by Katie O’Shaughnessy
Known as a gambling mecca and adult playground, Las Vegas hardly seems like a bastion of community. But amid the casinos, gaudy hotels and ostentatious shows, one man is trying to change the perception of Sin City.
As the CEO of Zappos, an online shoe and clothing shop, and the author of “Delivering Happiness,” Tony Hsieh has made company culture his priority. “Our whole belief is that if we get the culture right, then most of the other stuff, like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand or business, will just be a natural by-product,” he says in his presentation at the Wisdom 2.0 technology conference.
When Zappos was looking to move their headquarters, Hsieh knew he didn’t want to follow the example of large tech companies with insular campuses. Instead, he wanted interaction between his employees and the surrounding community. “What if instead of focusing just on ourselves, we really thought about the ‘ecosystem,’” says Hsieh.
Hsieh wandered into a non-touristy area of Las Vegas with a thriving community atmosphere. It also happened to be very close to where Zappos would soon move its headquarters, allowing employees easy interaction with the residents. In January of 2012, Hsieh and his partners created the Las Vegas Downtown Project in the Fremont East and East Village areas. The organization invested in small businesses, tech startups, education, arts, culture and real estate, bringing in the basic building blocks of a community.
But more goes into creating community than building blocks alone, so Hsieh focused on what he calls the 3 C’s: collisions, co-learning and connectedness – with an end goal of turning downtown Las Vegas into “a place of Inspiration, Entrepreneurial Energy, Creativity, Innovation, Upward Mobility and Discovery,” according to Downtown Project’s website.
The Project invests in or co-owns over 300 businesses, helping prospective entrepreneurs start immediately. “There’s a lot of pride for everyone on the team in seeing the small businesses succeed and follow their dreams,” says Maria Phelan, director of public relations for Downtown Project. One requirement of these small companies is that they increase “collisions” within the community to encourage collaboration.
Instead of focusing on ROI, Hsieh uses ROC, or “return on community,” as a metric of success, and these businesses are doing their part. “There are pieces of the ROC that are coming to life. You walk around and see groups that are co-working or parents with children where you wouldn’t have seen children previously,” says Phelan. “You can tell these things are really having the impact we wanted them to have.”
The setup of the Downtown Project itself encourages these collisions by “tricking” people into coming out and interacting with each other. “The idea is, every block or so, have some sort of fire element, some sort of large-scale art to kind of trick people to walk one more block,” says Hsieh.
Styled as a startup community, the Downtown Project has been attracting startup tech companies. Co-working lounges and small business incubators give rise to the second C of “co-learning,” furthering the goals of innovation and discovery through shared knowledge.
The Downtown Project also includes a park made from shipping containers. “The idea behind the container park is to make it such a fun place for kids that they’re begging their parents to go back every weekend,” says Hsieh. Live music makes it a hangout space for adults, too, offering a place for families to bond with each other and with their community.
Held in the heart of Downtown Las Vegas, the Life Is Beautiful Festival is a culmination of everything the Downtown Project stands for. First held in 2013, the festival is run by the organization and features live music, food, art and learning. It continues today as an annual event, drawing over 108,000 attendees in 2015. With an upbeat atmosphere and activities built to increase collisions and co-learning, the festival demonstrates the third C, “connectedness.”
While it attracts nearby residents and travelers, one thing has been missing from Downtown Project. “Residential density needs to be increased in the area, and that would really help the businesses we fund,” says Phelan. “Tony has said if he could go back in a time machine, he’d put residency further up on the list.” To combat this hitch, a mid-market residential complex called Fremont9 will open in 2017 with a long list of alluring amenities.
Five years since its creation, Downtown Project has created over 900 jobs, revitalized the city and fostered a lush atmosphere of community. “We’re very proud of what we’ve been able to do. There have been a lot of surprises because we’re not following a road map,” says Phelan. “We’re seeing a strong community building here, and it’s only getting stronger and stronger.”