Building a city like a startup: Las Vegas


I’m writing this post from a bright, beautiful condo courtesy of the Downtown Project in Las Vegas, Nevada. You know, sin city? The city that is known for strippers, the Wolfpack, & other cliché characters. I planned my trip here to take the Zappos tour and meet with some of the Startup Weekend community members. I was excited to meet the people but I certainly was not looking forward to the loud sounds of slot machines and tourists wearing fanny packs. Within three hours of stepping foot in Vegas, I realized my preconceived notions were completely wrong.

An Investment in People

On day one, I began with a tour of Downtown Las Vegas. This is not the strip, Elvis doesn’t take your photo, and good luck feeling like a tourist. One of Tony Hsieh’s many ideas, The Downtown Project, is hand crafting a community based on collaboration and creativity. I had read the stories and retweeted the #vegastech related pieces but I had never stepped foot in it until this week. The tour started in Tony’s actual apartment which is seemingly a direct extension of the Zappos office. A representative from the project overwhelmed me with knowledge and ten minutes later, I got it. The excitement in the plans translated into my own system. This is a hugely ambitious project but it’s working. The downtown portion of Las Vegas has been in dispair since the 1950’s. But now, the streets are filled with people eager to change the game of Vegas.

Tony Hsieh’s personal investment of $350 million is causing others to flock to this area of the country. Within that big sexy investment, the categories they aim to revamp include: real estate, small business, education, and tech startups. Many companies such as Ticket Cake have moved to the area specifically join this movement. They are not being brought in for the typical reasons that one would think. The project is asking all startups and anyone with a creative pulse in their veins to join the downtown revitalization. The plan is set for five years and in that time frame, the city is aiming to not only fill empty space but to buy as much land as possible. The people are not sitting around and waiting for someone to give them permission. There is a vibrant, eccentric faith in the community. They know the spaces will be filled and they are not slowing down until it’s achieved. One of the many missions of the project is to create more collisions within the downtown area. The group insists that “when people live closely with one another, the opportunities to interact serendipitously increase which increases the sharing of knowledge, ideas, and improves productivity.”  

On Friday night of my stay, I sat on the balcony of my building and just watched the activity plus the random fireworks in the distance. The streets were not filled with people but the fun was imminent. This area is quickly attracting residents and the odd low-cost of living doesn’t hurt either. It pained me to see the luxury condo I was staying in cost the same per month as my small, one bedroom apartment in Seattle. Not to mention this condo was twice the size of my apartment. There seem to be endless alluring reasons to move to Vegas and start something, it’s no surprise that so many are doing it.

Creating Your Own Community

The most fascinating aspect of Downtown Las Vegas is the people. I did a bit of wandering around Fremont in my downtime and it was hard to find a furrowed brow or bad attitude. Everyone from the baristas, cashiers, and random strangers in elevators greeted me with a smile. Every region has their hallmark and lucky for Vegas, their hallmarks seem to be fun and friendly people. Perhaps it has something to do with the shinning sun? Or maybe it’s because the environment is a blueprint in collaboration. It took zero time for fellow #vegastech folks to follow me on Twitter. Many reached out and asked if we could meetup or if they could show me around. Most Twitter followers from another city barely offer a “welcome” let alone meet you in person! This city is being built as a startup and the people are the biggest component. They will also call the taxi authority for you when your cab driver is practicing some super sketchy taxi artistry. Side-note, Las Vegas is the only city where you can pay for a cab with collateral!

The general consensus seems to be very hopeful. I talked with Organizers of Startup Weekend Las Vegas, Adam Kramer and Shavonnah Tiérra about this bursting ecosystem and felt nothing but excitement for them. Also, I started to feel jealous. The amazing people progressing this city forward are in an uncharted time. Between the Downtown Project, Startup Weekend, and the inNEVation Center, residents of Vegas have no excuses to sit idle. Adam mentioned that Vegas of course has a very sexy quality which helps get the human capital to the region in the first place. It always helps to have alluring qualities when trying to boost your city, but I was sold on Vegas without even visiting the infamous strip. That’s right-I didn’t even see the Bellagio, MGM, or a decent show. I spent $10 on a slot machine and felt satisfied with experiencing the traditional style of Vegas. I was more enthralled with downtown happenings.

Within my three day trip, I found myself with an abundance of meaningful and relevant events to attend. Most were free! The people I met were not trying to impress anyone. The people in Vegas generally want to help change the face of their city. Media has noticed this phenomenon for a bit now and I’m happy they do. The Las Vegas entrepreneurial ecosystem deserves all the attention they can get. These renegades are living right next to each other and a work life balance has shifted into another and more appropriate word: life.

I encourage anyone and everyone to visit Las Vegas but visit downtown Las Vegas first. If you’re a nomad entrepreneur looking for a place to startup, go to Vegas. If you’re looking to be inspired while taking a break from your own city, go to Vegas. And most importantly, if you want to see how one city is completely creating the perfect ecosystem, go to Vegas.


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