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As We See It

[Neon Eden]

Small businesses, big beginnings: Talking with Downtown Project’s Don Welch

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Vision quest: A conceptual rendering of the Downtown Project.

One applicant wrote his business plan on toilet paper, and unrolled it.

The Downtown Project’s plan to open dozens of small businesses in the next few years after picking from hundreds of at-times highly creative submissions can seem rather freewheeling, like a certain locally famous online apparel retailer. And it is, but I also suspect there’s a deeper competency, not unlike Zappos, from whence it came.

To learn more, I interviewed Don Welch, who heads up Downtown Project’s small business team. Welch is married to Connie Yeh, cousin of Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos and a main funder of Downtown Project.

(A meta parenthetical: Has my Downtown column had too much Zappos/Downtown Project/Hsieh in the past couple months? I think so! The tentacles are vast, so it’s a little unavoidable, but suffice to say I’m aware of this and will take corrective action.)

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming: Welch and Yeh had been working together at Citibank in New York City when the two cousins, Yeh and Hsieh, connected after having been out of touch. Welch says they would talk about business and “a whole bunch of other things”—in my experience, Hsieh likes meandering, high-concept, polymathic conversations—and then Hsieh asked if they wanted to join the Downtown Project.

The day before Halloween last year, they arrived. So far, the businesses set to open are Eat, a breakfast and lunch joint from longtime Vegas chef Natalie Young; a beer and sausage concept tentatively titled Pork and Beans, as well as barbecue, tacos and a wine bar and charcuterie spot, all at Fremont and 7th, where Downtown Project is planning an experimental development using shipping containers. Plus, a clothing retailer called Coterie, also in the shipping containers. Finally, there’s a planned recording studio and web streaming company near the old city hall.

Give us a sense of what you do.

Starting a small business, and we’re starting 30, or at least 10 in the next six months, you have to do X, Y, Z. I equate it to a list in a wedding magazine. Like, nine months until opening, you need to have this. Six months out you need to have done this. Relationships are key because the approach we’re taking is, it takes a village. In the case of Natalie from Eat, so many people are coming together to lend her a hand—help with the website, architecture, even giving her a job until Eat opens.

We’re also doing a lot of education, working with Skillshare on accounting 101 and human resources to give business owners these skills. And we’re teaming them up with a mentor so they’re meeting people in the community and coming up with strategies. Finally, and this is important, we’re doing back office work. Vetting out banks, point-of-sales systems, food vendors, accountants and bookkeepers, and we’re building a master list.

What are the surprising challenges?

Everything takes longer than you think. There’s always going to be surprises. The hood (on the stove) is the wrong steel, or you’re waiting longer to get permits; there’s so many things that can go wrong, unless you get that sequence of events nailed down, and even with that, things can happen.

And space is a huge limiting factor. There’s real estate, but there aren’t many usable buildings.

How do you decide whether to support a project?

We have four criteria: community focus, passion, can it be executed? And, is it sustainable, meaning does it make sense in the long run?

Businesses fail. How comfortable are you with failure?

Do we know the numbers? Yes, statistics show 80 percent fail in two years and 80 percent of the remaining fail the next five years. But we’ve talked to people who do similar-ish things around the country, like The Foundry, and they’ve improved those rates. (Editor’s note: The Foundry is a business incubator like Downtown Project, but for medical device companies.) If you’re taking away hurdles, if you’re giving financial backing and advice and support, I think we’ll turn those numbers around.

What’s the cool thing about the job?

It sounds kind of cheesy, but I get to help make people’s dreams come true and see someone’s face when they get “yes” to their dream.

How will Downtown look different in a few years?

Gone are the days of empty buildings.

J. Patrick Coolican is a columnist for the Las Vegas Sun. Follow him on Twitter @jpcoolican or email him at patrick.coolican@lasvegassun.com. His Neon Eden radio show airs Wednesdays at 8 a.m. on 91.5 FM.
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