There’s a saying that all press is good press, and for Tony Hsieh it’s almost literal. His name was one of the first I heard when I moved to Las Vegas in early 2011, and the headlines keep coming, whether in every local paper or Esquire and the New York Times. So when I finally met him, I knew his face.
He was on a barstool by the fancy nachos, watching people. We were celebrating Coterie, a beautiful boutique and coworking lounge on Fremont East built with some of the $350 million Hsieh poured into Downtown Project and its funds for small businesses, tech startups, education, real estate and residential development. The audacious investment in Vegas’ tarnished heart is a popular story, and the consensus is that Hsieh is a passionate, creative, fearless community builder, and one who enjoys moments of quiet reflection in the background of his own movement.
I wonder how he feels about Downtown’s rebirth being called “his” movement. The cause and the credit belong not just to the visionary Zappos CEO, but to many visionaries, artists, entrepreneurs, public servants and residents—some having paved the way for Hsieh. He recognizes that and has emphasized his role as a conduit rather than a leader, but he can’t control how friends and reporters characterize his impact.
A recent Business Insider story posed “the billion-dollar question ... Can the community survive without Tony?” BI Senior Editor Aimee Groth observed that despite empowering and relying on all kinds of bright people, Hsieh remains the “top motivator and chief architect for the transformation,” hammering the point with a quote from his friend and Zappos Life Coach Augusta Scott: “You can tell when Tony’s not in town by the energy. You can feel the vibe and you see it.”
When I read this, I thought of Star Wars, like the Force might be better named the Hsieh. Then I thought of Yoda’s death. The Jedi Master fades, but the Rebellion doesn’t; it intensifies. As Hsieh told Groth: From a distance, a flock of birds looks like a single organism.
At Coterie, he smiled that enigmatic smile as locals toasted a future he’s helped them believe in. If he moved on, I think Downtown would survive just fine. The Ogden would have to find some new tenants. DCR might sell fewer cocktails. Some of the imported talent would probably go back to New York and San Francisco. Still, Vegas has been the queen of reinvention since long before Tony Hsieh was born. He is not the Force, but I believe it’s with him.