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Tony Hsieh wants to build a utopia.
“The next evolution of our brand is to focus on community,” the 39-year-old CEO of Zappos, the online retail leviathan, said to nearly 1,000 rapt onlookers during the inaugural keynote of South By Southwest V2V, a four-day event in Las Vegas that is “an extension and re-imagining of the legendary SXSW experience with an emphasis on the creative spark that drives entrepreneurial innovation.”
“We want to be integrated into the fabric of [Downtown Las Vegas],” Hsieh continued. “We want to make it a place of growth and discovery.”
He was referring to Downtown Project, his larger-than-life urban renewal undertaking that will totally change the face of Downtown Vegas. Hsieh has personally invested $350 million—“I didn’t want any outside investors,” he said—to guarantee his vision becomes reality.
Have a vision that has a higher purpose than profits, Hsieh said.
“The plan,” Christina Farr wrote for VentureBeat in June, “[is] to align the culture of the downtown area with that of Zappos: Make it friendly, non-conformist, and just a little hipster.”
But will his plan succeed?
The breakdown is simple: $200 million will be invested real estate, $50 million in education, art, and culture initiatives, $50 million in tech startups, and $50 million in small businesses. Hsieh’s vision is for Downtown Las Vegas to become the co-learning and co-working capital of the world. It won’t be easy, either. Vegas is known for its luxurious hotels and abundance of casinos, not startups. But the Harvard grad seems up to the task.
It’s about “building great,” Hsieh said.
Among the CEO’s revitalization plans for a “dream neighborhood” is a ride-share program with 100 Teslas, building the Inspire Theater, where luminaries from every field give TED-like talks to the community during the week (for free), Container Park—which will be a mix of cafes, boutiques, art galleries, bars, and more—and an annual music festival dubbed Life Is Beautiful. To be held from October 26-27, this year's festival will feature Empire of the Sun, Danny Brown, Earl Sweatshirt, Kings of Leon, Charli XCX and over 25 other acts. Fifteen city blocks will be closed off downtown and the two-day festival will rival Rock The Bells and SXSW in scope.
Yet even for a man like Tony Hsieh—who sold his first company, LinkExchange, to Microsoft in 1998 for $265 million at the onset of the dot-com boom—it all sounds exceedingly ambitious.
The success of Downtown Project, he said, is based on a simple principle.
“Have a vision that has a higher purpose than profits."
Hsieh then asked the crowd if they had ever seen the film Notorious, the 2009 biopic of rapper Notorious B.I.G. Nearly everyone raised their hands.
“Puffy says in the film,” Hsieh began, “‘Don’t chase the paper, chase the dream.’”