Twenty years ago Tony Hsieh was part of the three-man Harvard team that won the hyper-prestigious ACM Programmming Contest. Five years later he sold LinkExchange to Microsoft for more than $250 million. Then he sold Zappos to Amazon for $1.2 billion, while retaining operational independence.
Now he’s trying to make the desert bloom. And if he fails, we’re probably all in big trouble.
I’m speaking metaphorically. Mostly. The desert in question is the derelict remains of Downtown Las Vegas, which Hsieh is irrigating with $350 million of his own money. The results so far are impressive. (Witness thes TCTV walkthroughs andinterviews.) Who knows? Downtown Vegas may one day make BoCoCa and the Mission jealous.
At the same time, this is very much a business investment…of a sort. You could call an investment in building a community where businesses can thrive, but that would be missing the larger point. To me it seems like a $350 million bet on the idea that doing good, having fun, and working more productively are not at all incompatible; that, in fact, they can reinforce one another.
Hsieh has said: “I want to be in an area where everyone feels like they can hang out all the time and where there’s not a huge distinction between working and playing.” It’s easy to mock that, in the same way non-Googlers mock Google’s campus, as an attempt to sucker people into working more for less money. But if you meet the man, as I did last week, it soon becomes clear that Hsieh is very serious about breaking down the barriers between work and play.
Granted, the results can seem faintly terrifying to introverts like me. “I’ll be honest, it’s a bit like living in a dorm,” said the rainbow-haired woman named Heidi who showed a group of us around the luxury condo building which hosts Tony’s own apartment, other members of the Zappos/Downtown Project braintrust, and “crash pads” for visitors. There are bumper-car desks, a “jungle room” with walls covered in growing plants, a podcast/TV studio, spectacular desert views, and–at least the night I was there–live penguins frolicking in the kitchen.
The new district, some two dozen city blocks and counting, will be built to maximize the number of serendipitous collisions among strangers, and would-be entrepeneurs will be measured by their Return On Community more than their return on capital. Little wonder that my more cynical friends describe Zappos and its 1500 employees as “a cult.” The fact that they refer to themselves as “The Zappos Family” doesn’t help…..more http://ow.ly/nOe1C