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Many cautiously watch the grand experiment of Tony Hsieh as he attempts to revitalize downtown Las Vegas.
the sunset with the amount of money he's earned."
Hsieh's goal is to make Vegas the most “community-minded,” smartest city in the world. He also wants to make it a tech hub. These are hugely ambitious goals for a city that is run by casino tourism, and is famously a place, especially after the housing crash, where few people want to live. Hsieh says CEO Jeff Bezos of Amazon, which owns Zappos, considers his project “one big experiment.”
There is nothing like it on this scale in the US. "There's Dan Gilbert in Detroit, and the analogs are pretty similar," says Andrew Yang, founder of Venture for America. "Dan has taken 1,500 Quicken Loans employees and moved them into Detroit. But Tony and Dan are very different people. The biggest thing that separates Tony from others is his capacity to take on something as ambitious. It's really the scope of his vision. It's an extension of his work, trying to take culture from inside a company inside the walls of a city."
THE MAVEN, CONNECTOR AND SALESMAN
In Malcolm Gladwell’s terms, Hsieh is a Maven, Connector and Salesperson — a rare combination. While he’s famously shy, people are drawn to him. His philosophy is "to invest a lot of time and energy upfront," he tells us. "Once you've developed a meaningful friendship or relationship, then maintaining them is relatively less time consuming." Throughout the course of night, Hsieh can expand a person's network several times over. And these relationships aren't just surface-level; often they lead to meaningful business and personal relationships, which has everything to do with the types of people he invites into his circle.
“It’s like magic,” says Amanda Slavin, who met Hsieh at Summit Series last January. He invited her to Vegas, and over a two-hour breakfast, he pitched her on moving there. "Tony always sees the bigger picture," says Slavin, a partner at Paige Management Group. "I was totally intrigued." Over the next few months she launched her events company, Catalyst Creativ, with funding from Hsieh's Downtown Project.
The culture he is trying to curate in Vegas looks a lot like Summit Series, Burning Man and TED, while also keeping the vibe of downtown Vegas currently. Hsieh's whole theory for building a real community in Vegas is about creating “serendipitous” interactions, or getting people to connect with each other and then collaborate. Slavin's company is part of that vision. She's in charge of Catalyst Week, a monthly speakers' series where she invites creative thinkers from around the country to give talks and get to know the Downtown Project team.
Hsieh’s idea of success is getting smart people to come back, and visit often. As long as they’re creating “1,000 hours per year of serendipitous encounters," he told the New York Times reporter Timothy Pratt, they’re helping grow the city.
This unique ability to create a community is why Hsieh has a shot at being the first person to save downtown Vegas. People want to follow Hsieh, literally, wherever he goes – whether on the streets of downtown Vegas today, or, going back a decade, from San Francisco to Vegas when he moved Zappos to Nevada.
But at the same time, this magnetism could also be his biggest obstacle.
Hsieh is the top motivator and chief architect for the transformation of downtown Vegas. He has tons of talented people working for him, and as much power as he gives them, he’s still at the center of what’s going on. This is all amplified by the fact that it’s downtown Vegas, not New York City.
"He has a lot of admirers but he's also very self aware," says Alfred Lin, who co-founded Venture Frogs with Hsieh back in 1999 and is a partner with Sequoia Capital. "This is not a new phenomenon. The following of people who want to hang out with him all the time has gotten bigger and bigger in the past five, six years. But I haven't seen him change."
Hsieh's hiring philosophy at Zappos is that he only hires people who he likes. It’s the same thing for Downtown Project. “He’ll only work with someone he’d want to have a drink with at the bar,” says Cornthwaite. But that poses