keep up with him. Patrick was always all smiles, clearly excited to be part of something bigger than himself, which, to me, is one of the best qualities found in anyone. Others, like Greg, Celina, Kari, Liz, Jamie and many, many more made me feel more welcome and comfortable than I could have imagined.
If nothing else, I came back to New York with a sense and understanding that something special is happening in downtown Las Vegas. You’ll find the early stages of a tech startup scene, seemingly fueled in part by ease of transportation from San Francisco via Tony’s investment in Jetsuite. It’s not difficult to find engineers and entrepreneurs at the local Jelly meet up or at /usr/lib, a tech library opened above The Beat. But, more importantly, and outside of our little startup world, is the sense of community building: the idea that the residents of Las Vegas deserve more. Tony, Zappos and the crew of Downtown Project are ready to deliver happiness to them, too.