Tony Hsieh, the longtime C.E.O. of Zappos, was an iconoclast and a dreamer. Five years ago, we sat down with him around a desert campfire to talk about those dreams. Hsieh died recently from injuries sustained in a house fire; he was 46.
Listen and subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or elsewhere. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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This is a playback of an episode we put out in 2015. It’s about how one man — a soft-spoken but wildly interesting and accomplished man — had a vision and acted upon it. His name is Tony Hsieh. For more than two decades he was C.E.O. of the shoe company Zappos; he was known in the tech and entrepreneurial communities — and beyond — as an iconoclast and a dreamer, maybe even a seeker. Before recording this episode, in Las Vegas, I’d met Hsieh just once or twice before, with my friend and co-author Steve Levitt.
Both of us were really taken with Hsieh himself and a book he published called Delivering Happiness. About a week ago, Tony Hsieh died, at age 46. When I heard the news, I dug into our archives to play back the episode. I thought you might all like to hear it too. Keep in mind some of the facts and figures are now outdated; we’ll add a few updates at the end. Hsieh himself doesn’t actually appear until the second half of the episode, but as you’ll hear, his ghost is sort of floating through the first half too. You’ll also hear that his drink of choice was Fernet-Branca. If you like a drink now and again, you might want to pour one out now for Tony.
Maggie HSU: We’re standing at the corner of Ogden Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard North.
Stephen DUBNER: In Las Vegas, Nevada. Nevada? Not Nevada.
DUBNER: It is Nevada?!
DUBNER: Oh god, I had it wrong the whole time? I always try to be so respectful of the way that a place is pronounced in the place where it is, like Oregon, I think. Oregon. Now I’m probably wrong on that.
ADAM: No, you’re right on that.
DUBNER: It is New Yursie, right? No, okay. And we’re looking up at the Ogden.
The Ogden is a luxury condo building in downtown Las Vegas. Not on the Strip, the famous part of city, with all the huge hotels and casinos and glitter. The old downtown is about five miles north of the Strip — but it’s still Las Vegas, in the state of — say it with me — na-VAA-da. Apartments in the Ogden sell in the low- to mid-six figures.
DUBNER: You’ve lived there how long?
HSU: I’ve lived there a year and half.
And you are:
HSU: Maggie Hsu and I run business development for Downtown Project.
The Downtown Project is, as the name implies, it’s a project to make downtown a thing again in Las Vegas — a vibrant area where a lot of people might actually want to live.
HSU: Vegas is a very unique market. If you have a family, kids, animals, it’s less appealing to have an apartment downtown, so what we’re really trying to do is boost up the amenities so you have a dog park nearby, you have restaurants within walking distance.
But as you’ll hear, it’s more than just that, more than just boosting amenities. The Downtown Project, founded in January 2012, comes with a big vision, and a big price tag, which is being funded primarily by one man.
HSU: So, the initial allocation of the project was $350 million fully funded as a for-profit entity by Tony Hsieh.
Tony Hsieh is already a business iconoclast. He first got involved with Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retailer, as an investor, but then became its C.E.O. and has presided for years over a corporate culture that most corporations wouldn’t recognize. Among his priorities: having fun, empowering his call-center employees, and making customers happy at almost any cost.
We’ve written about Hsieh and Zappos before — how, for instance, company meetings are sometimes held in a bar. And why customer reps are encouraged to talk to a customer for as long as they want, all without a script, how they are authorized to settle problems without calling in a supervisor and can even “fire” a customer who makes trouble for them. And how Zappos gives new employees a chance to quit their brand-new job and get a quitting “bonus,” about one month’s pay — because Tony Hsieh figures he’d rather weed out anyone who doesn’t really, really, really want to work at Zappos.
All those gambles paid off: in 2009, Amazon.com bought Zappos for about $1.2 billion. Now Hsieh is using some of his money for an even bigger gamble: to try turning downtown Las Vegas into a very different kind of city. So, in this episode of Freakonomics Radio, we’ll do what most of you think about doing whenever you visit Las Vegas, I’m sure. We sit around a campfire and chat with Tony Hsieh — and campfire-appropriate beverages:
Tony HSIEH: I’m not really normally a beer drinker. And this is your first P.B.R.?
DUBNER: I think ever. Umm, it tastes like beer.
HSIEH: We had a fernet shot earlier for those of you just tuning in.
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Compared to the rise of Las Vegas itself — a gambling and entertainment mecca built in the middle of nowhere through the moxie of some Jewish gangsters, Mormon bankers, and other colorful characters — the Downtown Project that Tony Hsieh envisions isn’t quite so bold. But for anyone who cares about cities, and about the future of cities, it’s worth paying attention to.
The idea for remaking downtown Vegas began when Hsieh relocated Zappos headquarters from Henderson, on the southeast edge of Las Vegas, into downtown. But Hsieh, being Hsieh, didn’t settle for some random address: Zappos moved into the old City Hall. So, today, the former Las Vegas city council chamber is now an auditorium for Zappos company meetings. The old jail has been converted into an employee gym. And once Zappos made over City Hall, Tony Hsieh began to wonder if downtown itself might need a makeover. One of his main inspirations was a Harvard economist named Ed Glaeser, who four years ago published a manifesto called Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier.
DUBNER: Professor Glaeser.
Ed GLAESER: Hi, Stephen. How are you?
DUBNER: I’m very well, thank you, how are you?
GLAESER: Great, thanks.
DUBNER: And where are you today?
GLAESER: I’m in Paris, France.
DUBNER: Poor fellow. How are things there?
GLAESER: It is a spectacular April day in Paris.
DUBNER: And now, we should just establish for the record, you do not live in Paris, so just give us quickly your geographical bonafides.
GLAESER: Usually I live outside of Boston. And I’m currently on sabbatical attempting to civilize my children by taking them to a variety of different cities.
DUBNER: Very good. And you have a particular interest in cities, do you not, sir?
GLAESER: I do indeed. I do love cities very much. I’ve spent almost all of my adult life studying cities. And that’s also one of the reasons why I’m here in Paris.
DUBNER: So, Ed, you grew up in New York City, so you may be biased, but just rank for me if you don’t mind, your five, let’s say, favorite cities in the world.
GLAESER: Oh come on. That’s like ranking your favorite children. That’s a highly unfair thing to do.
DUBNER: You don’t have that many children, so it’s probably a little easier. Yep.
GLAESER: But certainly I love New York and I love Boston and I’m very, very fond of Hong Kong and I think Singapore is — still remains — the best-run place on the planet and Europe is filled with wonderful cities full of charm and history that I also love very much.
DUBNER: If you had to pick one, since you’re in Paris right now, maybe it would be Paris — if you had to pick one western European city to make your top-five list, what would it be?
GLAESER: Oh, certainly Paris is great. I also — I just spent a month in Barcelona, which I also love and am passionate about London, as well.
DUBNER: You’ve shared with us your five or seven favorite cities noting that what makes them your favorite is not necessarily universal. Where on your list — and this list can be as long as you want of cities in the world, where would Las Vegas rank on that list?
GLAESER: Again, I gave you cities that I loved. I’m not sure that I’m comfortable making any sort of a list, but certainly there’s a lot to like about the dynamism in Las Vegas. Las Vegas was one of the fastest growing American cities for many decades. It was a place that until the boom succeeded marvelously as many Americans Sun Belt cities do, at providing vast amounts of affordable housing for ordinary-income Americans and that’s terrific. It cannot be faulted for its pro-business policies. All of these things are to be loved.
It is true that what people often think of as the core of Las Vegas, the Las Vegas Strip, which is really in the unincorporated city, that’s a thing which as a lover of cities I may marvel at. But it’s hard to fall in love with it. I think historically the great weakness of Las Vegas has been education. So much so that in my earliest work documenting the connection between education and urban growth, Las Vegas was an obviously huge outlier because it grew so quickly and had so little of a base in terms of share of the population with a college degree. And in the city you still have about 21 percent of Las Vegas adults with a college degree, which is a lot closer to Detroit, which is about 12 percent than it is to Seattle, which is about 50 percent. And I continue to think that that is Las Vegas’s greatest challenge is making itself attractive to a wider range of skill categories.
This message — the need to attract highly educated people — got through to Tony Hsieh and the other architects of the Downtown Project. One of them is Zach Ware, who’s a general partner at Vegas Tech Fund, the venture-capital arm of the Downtown Project:
Zach WARE: The work that we first found that really I think set, sowed the seeds for what would become the Downtown Project, was Ed Glaeser’s book.
GLAESER: I was very flattered when Tony reached out to me. He read my book and seems to really be excited by it. It’s deeply flattering obviously, and Zappos paid me to come out and give a talk to their workers. And I got to spend about three days with Tony, hanging out in the downtown area of Las Vegas. I thought it was fascinating, what he was doing, and I thought it always seemed like it was an uncertain bet.
That bet was whether Tony Hsieh could use his fortune to reshape downtown. Not, however, by building big attractions that draw visitors; but rather by reconfiguring things for the locals. Zach Ware again:
WARE: So, in Tony’s case, he set about on the real estate side to acquire a fairly large contiguous area of land. And his perspective was, “I don’t necessarily need to build everything. I don’t want to. I don’t want to program the neighborhood. I’m not someone who can do that. But what I can do is be a force as best as I possibly can.” So, our secret weapon, if you wanted to have restaurant, bookshop, bar, co-working space and so forth, sort of coexisting together, our secret sauce was that Downtown Project owned all the property. The idea is that when you look at co-working spaces, offices, cities, the magic and creativity that happens in those places is as a result of random encounters and conversations with people you otherwise wouldn’t know to reach out to, couldn’t reach out to, didn’t know existed.
They have a word for this: collisions. Collisions are one of the most important metrics that Ware and Hsieh have in mind:
WARE: It’s engineering an environment to support collisions, to inspire collisions, and being very mindful that a master plan, single idea can be very, very risky, that letting the neighborhood sort of evolve itself is what makes, in our minds, long-term magic happen.
Ed Glaeser says this vision is very different than most visions about how to build, or grow, a city:
GLAESER: When you look at the globe and what building cities usually means — it means that somebody has come up with a couple billion dollars to build some form of project — a convention center, a sports stadium, maybe something to do with transportation — and then they try to wrap a city around it. And sometimes it works, at least half of the time it doesn’t, but it’s very much of the view that cities are physical structures and let the people follow that.
Hsieh was remarkable because his view was that the structures should actually follow the people. That’s a view I largely share, that actually focusing on the real heart of the city, which is always the humanity that is dwelling in that city, is the right thing to do. And it was very much a view that the neighborhood would grow organically, that it would originally be housed in older buildings and have businesses housed in things like shipping containers. It would focus on the social networks, on the bumping into each other of different people. It was a very exciting vision Now, I think it’s hard to make a dense downtown area work in Las Vegas, right? I mean, the entire Sun Belt area in the U.S. is an area that’s built around the automobile.
I’m back on the street with Maggie Hsu, who runs business development for the Downtown Project. It was about 5 p.m. on a Tuesday in February; Vegas was just recovering from a cold snap — it had gotten into the 40s, and there had been snow on the surrounding mountains. Zappos had been planning a charity event featuring Britney Spears and a bunch of zoo animals. Britney Spears was still going to show up, but the zoo animals were kept at home because of the cold:
DUBNER: So, we’re at the very beginning of the Downtown Project here in Las Vegas in Ogden. So, if collision, colliding and collidability and collisionability etc. are what you’re after, it’s prime time late afternoon and we’re the only people on the corners. And there are 200 cars within eyesight, so they’re all colliding, or not colliding, but interacting with each other. How much more urban does it need to get before the stuff that you want to happen starts to happen?
HSU: Yeah. And I think it’s a mix of increasing the residential density, but also increasing walkability. And so, Las Vegas is a very car-centric culture and people are used to driving places.
GLAESER: There’s nothing surprising to this. All of the world’s urban areas are built around the transportation technology that was dominant in the era in which they were being produced. So, the western cities, which are post-war typically, were built around the car, Las Vegas as much as any. So, the Hsieh vision of a denser, walking area was always a little bit at odds with that. Although Las Vegas was always somewhat quirky because of the desire of tourists to be able to walk places. So, it always had more density, more walkability than let’s say, Phoenix did, or Oklahoma City. And I think the attempt to creatively reuse old space, the attempt to focus on social connections, all of that seemed exciting and visionary if indeed, something of a gamble.
The Downtown Project is now one of the biggest landowners in downtown Las Vegas. It directly employs more than 250 people, and estimates that it has helped create at least 900 jobs through its start-up investments. It owns and operates some properties — like the Container Park, an open-air shopping and eating and entertainment zone; a grocery store, a boutique hotel; and the Gold Spike, a bar and restaurant that serves another function:
HSU: So, this is the Gold Spike. It used to be a casino with dollar strip blackjack and lots of other interesting games and we converted it into a co-working space, so you’ll notice power outlets, free WiFi, it’s actually a great place for startups that don’t have offices to meet—.
DUBNER: So, are these guys over there co-working? Or are they just drinking?
HSU: So, the gentleman in the far corner actually runs our food and beverage operations and he’s having a meeting, so a little bit of both.
The Gold Spike is perfectly inviting, but only a handful of people had taken up the invitation, at least on this one weekday afternoon. It felt a bit like a really nice model home version of a bar:
HSU: It doesn’t have to be perfect when you first open it. It was intentional so being able to understand how people use the space — and the best example is the backyard. So the backyard actually was a parking lot when we first opened and one day someone said, “Why not build an ice rink?” So, we built out what we call The Cold Spike and had ice rink, these were all decorated as gingerbread houses. Not many people went ice skating, and so we decided to retool and what really stood out in the Yelp reviews, in customer feedback, was these giant games. And so, we decided to get rid of the ice rink and build this area full of giant games.
There were indeed a bunch of giant games — including the classic backyard contest known in some parts as cornhole. It’s basically a beanbag toss toward a sloped board with a hole in it.
DUBNER: Okay. How do you score? In the hole is something and on the board is something?
HSU: In the hole is three. On the board is one.
DUBNER: And where do we shoot from?
HSU: We can go from this line here.
DUBNER: What’s our wager? A one-bedroom apartment in the Ogden? Is that too much?
HSU: I was going to say a Fernet shot over the Airstreams later.
DUBNER: Okay, it’s a deal. Okay. You go ahead. Oh. Beautiful shot. That’s three. Alright so a total of four?
DUBNER: Okay. Uh oh, zero.
HSU: Ohhh. We tied!
DUBNER: Sudden death?
HSU: Sudden death. I have to do another one.
DUBNER: Congratulations. I owe you a shot of Tony’s vile Italian liqueur.
After cornhole, the tour continued.
HSU: So, on the west side of the street is the Fremont Experience and it’s a business improvement district, a mix of casinos and restaurants.
DUBNER: It long predates the Downtown Project, right?
HSU: A lot of it was the original strip.
DUBNER: Okay. And then over here?
HSU: We’re calling the East of Fremont East for lack of a better name. But many of these restaurants and bars were around, have been around for several years and existed before Zappos moved downtown and they were kind of this unique spot where bartenders and the owners of the restaurants would go to other people’s restaurants after work. And so, it was this naturally supportive community and what Tony saw there was something that had the beginnings of a really great, unique space — and we’ll cross here — like a Brooklyn or an Austin.
If you know Brooklyn or Austin, it might seem impossible to remake the old downtown section of Las Vegas in their image. But remember, the Downtown Project has a secret weapon: an urban economist, Ed Glaeser, who believes that the key to an effort like this is to attract a certain kind of entrepreneur:
DUBNER: Ed, you wrote a paper back in 2009 called “Clusters of Entrepreneurship” and it seems as though Tony is following this plan quite closely. I’ll read you the beginning of your abstract. “Employment growth is strongly predicted by smaller average establishment size both across cities and across industries within cities.” And Tony, as you know, is trying to import a lot of trying to start up and encourage a lot of small businesses — restaurants, shops, bookstores and so on. Talk about that for a minute. Obviously you think that’s the right way to go. Why is that the right way to go? How does that work in cities?
GLAESER: Well you know, I think this is maybe best illustrated by the counterexample, which is Detroit. So, Detroit goes from being one of the most entrepreneurial places on the planet in the 1890s, just filled with a cluster of smart people just trying to do the new, new thing, like Silicon Valley in the 1960s. And it succeeds so well that it creates these massive, massive automotive companies that provide fantastic wages, are incredibly productive.
It has a 70-year run which is almost unimaginable in terms of its urban triumph. And yet, the very success of those companies basically kills off the tradition of entrepreneurial human capital. It trains people who make superb company men, but not scrappy entrepreneurs. And entrepreneurship, like anything else that matters is a skill. It’s something that’s built. And if you’ve spent your life working for General Motors, you’re not likely to be the right person to start up some scrappy, new electronic greeting cards company if General Motors falters. And that’s really, I think, what that paper’s about and what this sort of long litany of evidence trying that shows this sort of role of proxies of entrepreneurship as predicting urban success, suggests that just as normal human capital, the share of a population with a college degree is predictive of which areas do well, measures of other types of human capital, like the amount of entrepreneurial skill in the area also predict urban success.
And I think that’s what Tony Hsieh is trying to do, is trying to create enough of a cluster of entrepreneurship both because those entrepreneurs will themselves create employment, but because some of that entrepreneurial skill is likely to be infectious, that people will learn from each other and you’ll create and overall cluster of this.
And that’s why the Downtown Project is helping fund all kinds of small entrepreneurs. So far, it has put money into more than 50 businesses, and, through the Vegas Tech Fund, 100 tech startups. Here again is Zach Ware:
WARE: And in our case we said, “Hey there’s an amazing chef who wants to start a restaurant, how can we get behind that. Here are two or three awesome tech company ideas that we think are really awesome companies to invest in, let’s do that.” And the idea for us has always been create value by creating diversity. Trying not to bet on one thing, but rather have 100 amazing ideas, or interesting ideas where 20 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent can fail and you still have a very diverse, active economy and ground activity rather than choosing one, big gigantic thing like a stadium, or a big building that can fail. And when it fails the whole neighborhood goes down with it.
The epicenter of the Downtown Project — the densest small-business incubator — feels like a cross between an outdoor mall and a county fair:
DUBNER: So this — so this is looking like, I don’t know what to describe this. Like a public plaza playground-y, there are kids and people climbing on stuff — but shops, and llama signs. So, what is this?
HSU: This is the Container Park. It was an old Motel 6 that we tore down, wanted to build both a retail space, retail incubator for first-time entrepreneurs as well as a space for families and children. And so, both components were equally important. You have around the outside, a lot of first-time owner-operated small business owners that can test out their concepts in a small space and if they succeed they can move to stand-alone brick and mortar or they can shift locations. So, we actually had a few stores go from second floor to first floor because they were so successful and they needed more square footage. And then at the same time, we had this giant Swiss Family Robinson treehouse in the middle with three slides, a play space for children and we can actually take a walk around the park
DUBNER: And if you would just look around and tell me the name of some of the shops here and if the name doesn’t contain what they do, tell us what they do.
HSU: Sure. So Big Ern’s Barbeque is a barbeque shop and the owner is a gentleman named Ernie and he was working at the call center at Zappos and his passion was barbeque. So, it was another small business investment funded him, he was going out of the back of his truck for awhile, and this was his first-ever store. And I believe he’s now the top- or second-grossing food and beverage outlet in the entire park. And when the park opened, he got up on stage and I remember he was crying and this was a life-changing opportunity.
And then we’ll go into the toy store, Kappa Toys. So, Lizzy and her husband Trevor are from Austin, Texas and they were at a toy store, several of us were there for South by Southwest, stumbled upon the store and they were actually going out of business and so we said, “You know, why not open a toy store in downtown Vegas. What do you think about that?” It seemed like a really natural fit with the kids. And they’ve been here ever since. And they’re absolutely amazing what they can do.
HSU: So, they’re the actual owners, Lizzy and Trevor.
DUBNER: I’m Stephen, nice to meet you.
Trevor YOPP: Stephen, nice to meet you. How do you do?
DUBNER: Explain to me just a little bit, are you a subsidized business then? How does it work?
Lizzy NEWSOME: I don’t know if subsidized would be how I would explain this business specifically, because we are part of that fully funded, autonomous group, so we are small business. I see it as venture capital which I don’t see as subsidy as much as investment risk.
DUBNER: So, what does it feel like to be the business owners and — in that scenario and what are you thinking about — how do you measure success? And how long can you go without being as successful as you might be if you didn’t have that backup?
NEWSOME: Yeah we’ve done small business for 10 years now, specifically in the toy industry, and one of the biggest difficulties in such a weird niche industry, especially since the whole banking crisis, has been finding capital, and so what we’ve really appreciated overall from working before is a huge pressure is off. Like, we can focus on what we do best and we’re not constantly stressed. And we’re not constantly having to also learn how to find funding and organize everything. Instead of funding, we can really work on the business and not constantly freak out about where our next line of credit is coming from.
DUBNER: You guys are a couple?
NEWSOME: Mhm, yes.
DUBNER: You have kids?
DUBNER: Why is that so funny?
NEWSOME: Everyone asks it and I think this is the best birth control you could ask for. We get really cute kids in and I love them and every time I start thinking seriously about it, we’ll get a little nightmare in and then all of a sudden I’ll add another year onto our waiting period.
YOPP: We started discussing kids, but we’re a few years off.
NEWSOME: Yeah, I think dog first.
DUBNER: What are your big sellers here, toy wise?
NEWSOME: Yeah, we really set it up so we keep in stuff that sells well and there’s not much we have that doesn’t move. Brody is a personal favorite. I’ve worked with this company for years. So they’re bouncy ponies; they’re made in Italy.
DUBNER: They’re beautiful.
NEWSOME: They’re beautiful so you see that design. They’re over 30 years old. Both of them are safe to 400 pounds. So, even though it’s a kid’s toy, it’s totally adult friendly and there are so many drunk grown ups on them every Saturday night.
DUBNER: Oh, I guess we’re leaving.
HSU: Yeah, onward and up.
NEWSOME: You can come back. We won’t be here, you can bother the employees.
DUBNER: Well, thank you so much.
NEWSOME: No it’s fine.
DUBNER: Nice to have met you. Good luck with everything.
Maggie Hsu and I head out of Container Park, where the density falls in a hurry.
DUBNER: So, as neat as all this is, we’re encountering very few actual humans. Is that because of time of day, day of week, and temperature?
HSU: It’s still less dense than you would find in many other cities and downtowns. But you’ll notice that what we’ve tried to do is build block by block. So, the Container Park a year ago would have even less traffic, so we built that extra block. You walk that extra block to the Container Park. We’ve started activating further down. We’re about to walk to the bookstore and we’ll see a few more people. So, we’re making that journey. And the thought is as we build more of that out, so we’re building a music area on the right with the Bunkhouse, which is a music venue, the Wheelhouse, which will be a wind-powered stage and a record store. So, once that opens you’ll have even more people. And so, it’s this one-block, one-block strategy.
And part of that strategy is to attract technology startups. I asked Ed Glaeser what kind of tech startups downtown Vegas should be thinking about:
DUBNER: If there was some tech cluster that you could clone or import or steal, what kind of tech cluster would it be? What, if you could transplant something, would it be a Silicon Valley? A Route 28 Corridor? Or a Provo environment? Or do you want a different kind of industry represented than the kind of current, traditional industry, what would you bring into Vegas, if you could bring in anything, that you think would help it to succeed?”
GLAESER: I would think the more that you go towards things like Silicon Valley, where you’re focusing on making faster and faster transistors, I can’t imagine that that has any synergies with Las Vegas. That being said, think about what Tony Hsieh found attractive about the Las Vegas area for Zappos. It was the consumer-oriented workforce: people who came out of working in the hospitality industry; people who came out of the entertainment industry; people who were fantastic manning the phones for Zappos. Now the question is, what other sort of consumer service tech companies could potentially take advantage of that? What other areas are there synergies with the traditional strengths of Las Vegas? You know, maybe that’s another angle to play.
But if Tony Hsieh wants the Downtown Project to do more than just make life a bit more interesting for Zappos employees — that’s a much bigger challenge:
GLAESER: I think it all depends upon whether or not there is going to be enough entrepreneurship that he can attract into the area, and particularly enough educated entrepreneurs. I think this feels fairly central to me, is whether or not he can attract more people like himself into the area and probably not just people who are in service industries. He needs to get something more of a chain of tech people who decide that this is a whole lot cooler and a whole lot cheaper than other places that they can move into.
DUBNER: Let me propose something where we’d be killing, where Tony Hsieh would be killing a couple birds with one stone. What would it take for you to bring your family to Las Vegas, to Downtown Project, for let’s say three years, to establish a kind of Triumph of the City Urban Institute where you’d be the star attraction and you’d work there and live there and then the other I.Q. would flow? How much does Tony Hsieh need to pay you per annum?
GLAESER: Well, I don’t know about money. I think the problem is that in my welfare function depends critically on having people who are smarter than I am around me. And I would need to make sure that my kids also had a lot of people who were smarter than they were around them. And if you can guarantee me that, I think I’d be willing to go. That is some sense the challenge that you face in starting a new city is to sort of attract a cluster of talent that can then feed on itself. I don’t know how well, how feasible that is, or whether or not that will be achieved. But if you judge the project in the abstract, I mean, if it were me doing it, I’d be pretty sure that I would screw it up, right? I mean, but he is a remarkable guy with a remarkable track record who is deeply charismatic in many ways. So, you would’ve lost money in the past betting against Tony Hsieh. I’m not sure I would be ready to start betting against him now.
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You’re listening to a playback of a 2015 Freakonomics Radio episode called “Could the Next Brooklyn Be … Las Vegas?” Back to Vegas we go. After our tour of the Downtown Project, we head to the outskirts of the area. The streets here are quiet, the sidewalks empty. It’s getting dark now. We turn right and come upon a guard shack — we’re with the band; we get waved through — and find ourselves standing in what looks to be a very funky trailer park.
DUBNER: So we’re walking on a very nice, astroturfed, not trademark astroturfed, but artificial grass walkway with colored lights and a canopy and the structures are some Airstreams but also a lot of—.
HSU: Tumbleweed Tiny Houses.
DUBNER: Is that a name brand?
HSU: It’s a trademark. Tumbleweed Tiny Homes.
DUBNER: And how many residences or how many buildings are there here?
HSU: There are about 20 Airstreams and 10 Tumbleweeds.
DUBNER: And are they all full?
HSU: It’s a mix.
One resident is Tony Hsieh, the C.E.O. of Zappos, the man who is putting his own money into the Downtown Project. We began — as apparently many get-togethers here begin — with a shot of Hsieh’s favorite drink, Fernet-Branca.
HSIEH: That is an Italian liqueur that’s soaked in 40 herbs including ginseng, myhrr, chamomile, anise, tastes and smells like Chinese medicine.
HSIEH: Sixty seconds after you drink it it actually coats your stomach. It’s a digestif. It actually gets rid of nausea, so it’s like healthy, yeah.
SERVER: Would you like it in a cup, or no?
DUBNER: I’m not fancy.
DUBNER: Cheers. Cin Cin. L’Chaim. Everything.
DUBNER: This is delicious. It felt like I hurried through it just out of being the only one with a bottle.
HSIEH: Okay, but you’ll see throughout the night as it evolves. As you evolve.
DUBNER: You wanna go talk?
HSIEH: Yeah you want to do this outdoors? I don’t know what’s easier for you? Because there’s a great spot up there.
DUBNER: On top of the Airstream? Cool.
HSIEH: Or we can do next to the campfire so you can get the crackling every once in a while for the background.
DUBNER: I like that. Tony, can you just kind of set the scene? Say where we are and what happens here.
HSIEH: We are in a half a city block, so this was just a completely empty lot three-and-a-half months ago and a bunch of us decided to move in as a living experiment, and the original idea was let’s see what happens if we do an urban version of Burning Man. I think there’s probably 15 or so of us that live here, but then we also have a whole bunch that are set up as guest Airstreams and guest tiny houses.
DUBNER: So, you’re living here now? You sleep here every night?
HSIEH: I’ve been here over three months now, yeah. Since November 4th.
DUBNER: No kidding.
HSIEH: And I used to live there, in the Ogden.
DUBNER: In the Ogden? And when you say “used to,” so you literally don’t live there anymore? You moved out of there? This is temporary, right? The Airstream?
HSIEH: No, this is—.
HSIEH: Yeah. I’ve probably been back there five times this whole time.
DUBNER: Wow. You keep all your stuff — you have an Airstream?
HSIEH: Yeah, it’s the one behind that one
DUBNER: Okay, so Maggie walked us around and it was great. I’m baffled that you’ve been able to do what you’ve done so far and kind of baffled, even more baffled that you’ve wanted to do what you’ve done because it seemed like such a massive undertaking, not just physically and logistically and financially, but psychically. So, that’s what I kind of wanted to talk to you about. Is where did the psychic part — like, what made you wanna reinvent a part of a city? And where did the desire come from?
HSIEH: I guess for me it wasn’t really about reinventing. Like this area we’re in, near Fremont East, which is an area that most tourists don’t know about, already existed and just by magical coincidence it was a few blocks from the former City Hall, which is now Zappos headquarters.
DUBNER: So, you didn’t have any desire or idea to do this until Zappos moved there?
HSIEH: Originally, actually, we were looking to do what a lot of corporate campuses do, where we were looking to buy a big plot of land and then kind of build our own little community for the company. We actually toured campuses like Apple and Nike and Google that have these amazing campuses, and then asked our employees for ideas for what to have in a dream campus, and we literally got hundreds and hundreds of suggestions, where we realized it was going to be physically impossible to fit all of those things—.
DUBNER: What kind of suggestions?
HSIEH: Actually the No. 1 request we got from employees was actually doggie daycare, which ranked significantly higher than human daycare. And so—.
DUBNER: Is that because more of your employees have dogs than kids or they care more about their dogs than kids, do you know?
HSIEH: I’m guessing more people have dogs than kids. But as we got all these requests, we realized that it was going to be physically impossible to fit all of them under one roof. And the other thing we realized was that all those other campuses that we had looked at were great for employees but were actually really insular and didn’t really integrate or contribute to the surrounding community, and so we started thinking, what if we actually turned the entire concept inside out and rather than just focusing on ourselves, we took an approach that was more analogous to N.Y.U., where the campus blends in with the city and you don’t really know where one begins and the other ends.
DUBNER: Why did you care about that? I mean, aesthetically I understand, and I personally happen to agree with it, that it’s a nice idea, but there are all these other corporations, I mean, the typical corporate campus throughout history has been very segregated from where people live. What made you think that was worth doing.
HSIEH: I think it was based on a lot of just different research reports I read. We were talking about Ed Glaeser earlier and then there’s also Jeffrey Moore that’s done research on cities, and every time the size of a city doubles, innovation and productivity per resident increases by 15 percent, but the opposite generally happens with companies. As they get bigger, innovation and productivity per employee generally goes down. So, part of it was wanting to avoid that fate and really think about how do we, over time, get Zappos to function more like a city and less like a typical, bureaucratic—.
DUBNER: How much of that from your end was a desire for business growth? And how much was a desire, like a kind of aesthetic choice for you? Like you thought it would be better, nicer, cooler if your company could be like that, as opposed to necessarily the productivity end of things.
HSIEH: It was a few different things. There’s the productivity part of it, and then there’s also the attracting and retaining employees part of it. If employees that we’re looking for want to be part of an urban environment, then that was definitely part of the motivation. But then, the other interesting research is that most innovation actually comes from something outside your industry being applied to your own. And so, I think companies that are just in four walls ultimately end up being less innovative because they don’t have the interactions with people from other industries and so on, or on a typical suburban campus.
DUBNER: Most people who know you, and know who you are, know what you’ve done, would consider you an innovator, that’s kind of, in addition to being a success at business, that’s what you’re known for. Do you think that having been an innovator in business necessarily has inherently turned you into an innovator in this kind of thing, this kind of social/urban experiment? I mean, are they — is it one and the same? Is it necessarily related? Or is it just something that’s kind of an outgrowth of who you are as a person and what you like to do?
HSIEH: I think it’s more about — because I was never interested in anything related to urban revitalization or anything or real estate until relatively recently, and for me, 10 or 15 years ago, I used to throw a lot of parties and I would think about how do you design the space so that people collide with each other and interact with each other. And so, for example, if there’s two bars at a party, then I would shut down the first bar that’s closest to the entrance and then everyone eventually finds the alcohol, and then maybe an hour or two later, open up the first bar and that promotes the circulation.
And then within an office environment at Zappos, culture is really important to us. We want people to have those equivalent of water cooler conversations and so, we do a lot of thinking about how do you create more collisions? So, we would do weird things like in our Henderson office in the building I was in, the parking lot was behind the building and the previous tenant actually had all — there were doors on all four walls of the building and employees would go in and out whichever door was most convenient. We actually shut down those doors and had everyone actually walk around the entire building and come in the front entrance, which ended up making the reception area this collision point where guests and employees would collide and—.
DUBNER: And do you have evidence that that leads to better outcomes?
HSIEH: Part of it is just personal experience and anecdotal and, I mean—.
DUBNER: I mean, do you really care if it’s empirically a lot better? Because you know when I talked to Levitt about you recently, he said that as much as he is kind of a slave to the data at the end of the day — like if he’s trying to do something as a consultant with a business or with an N.G.O. or with a government — he’s going to take, even if there’s a 1 percent advantage in scenario A over B, and that might require doing something that most people would think unpopular, he’s going to do it, because it’s going to be better. And he said that, “Tony doesn’t care at all about anything like that.” He said, “Tony just cares about people being happy and people having a good time.” And with Zappos it’s been incredibly successful, but Levitt, like for instance, wasn’t sure if the success was due to that happiness, or maybe orthogonal to that happiness. So, do you know? Do you care?
HSIEH: I do care. And I guess I’d be interested in whatever data or research that maybe you guys could come up with, but if you read books like Good to Great or Tribal Leadership, there’s a clear, at least correlation, if not cause, between companies that do well in the long term financially and culture.
DUBNER: Although, if you look at the Good to Great companies, have you looked at those lately?
HSIEH: Well, so there’s a follow up book that Jim Collins came up with, which is How the Mighty Fall or Fail, and so, that’s also interesting reading, but, generally the great companies, whether it’s in Good to Great or in general, have strong cultures. And so, some people might think it’s the strong culture that results in the long term positive financial results, and some people could say it’s the other way around, that because they’re—.
DUBNER: You have the ability to kind of develop your culture if you’re being successful?
HSIEH: Right. And so I can also tell you I guess from personal experience and from experience, at least, of the close friends I have at Zappos that I talk to, that when you’re working with friends and super-engaged, just time flies and you want to do the best job possible, not because you’re incented to, but just because you have that intrinsic motivation.
DUBNER: You grew up in Marin?
HSIEH: Marin County, just north of San Francisco.
DUBNER: And kind of borderline rural-suburban. What was it like?
HSIEH: It was in the suburbs
DUBNER: And you went to college where?
HSIEH: I went to Harvard.
DUBNER: What did you study?
HSIEH: Computer science.
DUBNER: Okay. So, you lived in Marin County and then you lived in Cambridge. What did you think of cities? Had you been in cities a lot? Had you lived in any other cities? And which cities did you love?
HSIEH: No actually, I guess, yeah, I mean aside from Cambridge, which—.
DUBNER: Did you go into Boston much?
HSIEH: I think I went twice during college, so, yeah I was never a city person. But I did like the community aspect of living in the dorm environment.
DUBNER: Right. Right. Then obviously, you went on to do a whole bunch of things, including Zappos, where you still are. What are your favorite cities now in the world?
HSIEH: I love visiting New York, Amsterdam, Downtown Vegas obviously, San Francisco.
DUBNER: And what is it about those cities that makes you happy?
HSIEH: I think probably a combination of the walkability and the accessibility of really whatever you want. If you’re in the mood for some random type of Indian food you can find it or if you want something delivered then you can find it.
DUBNER: Where we’re sitting here doesn’t resemble what most people think of as city at all. What’s your ultimate dream of where we’re sitting right now, which feels more Burning Man at the moment, than the middle of a city. Do you want to have this feel like what Brooklyn now feels like someday or no?
HSIEH: I don’t really know Brooklyn that well, but yeah, one of the — a few years ago, the easiest way to describe what we were trying to do form the Downtown Project perspective was imagine TED, the conference, meets South by Southwest meets Burning Man, but as a lifestyle instead of as an annual event. And I think more generally, it’s — I guess a lot of city revitalization projects are really top down master plans and we’re really anti-that. It’s really more about backing the entrepreneurs and their passions, and so our goal is to help accelerate stuff, help make downtown Vegas a place of inspiration, entrepreneurial energy, creativity, innovation, upper mobility, discovery, and all that combination of creativity and entrepreneurism.
DUBNER: Glaeser’s whole thing is that the density of cities creates not only productivity, but a whole lot of other gains that are not necessarily predictable and not necessarily even that measurable, just the density and the propinquity of all the people coming together in terms of value, and in terms of intellectual property and stuff, just totally changes the game I’m just curious like how, do you see Glaeser as a kind of guru for what you’re trying to do and how did you come to like him so much?
HSIEH: Yeah. I mean basically after reading his book. It was probably a big part of I guess formulating the strategy behind what we’re trying to do, so, about if cities are ultimately about the acceleration of idea flow and different industries and so on, and so just being more purposeful about that approach, versus, he has something I think he refers to as the Edifice Complex in his book, so versus, “let’s build a giant whatever,” and then that will magically revitalize a city. But for me, it was more the progression we talked about, looking at party flow to within an office, getting employees to flow and collide, to this is the same concept just at a different scale, but getting residents to collide and talk to each other and just knowing that the more often that happens, just statistically the magic will happen on its own.
Will the magic happen on its own? It’s too early to say, obviously, but that shouldn’t stop you from rooting for it — if cities are your kind of thing. As they are for me, and for Tony Hsieh, even though he came to them late, and as they are for Ed Glaeser.
DUBNER: Ed, let’s say that 50 years from now or 100 years from now, downtown Las Vegas has turned into one of the most dynamic and original and productive and even aesthetically pleasing cities in the United States and the rest of the world. And you and I will presumably be long gone by certainly 100 years from now. What does it feel like to be the guy, the economist, who studies cities and how they thrive and how they’ve triumphed, how would that feel to have played a not-insignificant role in that triumph?
GLAESER: Well, that would be lovely. Of course, if it doesn’t do well, I have to take the bodes for that as well. But to be clear, I think if I’m one hundredth of one percent of this, that would be a lot. This is the dream and the energy of the Downtown Project and Tony Hsieh and his people and I think there’s often a tendency of people to point to academics and say, “Look at this fancy Harvard academic who gives me an imprimatur for the idea that I wanted to do anyway.” And I think that while it’s lovely for me to puff myself up with importance and think that I played some huge role in this, I think really the vision was in Tony’s head and the people on the ground. But look, I’m not trying to dodge responsibility if it goes badly, I certainly didn’t say that it was a bad idea in a major way to him so if it does crash, you can come knocking on my door and tell me I screwed up.
The Downtown Project, now known as DTP Companies, hasn’t succeeded as much as Hsieh or others would have liked. Some of the companies they funded ran out of money and shut down or moved elsewhere. Critics complained there wasn’t enough investment in housing. Also, they said, Tony Hsieh could be mercurial, changing his mind too much. That said, the project did help make downtown more attractive for other developers and projects. A new resort and casino called the Circa just opened nearby; it’s the first new downtown casino in decades. And before the pandemic shutdown, there were plans afoot for an expansion of Symphony Park, an arts-and-culture and residential venue.
A few other updates from the episode: Ed Glaeser is still a professor at Harvard; but Maggie Hsu, who used to run business development for the Downtown Project, now works at Amazon, and she founded a non-profit called Gold House Collective, which promotes the accomplishments of Asian-Americans. Zach Ware, who was a general partner at Vegas Tech Fund, is now managing partner at what’s now called VTF Capital. And Lizzy and Trevor, the couple who ran the toy store? They were unsatisfied with the financing and other elements of the Downtown Project so they moved their shop to a mall on the Vegas Strip. And no, they still don’t have kids.
As for Tony Hsieh: he retired as the C.E.O. of Zappos earlier this year, although no formal announcement was made. He died on November 27th, more than a week after sustaining injuries during a house fire in Connecticut. Again, just 46 years old. When I saw the news, I immediately thought back to that night in Vegas, sitting around a campfire, talking about the sun, the moon, the stars. I loved his curiosity, his appetite to always know more. What I remember best is that after the interview, we just kept talking. He asked me questions about people I’d interviewed and books I’d read; he told me about research papers he’d been reading, and where they led him. He’d been reading a lot about the widespread adoption of artificial intelligence. And it concerned him. How did we know the A.I. wasn’t going to turn on us humans once it had everything it needed, and wipe us all out? I wouldn’t say it was a tortured conversation, but it was intense. I’ve thought about that conversation many times since, especially as the world has seemed to catch up to some of his concerns. I didn’t know Tony Hsieh well, but I’m certainly going to miss him.
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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced Greg Rosalsky and Anna Hiatt, with help from Rick Kwan, Dan Dzula, Paul Schneider, and Mary Diduch. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Zack Lapinski, Mark McClusky, Daphne Chen, and Matt Hickey. Our intern is Emma Tyrrell. You can subscribe to Freakonomics Radio on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Tony Hsieh, former C.E.O. of Zappos.
- Maggie Hsu, founder of Gold House Collective.
- Ed Glaeser, economist at Harvard University.
- Zach Ware, managing partner at VTF Capital.
- Lizzy Newsome and Trevor Yopp, owners of Kappa Toys.
- “Clusters of Entrepreneurship,” by Edward L. Glaeser, William R. Kerr, and Giacomo A.M. Ponzetto (National Bureau of Economic Research, 2009).
- Delivering Happiness, by Tony Hsieh.
- Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, by Ed Glaeser.
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