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‘A Beautiful Mind’: Remembering happiness deliverer and Downtown transformer Tony Hsieh

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Tony Hsieh in 2013
Photo: Steve Marcus

Las Vegas lost one of its true modern luminaries on November 27, when Tony Hsieh died at age 46.

Rightfully hailed as a tech visionary around the world, the Zappos founder made his mark locally by helping to reshape Downtown Las Vegas, quite literally. He and his Downtown Project group (now known as DTP Companies) poured $350 million into the area, acquiring some 90 properties and creating vibrant gathering places like Downtown Container Park and Fergusons Downtown. Under Hsieh’s watch, the Bunkhouse Saloon transformed from a dilapidated bar into a nationally renowned small music venue, and restaurants, retail shops and other businesses sprouted up on or near Fremont Street.

Given all that impact—and the many tracts of undeveloped land under the DTP umbrella—questions will be raised about what might happen Downtown next. But those are issues best addressed later. Now is a time for reflection, on Hsieh and his legacy, by those who knew him best.

Responses and social media posts have been edited for brevity and clarity.

“Tony was a friend, mentor and someone who had incredible vision for pushing the boundaries of the norm. He pushed me not just to be a better person in business, but in life. I feel a void without him and am honored to have worked alongside him for nearly eight years. My heart goes out to his family and everyone affected by this tragedy.” –Michael Downs, chief operating officer of DTP Companies

“Tony was a sweet, gentle soul [who] marched to the beat of a different drummer, thank goodness. I can’t speak for anyone else, but that man changed my life in the most profound, positive way possible.” –Natalie Young, owner/chef at Eat and Old Soul

“Tony was of course a passionate and brilliant businessman who helped transform Downtown Las Vegas, but I personally will remember him as a close friend who gave me great advice and encouraged us all to take chances and challenge everything. He never took himself seriously, and his spur-of-the moment nature created unforgettable moments, like when we all jumped into the Plaza’s pool—fully clothed—to celebrate the completion of the rooftop project.” –Jonathan Jossel, CEO of the Plaza Hotel & Casino

“There are no words to express how insanely special you truly are. There are no words to express the impact you have had on this city, let alone this planet. The amount of souls you have touched and impacted is something unmeasurable. We are all better versions of ourselves for colliding with you and anytime we orbited in the same space together. I love you, I miss you, you will be always remembered, I can’t wait to hug you again.” –Jen Taler, co-founder of Fergusons Downtown

“Tony was a brilliant, creative and generous person who did great things for Las Vegas.” –Comic and talk show host Jimmy Kimmel, on Twitter

“For a guy of his financial status and influence to be so humble and down-to-earth was unheard of. Whether it was his time, advice, resources, all the way down to his home, he shared whatever he had with everybody. … I’ll forever cherish the impact he had on the local arts scene, and the doors he opened for so many.” –Rapper Hassan Hamilton

“Tony Hsieh played a pivotal role in helping transform Downtown Las Vegas. Kathy and I send our love and condolences to Tony’s family and friends during this difficult time.”

Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak, on Twitter

“Tony Hsieh’s vision and big ideas are still changing the world. His care for community changed Vegas and us. Tony supported TFA to train more teachers in Las Vegas, build an office in DTLV and focus on improving outcomes for kids.” –Teach for America Las Vegas, on Twitter

“Tony’s ability to foster human connection is unlike anyone I’ve ever met. He was constantly tweaking and making adjustments to achieve it more and more. His vision for our community will live on and thrive because of his beautiful mind.” –Tyler Williams, Zappos Fungineer

The Fremont Street Experience honors Tony Hsieh with a special Viva Vision production on November 28

“The world lost you way too soon

@downtowntony. Your curiosity, vision and relentless focus on customers leave an indelible mark. You will be missed by so many, Tony. Rest In Peace.” –Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos,

on Instagram

“He was a passionate visionary, a disruptor, a futurist and had an insatiable thirst for knowledge. Tony helped reinvent me into the entrepreneur I am today, but most importantly helped reinvent my hometown (Las Vegas).” –Brian “Paco” Alvarez, former Zappos curator

“For those who knew Tony, he will be remembered for his big heart and caring way he had with people. Tony was selfless in how he approached delivering happiness … he was always concerned about others, more than himself.” –Mark Carlson, vice president of operations for DTP Companies

“Tony Hsieh was a visionary. He was generous with his time and willing to share his invaluable expertise with anyone. And he was very, very cool.” –Skateboarding legend Tony Hawk, on Twitter

“Tony cared about people, and about helping them live in a happier and more connected world. He invested a fortune into that vision for DTLV, and stuck with it even in the face of fairly constant backseat driving and criticism from many members of the community he worked to support. … I can say without hesitation that there was an enormous stream of kickass rock and roll shows at the Bunkhouse Saloon that never would have happened if it wasn’t for Tony’s support and generosity.” –Mike Henry, Bunkhouse Saloon booker

“It was over Fernet that we talked about [producing] a Jesus Christ Superstar in the desert a la Burning Man. It was in his Airstream he pitched me an interactive murder mystery that would take over the entire Gold Spike. And it was via email he requested a late-night run of Neighborhood 3: Requisition of Doom in the space that would soon become Inspire Theatre. These were all ideas that never came to fruition, but it was his energy behind the ideas that inspired me to set up shop Downtown. … He was a catalyst for the rebirth of #DTLV, welcoming the new generation of independent-minded businesses and creators. And his energy will be missed.” –Troy Heard, artistic director of Majestic Repertory Theatre

“Tony Hsieh might be the most original thinker I’ve ever been friends with. He questioned every assumption and shared everything he learned along the way. He genuinely delighted in making anyone and everyone happy. The earth has lost a beautifully weird and helpful person.” –Chris Sacca, venture investor and activist, on Twitter

“Like so many people, we have stories to tell about our friendship with Tony that always end with our cracking up. Every memory of time spent with him evokes a smile or a laugh. He could have a fully nuanced conversation about any topic, from company financials to international diplomacy, and always leave the impression that he understood on a higher level, the level of human joy. He made us happy.” –Jenna and Michael Morton, restaurateurs/owners of the Morton Group

“Tony Hsieh’s vision for Downtown was a GenX dream, and he was one of the great leaders of my generation. We frame Tony’s efforts as ‘the revitalization of Downtown Las Vegas,’ but maybe more so than place, it invigorated people. The unfolding of Downtown was a turning point; it gave us access and learning to morph into leaders in a modern city that reflected our values and not that of some other generation past. The world saw Las Vegas through a new lens, and we started to look at ourselves differently.” –Stephanie Forté, founder of Forté PR

“I had the honor of getting to know a great man this year, that could look at an open field, describe his plans to have bands flying in on floating stages, share his favorite Mark Twain quote, and tell you that you need to move faster on making your dreams happen. I’ve never had someone challenge my mental depth as much as him, and teach me that anything is possible.” –Dan Krohmer, chef/creator of Other Mama, Hatsumi and La Monja, on Instagram

“[Initially,] what struck me the most was Hsieh’s outward-facing quiet and earnest persona, but I quickly noticed an underlying wit and playfulness. I continued to appreciate this combination after many meetings, interactions and copious shots of Fernet. … I am grateful for him consistently being supportive and inclusive.” –Michael Stratton, former Bunkhouse GM

“Tony Hsieh touched so many lives and inspired so many entrepreneurs. His impact and legacy will go on and on.” –Andrew Yang, entrepreneur and former presidential candidate, on Twitter

“He asked me about why I wanted to be a musician. As we chatted I could see how passionate he was about other people’s happiness. I could see that he genuinely vouched for people and their dreams.” –Singer-songwriter Sonia Barcelona

“Tony had a vision for the future of Las Vegas beyond its traditional base of tourism. He invested his passion, time and resources to make sure that Las Vegas is now viewed as a serious contender for technology companies, investments and jobs.” –Seth A. Ravin, CEO of Las Vegas-headquartered company Rimini Street

“The memories that stick out are his selflessness, and his want to connect people to a higher self. I wrote him a letter in October and told him he was the Willy Wonka of guidance, often laying out golden tickets of direction. That’s what I’m gonna miss the most—leaving our conversations feeling inspired and full of hope .” –Ryan Brunty, Depressed Monsters creator and former Zappos employee

“We are deeply saddened to hear of Tony Hsieh’s untimely passing, and our thoughts are with his family and friends. Tony was a visionary leader and innovator who will be greatly missed.” –Amazon.com, via a spokesperson

“I’ve been walking the streets of Downtown since I went to Las Vegas Academy in the mid 1990s, and it was refreshing to see the new ideas he brought to my city of birth. Did I agree with everything he did? Certainly not, but we needed fresh ideas, and Tony was never scared of thinking outside the box. I’ll miss seeing him on the streets, and I’ll miss the stir he created about town.” –Ryan Pardey, Bunkhouse entertainment director

“He enjoyed creating experiences that would have people walk away saying, ‘Wow.’ The surprise and delight of the Mantis at Container Park or Big Rig Jig at Fergusons was his energy at work. Getting more people talking about Downtown would pique curiosity and visitation to our area.” –Audrea Hooper, former Zappos employee

“You proved that we don’t have to choose between kindness and success, that delivering happiness can make us happy, that weirdness is not so weird—it’s actually wonderful.”

Author and organizational psychologist Adam Grant, on Twitter

“For nearly eight months he sat in on planning meetings for my business every Friday morning. Mostly quiet, absorbed on his computer. You’d have thought he wasn’t paying attention, but he always was. He never missed a thing. And every now and then he’d quietly interrupt the discussion, offering a question or thought to guide things.” –Cathy Brooks, owner of the Hydrant Club

“Dear Tony, thank you for bringing us all together, a family of friends and loved ones who might have never become such an amazing group of creators together in Downtown Las Vegas. We will carry on your vision as you would have wished in every facet of life until we meet you again on the other side.” –Eric Camacho, Fergusons Downtown producer

The Fremont Street Philosopher

“Tony delivered happiness for so many of his friends. Inquisitive, supportive, humble; he was always seeking more knowledge about topics that had nothing to do with selling stuff online. I didn’t think of Tony as a successful dotcom entrepreneur, but more as the Fremont Street philosopher. Creating a beautiful life. Sharing the Burning Man ethos with anyone who cared to knock on the yellow door on 11th Street, any day of the year.

I have never known anyone like Tony. It is probably 10 years since we first met, and I had always thought that one day the stars would align and we would partner on some incredible or failed venture. He had always asked me about doing a show together Downtown, and I always gave the same answer: Not yet.

And now, not ever. I didn’t have the raw guts Tony had; unperturbed by the financial arguments and practical barriers which so often stand in the way of people who can’t imagine the future. He was able to say, let’s just do it. Somehow, he could see a bigger picture.

As we all mourn, I also worry about Downtown Vegas. Someone else will come in and seize the financial opportunity, and maybe build an apartment building or see some other way to exploit the land. Tony wasn’t like that. Right out of It’s a Wonderful Life, he was the George Bailey of Downtown. He wanted community. His family was whoever was with him in that moment, and that family was always in for an adventure. Who else reinvents a neighborhood while living in an Airstream?

Clarence the Angel showed George what his world would have been like without him. What are we going to do without Tony? I feel the best way to celebrate Tony’s life is to secure our friend’s legacy. We all must do what we can to make sure Fremont Street and Downtown Vegas do not become just another Pottersville.

Vale, Tony. You inspired me by showing me another way to live. You have influenced a generation of people to build something more important than financial success; community. I hope your community realizes how much it has lost and carries on your vision before it is too late.” –Spiegelworld founder Ross Mollison, producer of Absinthe, Opium and Atomic Saloon

Texts From Tony

After hanging out Downtown with Tony Hsieh in November 2019, Greenspun Media Group Account Executive Adair Nowacki and her fiancé, Taylor Milne, received these words of advice from Hsieh the following day.

Alignment Recipe:

5 steps towards owning and living an authentic life, where what you say, what you do, and what you think are all aligned

1. Figure out what your truth is (spend time reflecting when not emotional to become more self-aware).

2. Unapologetically own your truth and speak your truth. Don’t lie and don’t directly or indirectly mislead. Instead, remember it’s okay to say “I’m not ready to talk about it yet, but I will let you know when I am.”

3. Authentically and explicitly communicate your needs and wants (don’t assume what may be obvious to you is obvious to the other person), and don’t change your truth because you are worried about what the other person might think or how they might react. Be willing to have the hard conversations of what your authentic wants and needs are, and be compassionate when you are having the hard conversations. Lean into and don’t procrastinate on having these conversations.

4. Honor your commitments, and modify prior commitments explicitly if they no longer serve you.

5. As you learn, grow, and evolve, repeat the above starting with step 1.

Adds Nowacki: “His wise words seem to have resonated with many, and I’m hoping others can find solace in his advice. Tony was an extraordinarily rare human that I feel beyond grateful to have shared time and space with. I feel so fortunate I was able to tell him that I never took it for granted. He taught me so much in such a short time, and I will never forget the moments shared, the words exchanged or how he made me feel. I know his energy lives on through his strong community of friends and family. The ripple effect he has made in this world is unparalleled.”

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