Viva Las Vegas? Tony Hsieh says yes. Wikipedia photo

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has a vision for downtown Las Vegas as the place that you’ll want to launch your next startup.

Currently spread across three buildings in Sin City, Hsieh’s Zappos is planning to consolidate inside the old Las Vegas City Hall. As a part of preparation for the move, Zappos, which is owned by, surveyed its employees to see what they wanted in a new campus.

That survey led to a couple important revelations.

“One was that we couldn’t actually physically possibly fit all of their requests into our campus,” said Hsieh, speaking today at the START conference in San Francisco.”There wasn’t enough room. But the other thing we realized is that all of the campuses I just mentioned, Apple, Nike, Google, were great for employees, but were actually kind of insulated, and didn’t really integrate or contribute to the community around them.”

So rather than try and turn the Zappos campus into a fortress of perks, Hsieh decided to look towards making its neighborhood better. He’s spearheaded a movement to turn downtown Las Vegas (which is very different from the strip) into the sort of place that would attract employees.

Tony Hsieh (Wikipedia Photo)
Tony Hsieh (Wikipedia Photo)

The Downtown Project, as it’s being called, is designed to turn Las Vegas into a place where professionals want to come and set up shop. To make that happen, Hsieh has three goals he’d like the project to fulfill.

“One is to help create a place to live, work (and) play within walking distance. Another is to make downtown Vegas the most community-focused large city in the world– in probably the place that you would least expect it –and the third is to make it the co-learning and co-working capital of the world,” he said.

To promote economic growth, the Downtown Project has designated $50 million for small businesses to come and set up shop in Las Vegas, as well as $50 million for VegasTechFund, a capital firm that aims to give entrepreneurs and tech startups money to move to Las Vegas.

Romotive, maker of the smartphone-powered mini robot device, moved to Vegas as part of the Downtown Project shortly after it graduated from the TechStars Seattle program. It has since raised $5 million from Sequoia Capital, Crunchfund, Ron Conway’s SV Angel. Order Mapper is another recent Vegas recruit from the Seattle area, a departure that kicked off an intense debate on GeekWire.

The Downtown Project is also working to sponsor cultural events, and is collaborating with Burning Man to bring large industrial art pieces to the region.

Amazon has not been present at public meetings about its new corporate campus in downtown Seattle.
Amazon has kept a low profile and not been present at public meetings about its new corporate campus in downtown Seattle.

All of this work is designed to create a city that encourages spontaneous interactions, which Hsieh says will drive further innovations.

We are certainly struck by the contrast between Hsieh’s civic engagement in Vegas, especially when compared to Amazon’s relatively low profile in its hometown of Seattle. (SeeEarly Amazon investor Nick Hanauer disappointed Amazon isn’t more civically engaged)

None of this is a sure thing, of course. Hsieh is counting on the systems he’s putting in place to boost the economy. But, if Hsieh’s development work doesn’t catch on, he’s going to be out a lot of money. If it works, however, Las Vegas may be the next destination for startups.

The competition is on. Could anyone in Seattle step up to meet that challenge?

This much we do know. There’s a tolerance for risk in Vegas, something that startup entrepreneurs certainly share.

This experiment will be interesting to watch.

Previously on GeekWire: Why this entrepreneur is moving to Vegas, and what it means for the Seattle scene

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  • johnhcook

    Wow. Agreed. I guess — like the rainy season in Seattle where there’s nothing to do but code — in Vegas you are trapped indoors because of the heat.

    Code away!!

  • FrankCatalano

    It was also announced today that Hsieh is keynoting the new SXSW conference, SXSW V2V, in Las Vegas on August 12. His topic? “The City as a Startup.”

  • enough amazon bashing

    amazon turned south lake union from a pit into a thriving economic zone and seattle will complain about the increase in traffic. just because they don’t show up to public hearings doesn’t mean they are not having a positive impact on the city or helping to create good environments for tech startups. maybe hometown bloggers and newspapers should do be cheering them on instead of complaining about civic duty.

    • johnhcook

      I am certainly not going to argue with Amazon’s impact in Seattle. They are hiring like mad, importing talent, and doing a lot to change the face of Seattle. We are lucky to have them.

      They are just doing it largely from behind a veil, without the involvement of the community.

      Don’t get me wrong. It is a great thing to have Amazon in the community, and they are having a positive impact on startups everywhere by offering AWS and by spinning off talent. It would just be a fascinating thing — and I think would benefit the city — to see them engaged in the community that they are helping to transform.

      As Zillow and Expedia founder Rich Barton noted on our radio show a few weeks ago, he’s hopeful that Amazon will eventually start to become engaged. We will see.

      Thanks for the comment.

      • Guest

        John, the “community” in Seattle would rather see newcomers go back where they came from, leaving this city to marinate in a sauce of Almost Live! reruns, Ivar’s batter, and 1960s sensibilities. (Remember: Seattle is the city that rejected mass transit and voted to uphold housing discrimination until more sensible outsiders moved in.)

        You want to see the “involvement of the community”? Go to the Seattle Times comments. Go to your average planning meeting. See how bitterness and resentment of the young and the successful is coloring otherwise productive discussions about repurposing Seattle land for more high-density, more environmentally-friendly, more revenue-raising ends. Watch the mayoral election ads slamming “developers” who have the audacity to turn old parking lots into apartment buildings. Frankly, I’d prefer if Seattle’s public were to do what it does best: stand back and whine passive-aggressively while intelligent, moneyed men do the right thing to take Seattle into the 21st century.

        This posting does not represent the position of any corporation.

        • Guest

          I need Amazombie radar active every day I drive near S. Lk Union. Maybe if the pedestrians put the Kindle down and look both ways before crossing Fairview Ave it would help change the mindset ‘locals’ have on the new influx of hires.

          • enough amazon bashing

            think for a minute about how many six-figure jobs amazon is adding to the seattle economy and consumers spending money at local businesses. if you are a seattle business owner or work for one who is, you should thank your lucky stars. are you seriously complaining about geeks walking around who are engrossed in digital books?

        • johnhcook

          This comment cracked me up, and rings true in many ways.

          I am certainly not advocating that we go backwards to soak in “Ivar’s batter.” And I don’t want to pat the whiners on the back, or accelerate their cause.

          A new Seattle is emerging, and it is a city that we (the tech community) can help shape in order to be one of the greatest places on Earth to raise a family, have fun and, yes, build a company.

          That’s what I want to be a part of, and celebrate. There’s an opportunity for leaders to stand up in Seattle — a new breed of leadership — to help guide where this community is going.

          I’d love to see Amazon play more of this role, especially as they transform the city around us.

          As Nick Hanauer said on our radio show a few weeks ago:

          “I think that Amazon could be far more engaged in the civic community, and I think that the community would benefit massively from it.”

          • Guest

            Your problem, Nick and John, is that you treat the statement “Amazon does not give back to the community” as fact. In the interest of journalistic neutrality, I’d like for you to consider the opposite: Amazon has done more for the Seattle community than anyone in Seattle has in the past 10 years.

            Amazon’s billions-dollar campus will result in a bounty for Seattle as property tax bills come due. How much so? Well, for starters, the South Lake Union area will gain its first public school ever. Surrounding land values have also increased so much that the city is nonplussed by this sudden windfall. Fortunately, private developers will continue to move faster than Seattle’s government does.

            Amazon and her employees have also poured literally billions of dollars into the local economy through patronage of fine arts, mom-and-pop shops, and food concessionaires. Just take a walk around South Lake Union on a weekday afternoon. How many of the men and women mealing in public spaces received their victuals from corporate cafeterias? How many patronized a small business, as small as a cart parked by the roadside?

            Furthermore, Amazon and her employees have been good for local politics. Mass-transit initiatives like the South Lake Union Trolley and Light Rail have kept our roads clear enough for lifelong Seattleites to drive their rusty old Volvos with minimal impediment. Jeff Bezos has contributed $10 million to build the new MOHAI. He and his wife paid $2.5 million so that gay Washingtonians can marry freely. A simple query on any fundraising search engine show that Amazon-employee donations reinforce the socially progressive values that have made Washington the envy not only of the nation, but of the world.

            Consider, John, that Amazon is already exerting a tremendously positive influence on the city of Seattle. Your and Nick’s exhortations serve only yourselves.

            This topic is so piquant that I’d like to see it featured on the GeekWire home page as a standalone article.

            This post does not reflect the opinion or endorsement of any corporation.

          • johnhcook

            Don’t get me wrong. I did not say they aren’t giving back to the economy. Absolutely they are, and it is absolutely a blessing that Amazon is here in Seattle — hiring like mad, disrupting industries and innovating.

            I love that. And I always tout their growth and impact on Seattle when I talk about the specialness of Seattle’s tech community. They are a big part of the economic engine that is the Seattle tech hub.

            You may disagree with me on this, however. A company of Amazon’s size and might that plops itself in the middle of the city — our city — and begins to transform it has added weight on it to participate in that community.

            Amazon is completely cut off, completely isolated from the community it is helping to shape.

            I guess this is where I come down.

            There is a spirit in Seattle. It is a special place. And we can make it even better, and there is an opportunity for the tech community (filled with brilliant and hard working people) to stand up and lead. Truly lead, reshaping the old consensus-driven mentality that allows very little to get done.

            Look at what Michael Bloomberg, a true entrepreneur, is doing in NYC with help from their tech community. We have that opportunity here, but it takes everyone — from politicians to VCs to tech CEOs to the media.

            In a very small step, it was nice to see Amazon — along with with other tech companies like Microsoft and DooubleDown — pull together to salvage the fireworks. I’d like to see more of that on a bigger scale, and Amazon is in a very good position to help drive it.

            I do think the community would benefit from that.

            A bit more reading on this topic here.


            Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      • enough amazon bashing

        hope is not a strategy. i’d change tactics. if you think the occasional zinger at amazon or provocative guest quotes or issuing challenges will get them to engage, you don’t know amazon. honey works way better. spend a few years being their biggest cheerleader and you might find more receptivity. same with your misguided brethren at the times.

        • johnhcook

          We certainly try to cover Amazon objectively, and there are countless stories here in the pages of GeekWire discussing the impact of Amazon on the community, both good and bad.

          We certainly aren’t going to cover them favorably or be their “biggest cheerleader” simply for the sake that it could potentially lead to them being more engaged. First off, I know Amazon well enough, to know that won’t work. That said, we’d love to get to know Amazon better and tell more of the stories going on inside the walls of the company.

          Anyway, this much I do know about Amazon: I don’t think they’d care one way or another.

          And I guess that’s my point.

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