“We should go to Vegas!”
That’s probably how most crazy weekends in Las Vegas start. These five words have launched plenty of adventures and binders full of… stories, some of which may be best left untold. But what happens in Vegas Tech will hopefully not just stay in Vegas. Last week my friend Bowei and I spent a wild 48 hours in what’s commonly known as Sin City, but which lots of people are working hard to remake into the new Las Vegas Downtown Project.
Founders are crazy, we come up with some ridiculous stuff and 99% of the time it’s just stupid, insane, pie-in-the-sky stuff that will never work and no one’s ready for - or worse, no one needs. If you were going to go big, what would you build? A mobile app? A 5-person startup? A 50 person company? How about a whole city? Lots of adjectives were thrown around to describe what’s going on with Downtown Project, and the one I kept coming back to was audacious. Not awesome, which it is, or insane (also applies) but simply audacious. Why *not* try to build a whole new downtown? Why not revitalize a whole neighborhood, in one of the hardest hit areas of the United States? And why not make it a tech hub for startups while you’re at it?
We were fortunate to get tours of Zappos and Downtown Project on the Thursday we landed. If you’ve heard anything about Zappos and their zany culture, the tour will be what you’d expect. The surprising part for me was that it was real. People were really that happy. And I couldn’t believe they could keep it up all day, every day. But that’s just a result of the well-defined and strictly enforced hiring process and letting the right kinds of people self-select to join the company. Similarly, the Downtown Project is going to attract a certain type of personality and the success or failure of the project will depend on those people who join. It will also strongly depend on the type of people who don’t move to Downtown. Everyone knows that Tony has put $350 million of his own money into this idea. They’ve split it up into 5 areas of investment:
$100M for residential development since existing infrastructure is quite old and not suitable for high-density housing.
$100M for real estate acquisitions - much of the land around the main strips are casinos and small businesses, and empty parking lots.
$50M for tech startups - with investments made via the Vegas Tech Fund. About 10 startups have already been funded with many more evaluated each week.
$50M for education - building charter schools and attracting teachers for the children of Zappos employees and future startup folks and their families.
$50M for small business - creating and supporting the local services and community for the new residents to coming to Downtown.
I’m still highly skeptical of all these different parts coming together, especially with their aggressive 5 year timeline. Logically it would take 10 or 20 years to make the sort of changes and improvements these folks are trying to do. But it’s a startup, so move fast (no, faster) and make mistakes. Then keep pushing forward. These are still the early days, and there’s lots to be figured out. I can list a dozen things that would never work, and a dozen more things that would need to be done to make it work. Same can be said of any startup. And just like every startup and founder I talk to, I hope they pull it off!
So is Vegas for you? Should you consider moving your startup to the Downtown Project? As a recruiter I look at it the same way as if one of my candidates is considering joining a particular startup. If you believe in the Founder’s vision, you like the people you’ll be working with, and you can make significant contributions - then go for it. Like any other startup, the earliest people will reap the largest rewards since they are taking the biggest risk, personally, professionally, etc.
The only way to make that decision is to go for a visit yourself. The people are super friendly, the “crash pads” at the Ogden are a misnomer because it was like staying in a luxury hotel, and you’re bound to run into some interesting people. It was strange to spend two days in Las Vegas and not step foot on The Strip. Everyone thinks they know Las Vegas, but we got to see a whole other side to the City of Sin. It might very well be the new Land of Opportunity for those intrepid enough to take the trip.