Old-school businesspeople may not understand Zappos.com CEO Tony Hsieh's methods.
But the estimated 2,000 people attending Preview Las Vegas warmly received him when he offered details of his Downtown Project and Zappos' move from Henderson to downtown Las Vegas and he received a standing ovation following his keynote presentation.
Hsieh is investing $350 million to jump-start small businesses, business start-ups, education, culture and real estate development in the Downtown Project.
In his 30-minute presentation, Hsieh talked about bringing culture and art to downtown, encouraging "collisions" of residents and visitors so they get to know each other and share experiences and ideas and his philosophy of "delivering happiness."
Hsieh said one of the secrets to his success is devoting the marketing budget to customer service "so your customers become the ones marketing your product." He also seeks ideas from within his company, emailing his employees about what they'd want to see in their dream campus. The response: a doggie day-care facility, so that's what they'll have.
He noted that the old City Hall facility where Zappos.com is moving has some jail cells so he toyed with the idea of turning that into an on-campus tavern and calling it "Bars."
How does Hsieh attract people to move downtown? He said he and many of his employees currently live at the Ogden apartments downtown and several of the units are left unoccupied so that entrepreneurs considering a move downtown could stay there for free for awhile to get a feel for the place. He only asks that guests give something back — maybe a talk or speech to enrich local residents. Eventually, Hsieh said he'd build and open a speakers center to house community events on a regular basis.
Under Hsieh's leadership, Zappos.com took over sponsorship of First Friday, a monthly art festival featuring the works of downtown artisans. That strategy has led to monthly "Tech Week" and "Fashion Week" for residents to learn more about technology and fashion trends.
To Hsieh, it's OK for people not to choose to move downtown — they can instead become "downtown subscribers" and participate in some of the themed activities that occur there.
Hsieh ended his presentation with a story about the inspiration he received from the story of Roger Bannister, the first distance runner to break the four-minute mile. Running a mile in that time was thought to be impossible, but once Bannister did it, several other runners accomplished it.
That, he said, shows that people can be encouraged to do more things that many thought would be impossible — which is what he's trying to do downtown.