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 these TCTV walkthroughs and interviews.) 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 it 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.
But there’s a lot here that even curmudgeons can cheer. Raising the urban density from 14 to 100 people per acre. Playgrounds for children, grants for teachers, a whole new magnet school built to foster tomorrow’s entrepeneurs. A shared-car service with 100 Teslas. Down the street they’re building a cafe/theatre where you can “grab a coffee and watch a TED talk” as part of your morning ritual. (OK, I have issues with TED, but that’s a separate post.) A slew of cafes and galleries and restaurants are up and running already, and there’ll soon be a hackerspace to go with the existing fashionspace.
All this in a sprawling urban landscape dotted with sculptures built for Burning Man, an event Hsieh attends regularly. (Full disclosure: so do I.) That’s no coincidence. Burning Man is an excellent example of an environment where the barriers between work and play disintegrate — it’s a bacchanal, yes, but it’s not known as “recreational moving” for nothing. I think it’s fair to interpret the Downtown Project, and Zappos itself, as an attempt by Hsieh to instill and extend the Burner ethos into urban life and the working world.
And he’s been surprisingly successful. People may call Zappos a cult, but by almost all accounts it’s a great place to work. “If success is built on the happiness of one’s employees, then Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh might as well be teaching the class.” (Although recent Glassdoor reviews indicate that some employees are troubled by Hsieh’s new focus on the Downtown Project.)