An Unforgettable Lesson from Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh in Downtown Las Vegas [Video]

Posted May 22, 2014

Matt Hunckler

CEO & Founder

The first time I visited downtown Las Vegas was in 2011. And I didn’t go there for the gambling.

A fortunate friend was building something that pulled me from Indianapolis to see “Old Vegas” in person. Such is the magnetic magic of Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh

Tony Hsieh and His Recipe for Building Community

It was Tony’s birthday, and we joked around as we drank digestifs in his condominium at The Ogden. Back then, most of the condos in the building were still waiting for tenants to take a chance on downtown Las Vegas. But a lot has changed since then.

The Downtown Project that Tony Hsieh and his team started years ago has built its own momentum and grown a thriving community. Dozens of startups and small businesses have taken root amidst the flashing lights and excitement of Vegas. Unlike the Strip, downtown has sprouted a series of successes over the past few years.

Tony Hsieh Downtown Project

Looking back on that night at Tony’s, it’s now clear that master chef Hsieh had the right recipe from the start. We connected through Skype that evening with another friend, Jenn Lim, CEO of Delivering Happiness and co-author of the same book penned by her and Hsieh. They’ve each gone on to take their mastery of company culture to build community on a bigger scale.

It all builds from getting the right ingredients.

Collisions

I’ve since been back to visit downtown Vegas a few times. And I can tell you that only one thing is constant…

You’re going to connect with a lot of people.

We once piled out of Tony’s Delivering Happiness bus into a reggae festival; Hsieh leading the way and handing out wristbands to us as we entered the gates. Not more than two seconds after ensuring that my wristband was securely fastened did I meet the outstretched hand of the mayor of Las Vegas. I still have her business card, which is not a card at all, but rather contact information printed on a poker chip.

And that’s one of the more “normal” collisions I’ve had in the community Hsieh helped construct.

It’s a magical experience to find yourself in a pocket of people who are passionate about what their building. But that’s the essence of community and Hsieh isn’t the only one who’s made the observation.

Kristian Andersen helped create The Speak Easy co-working space in Indianapolis to “foster serendipity.” That building has since become a place for a unique community to connect and build new companies. And they’re not the only ones.

Community Space

Other communities have created similar spaces, where something interesting is waxing within.

Co-learning

In case you might be thinking about making a visit to downtown Vegas, I’ll let you in on a secret that is, more and more, becoming known. The best place to grab coffee is the Beat. But it’s not just because they make a good cup of Joe.

At the Beat, there’s something to be learned in each new interaction. This is especially true when there’s a culture of curiosity and sharing. And in Vegas, you couldn’t escape it if you tried.

Who would want to?

“It’s the enthusiasm, the passion, the time, and the energy,” said Tony, that’s at the core of a co-learning community.

The charge of learning something new can spark new momentum and carry you through the toughest challenges. It’s the same energy you can get at a Verge pitch night when a founder shares their new technology or a fireside chat blows open a whole new way of thinking about an entrepreneurial issue.

Connected Community

Growing communities understand that they have to learn together if they want to evolve. And that gives them a powerful and underlying quality.

Connectedness

“Outside of this downtown area, Las Vegas is the last place you’d expect to find a community feel,” said Hsieh. Most times, this community feeling of connectedness is catalyzed by a handful of leaders.

“Don’t underestimate the power that one or two people can have,” Tony encourages.

In downtown Vegas, there are many people running enormous projects. Zach Ware is an energetic guy, and has been Tony’s right-hand man on the Downtown Project from the start. He’s since become a partner in the VegasTech Fund and started a business of his own, Project 100.

But even though Zach stays busy, he stays connected as he continues to link up potential business partners, mentors and mentees, and friends.

Brad Feld is the author of Startup Communities and often points out that the fastest growing communities are the ones where visitors and new residents can quickly get connected to resources, events, and people.

Verge Community

As I prepare for trip to Vegas next week, I’m thinking a lot about how downtown will feel.  And I’m re-reading a book that Tony gave to me back in 2011. I keep pondering community as I re-read one of my favorite truths in Triumph of the City:

“You need to walk a city’s streets to see its soul.”

I’m excited to take that first step into downtown Vegas again. Because its also the first step to building community with collisions, co-learning, and connectedness. And I can’t wait to bring some of it back to Indianapolis.

So, what are you waiting for? Get out there.

What other elements do you think a community needs for it to thrive?

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Matt Hunckler

CEO & Founder

Matt is the founder and CEO of Powderkeg, a network of local communities with global reach for tech entrepreneurs, investors, and top talent. Powderkeg entrepreneurs have collectively raised more than $500 million in capital and are disrupting industries, creating wealth, and changing the world from areas beyond Silicon Valley. Hunckler has led successful teams with his own ventures, as well as Inc. 500 companies and venture-funded tech startups. He's been named an Under 30 CEO Entrepreneur to Watch and an IBJ Forty Under 40 Honoree for his entrepreneurial endeavors. @hunckler