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Billionaire Tony Hsieh continues investment in Las Vegas

Many cautiously watch the grand experiment of Tony Hsieh as he attempts to revitalize downtown Las Vegas.

its own set of problems. Researchers from the University of Michigan and Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management say that this can lead to "biased strategic decision making." At the end of the day, Hsieh is the reason most people have a job, whether at Zappos, Downtown Project or a small business or startup he’s invested in. He says that the difficulty is not so much about having friends as colleagues, but rather, him being CEO creates that barrier.  

"People dance around him a bit," says Jenn Lim, a longtime friend and CEO of Hsieh's separate entity, Delivering Happiness. "But the reality is just be true to yourself. Because I went in with that kind of attitude, and that's how I treat everyone, with that kind of realness, we connected. Once he feels he's been put on a pedestal it's more difficult." 

Her first impression of Hsieh wasn't a good one. They met through mutual friends "in the late 90s during the first dot com, when there were tons of parties," she says. "He was hosting one at 810, and it happened to be his birthday. The DJ said, 'Let's bring Tony up and all the ladies in the house.' And I thought, too bad, he's one of those guys. The second time I went back and he came up and was outside of his shell. I saw more of who he really was."  

Hsieh is single and will hold meetings over cocktails at DCR at 11 p.m. on a weeknight and over brunch on Sunday mornings. “He’s like a ninja,” says Andy White, who manages the $50 million Las Vegas Tech Fund. “Sometimes I’ll think he’s been out all night and then I’ll get an email from him at 5 AM.” White doesn’t drink, but he’ll stay out late entertaining guests who are potential startup investments. “The early part of week is slowest for us, and it builds toward Friday and Saturday,” he says.

At the Drink & Drag, Hsieh heads to the dance floor with Scott and a few other friends. The night took everyone downstairs to another bar, where Hsieh met up with more friends, including a musician from the band Rabbit and his girlfriend, and he ordered a bunch of food for everyone.

"You can tell when Tony's not in town by the energy," says Scott. "You can feel the vibe and you see it. It's like a movement when he's in town."

Back at the Ogden, a Downtown Project employee was DJing in his apartment which he shares with a colleague; and some of the Catalyst Week speakers stayed out until sunrise. A few hours later, Hsieh hosted a working brunch at a new restaurant, E.A.T., where DJ Dray Gardner, who's also a yoga instructor in the Ogden, was mixing. For Hsieh, work and play overlap, and that philosophy extends to those around him.

Downtown Vegas, if it turns into what he envisions, will be his ultimate playground. In some ways, it already is.


So far Hsieh has been incredibly effective at getting people to move to Vegas.

"Step one is convincing people to stay for a few days," he says. "One of our best recruiting tools is offering a free crash pad. It's pretty universal people leave having a completely different vision of Vegas. They visit regularly and let their network of friends know about it. And then a percentage of people end up living there. It's just a matter of time. We've already seen that formula work. It's just scaling."

Over a bottle of wine, he convinced Zach Ware to leave his job as Zappos' head of product management and spearhead the company's move to City Hall, even though he has no background in urban planning. Hsieh also convinced his cousin Connie Yeh and her husband Don Welch to leave their Wall Street jobs and manage the $50 million education and $50 million small business funds, respectively. "Tony doesn't just put you outside the box," says Zappos' Naughton. "He throws you outside of the box."

Many small investments in local tech have also done wonders to grow the local community. "The tech community didn't exist before Zappos," says Lin. "Small bets are a great way to get people into the city, even if none become

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