Zappos Happiness at Street Level
Tony Hsieh likes to plan parties and see how the flow of energy works there. Now, he’s planning a city, and a huge audience is waiting to see what kind of fun shakes out.
As the CEO of Zappos.com, the online apparel and footwear company that generates a billion dollars in gross sales a year, Hsieh brings the party atmosphere to work to get everyone colliding, connecting and smiling. The more social interactions we have, he points out, the happier we are. The happier we are, the more money we make. And so on.
The feel-good factor at Zappos.com has become famous, especially since the 2010 publication of Hsieh’s New York Times bestseller, Delivering Happiness, which describes the winning work environment he established at the company. Hsieh is more than willing to share his insights about building a progressive and upbeat corporate culture. And as Zappos.com looks to expand its physical facilities in Nevada, he’s taking his strategy to the streets.
In 2013, the company is transplanting itself from a facility 20 minutes outside The Strip to Downtown Las Vegas, which Hsieh is committed to transforming into a scintillating cultural hub. If all goes as planned, the idyllic cityscape that he has planned will be bathed in Zappos happiness.
Hsieh transformed Zappos.com into a billion dollar enterprise when he thought beyond shoes and made company culture the core of the business. He says Downtown Project (downtownproject.com) is the same concept, just at a different scale.
Hsieh notes that he was inspired by Edward L. Glaeser’s book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, which argues that the city is humanity’s greatest invention. He is architecting “the most community-focused large city in the world in the place you’d probably expect it the least,” and has personally invested $350 million in the venture. Zappos.com will be right at the core of all the hustle and bustle.
The plans are utopic—coffee shops, grocery stores, creative communities, recreational facilities—all in close proximity in an urban location that needs revival. Additional residential facilities have been slated for construction. The project is also injecting seed funds into small businesses, tech companies and the Las Vegas education system as incentives for people to relocate there.
“I live downtown, and I want to help make it a place where everything you need is within walking distance, to create an ecosystem that will attract and maintain more employees, and to invest in small businesses that create a sense of neighborhood and community,” Hsieh explains. “I want to open source what works and doesn’t work.”
Hsieh says his focus is on creating positive density that will maximize the number of serendipitous collisions among people right on the streets and in the cafes around the corner. The idea is to take the cultural strategies that built Zappos, apply them to downtown Las Vegas, bring in a whole new set of players, and watch innovation happen. Hsieh anticipates a “virtuous loop” through which the company will learn from random encounters with people who are out and about in the community.
“That’s how ideas come about—seemingly unrelated people or industries colliding,” Hsieh says. “We want to get that to happen more frequently. The whole move downtown is about having the community be part of our brand, and all of those things give new meaning to the company.”
Hsieh is not daunted by the scope of the project because he says that any redevelopment efforts will be a boon to the area. As he points out, “It’s pretty hard to do worse than empty lots.” At the same time, he is eager to tap into the fun and quirky creative class that already exists in downtown Las Vegas. It fits well with Zappos culture, he says.
The unknown possibilities of planning a city have absorbed Hsieh’s attention and stepped up his legendary drive to build happy spaces.
“The blank canvas-ness of it is appealing because then you’re just restricted by your imagination,” Hsieh says. “Five years from now, people will turn around and say, ‘What the hell just happened here?’”