Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, was a brilliant entrepreneur. After he sold Zappos to Amazon for $1.2 billion, he became known both as a management guru and as an urban innovator. His “Downtown Project” in Las Vegas helped transform the image of the city.
I first met Tony Hsieh early in 2013 at SXSW in Austin, Texas. I had become familiar with his Downtown Project the previous year while working on an economic development strategy for the City of Las Vegas. Scott Adams (the now retired city manager) recommended we incorporate Tony’s efforts into our own strategy. Scott did point out, however, that Tony was particularly unreceptive to public officials and to traditional urban planning in general. He thought it unlikely he would want to meet personally. While we were able to engage with Tony’s team, I wanted to meet with Tony personally. SXSW afforded that opportunity, and our first conversation there led to many more.
Tony’s presence at SXSW was a sensation. His presentation—to a standing-room-only crowd—was a tour de force. In 45 minutes, he blasted through 134 slides, narrating the images without once glancing at them. He gave me a copy of that presentation and, with his permission, I used portions of it over the years. But in addition to his engaging showmanship, he was extraordinary in his ability to focus on details.
That focus was in play when we spent the afternoon with Will Wynn, Austin’s former mayor, at Will’s downtown condo. Tony peppered Will with a barrage of questions about every aspect of Austin’s transportation infrastructure (from pedicabs to Cars-to-Go to light rail) as well as its energy grid. He had an insatiable curiosity.
Later that same year, my colleague Alex Cooke and I hung out with him at one of his favorite bars in Las Vegas. We witnessed a far less focused side of Tony, a kind of dreaminess that seemed to be at odds with what I had experienced earlier. We later discovered that these two contradictory aspects of Tony’s personality—intense focus and dreaminess—were nothing new to his friends and acquaintances. But in any case, Tony was unfailingly generous. On a trip from Austin to Bend, Oregon, Tony put my wife, Jan, and me (and our dog Stella) up at his “crash pad” in Las Vegas. Jan was concerned we might be sleeping on a spare mattress. Anything but! His crash pad at the Ogden was a luxury apartment.
Tony’s own suite was extraordinarily whimsical – a kind of mix between the apartment of Tom Hanks’s character in Big and a college dorm room with stickies attached to windows and white boards. And then there were toys, an entire room with wall-to-ceiling living plants, computers, and (yes) a roof-top pool. To my own great delight, on his desk was a copy of Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language I had given him earlier. Alexander’s distinctive architectural and design philosophy can best be characterized as “unplanning”—a concept Tony embraced and that I tried to capture in a paper I prepared with him.
As we all process his tragic death—and the circumstances surrounding it—we shouldn’t let ourselves be distracted from all he accomplished. On another occasion, I’ll reflect more on his thinking about urban design and development. But for now, I can summarize his core ideas, his three Cs: Collisions, Community, and Co-learning. Any successful development, Tony believed, had to incorporate each of these. Collisions is his concept of streetscapes where people could bump into each other, engendering a serendipitous collision of new ideas. Community is the notion of being connected to the broader fabric of the city and all its residents. And finally, co-learning, is the idea that learning is essential to the health of a city, but that it only really takes place when it’s participative and interwoven with our lives.
Tony liked the idea of three Cs. In some ways, his thoughts about urban planning were an extension of his business philosophy. He emphasized that in his SXSW presentation: Clothing, Customer Service, and Company Culture. But his ultimate goal, whether for business or for community, was to “deliver happiness.” Tony is no longer able to do that. We are all the poorer for it.
Top image credit: Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos from the book Delivering Happiness, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)