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Tony Hsieh x Downtown Project Las Vegas

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh concluded the 2014 AIA Convention in Chicago with a keynote speech that described his work building the Zappos brand and outlined his and his partner’s plans for a community-focused Las Vegas.

Tony Hsieh is a superstar in the internet entrepreneur world, joining Zappos as CEO in 1999 and guiding the online merchant’s growth into a company that’s earned over a billion dollars in revenue 10 years later. He may not be the first person you would think of to address an auditorium full of architects at the AIA National Convention, but it didn’t take long to see how Hsieh’s story of how he built Zappos could easily apply to any architecture firm… or any startup company really.

Hsieh’s attention-getter was posing the question of what we think of when we think of Zappos. An online company that sells shoes, right? Well, Zappos thinks of themselves as a service company that happens to sell shoes. See the difference? They aim to progress to a point where 10 years from now, people won’t even remember that Zappos started out selling shoes.

When they get there, it can all be connected back to their philosophy as Hsieh states that their number one priority is company culture. If the culture is right, then everything else — the best customer service and experience that Zappos strives for, for example — is a natural byproduct of that. Upon reflection, this message is what highly resonates with me since Hsieh’s talk a couple of Saturdays ago. We can all apply this philosophy to our own personal goals and start from within.

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A great brand is a story that never stops unfolding.

- Tony Hsieh

Hsieh continued the talk with the theme expressed in the quote and photo above. I can’t help but apply it to our ever-evolving brand of Gowhere Hip Hop since our inception over 6 years ago (!) and I’m sure many of the architects in that room felt similar parallels to their firms. To speak on personal experience, I feel we really grasped this idea when we cultivated our mantra of Gowhere You Love in 2012 and since then, our team and I have strived for our brand to embody our individual and collective passions. We hope that as ours are personified thru GWHH that you can find and follow yours.

I digress, however, as Hsieh proceeded to simplify brand strategy, enveloping the ideas I summarized above with the “3 C’s” — Clothing, Customer Service, and Company Culture. It was during Hsieh’s transition into Zappos’ current office at the former Las Vegas city hall 9 months ago that he added a 4th “C” — Community. You see, it’s in Vegas’ Fremont East section, away and opposite of the Vegas you know on the Strip, where Hsieh calls a home base and “the most community focused place I’ve ever lived.” Zappos values and encourages the mix of employees and community through design, citing the NYU campus as an example, by blurring the lines between their company’s interaction at an office and with the surrounding community. Next time you’re in Vegas, you can actually take a free tour of the Zappos office and get to know Hsieh’s next large-scale entrepreneurial venture: Downtown Project.

Downtown Project aims to revitalize Las Vegas into the most community-focused large city in the world. It’s an extension of Hsieh’s previous ideals and work with Zappos and together with his partners, they are privately funding the project with $350 million dollars.

This is a fascinating movement that I’m excited will achieve its potential (in less than 5 years: their goal) and create a model for transforming our urban cities and interactions. Downtown Project plans to re-frame “Community” by increasing “collisions” (the amount of interactions with others), “co-learning” (ex: working together in co-working spaces), and “connectedness” (to achieve your “Live/Work/Play” within walking distance).

The efforts and investments will be widespread to curate this connectedness through design and collaborative efforts. $50 million will go towards owner-operated small businesses, $50 million for tech startups, $50 million for education, arts, and culture, and the remaining $200 million into real estate.

Downtown Project states that, “Community development is more about the people than real estate.” So while investing millions into real estate, the Project’s focus is first for the people. Cultivating local businesses and the future of tech startups into co-working spaces is an efficient and progressive way to transform a community. After all, as urban city population around the globe continues to trend upward (more than 50% of the world’s population is now in cities — its highest number ever), productivity and innovation per resident is up at a ratio of 15% as cities double in size. So, a goal then becomes to use the heavy investment on real estate, and design spaces that push the community toward connectedness to accelerate serendipity.  This means cultivating a culture to collide, increasing residential density to 100 residents/acre and thereby increasing street-level activity. Imagine a higher level of interactions as a resident and then walking to your co-working space.

The final piece of the puzzle is an emphasis on Education, Arts, and Culture. Downtown Project aims to utilize its co-working spaces to involve some sort of education element. Free daily talks, for example, on varying topics will educate and help to bring the working community together. Hsieh describes it as a TED Conference every week in Vegas as they bring in out-of-town experts. Other projects like the Inspire Theater (at the prime location of Fremont & Las Vegas Blvd.) and the upcoming 2nd annual Life Is Beautiful festival, will bring some of the world’s biggest artists to the Fremont East community so many of us are unfamiliar with in Vegas. Seriously, some of the world’s biggest artists. The likes of OutKast, The Roots, Foo Fighters, Skrillex, and perhaps the biggest artist of ‘em all: Kanye West were recently announced. Imagine last year’s festival seen below, but bigger, as I predict Life Is Beautiful will reach the same tier of must-attend festivals with Bonnaroo, Coachella, and SXSW after October, 2014.

In closing, Hsieh cited the famous example of Roger Bannister becoming the first person in the world to run a 4-minute mile in 1954. His goal with Downtown Project is to continue the influx of entrepreneurial energy for downtown Vegas, transform it into the world’s co-working capital, and serve as the “4 minute mile” model for the rest of the world. If they can do it Vegas, it will inspire other communities in no time.

For more on the Downtown Project, visit downtownproject.com.