Zappos’ Tony Hsieh Opens WWD Fashion Forum

Tony Hsieh
Zappos' Tony Hsieh.
Christina Hilliard.

Billionaire CEO Tony Hsieh loves using C-words — for clothing, customer service and company culture, that is.

The Zappos Inc. CEO kicked off the inaugural WWD Fashion Forum on Sunday in Downtown Las Vegas at The Venue, a hip new place across from one of his highly publicized redevelopment projects called Container Park.

Hsieh, who sold his company to Amazon.com for more than $1 billion in 2009, spoke about evolving Zappos into more than a Nevada success story.

“A great brand is a story that never stops unfolding,” he said on the eve of FN Platform. “But we wanted to evolve our brand at Zappos, so we added a fourth ‘C’: community.”

With that in mind, four years ago Hsieh and other executives turned their attention – and personal fortunes – toward investing $350 million into downtown Las Vegas.

The goal was to reshape the dusty, downtrodden part of Sin City. He dreamed of it becoming a residential area, one with so-called “serendipitous collisions.” It would be home to thriving small businesses, apartments buildings, art exhibits and anything that doesn’t resemble the gaming part of Las Vegas.

Tony Hsieh Hsieh talking with FN’s Michael Atmore. Christina Hilliard.

To start, the executives moved Zappos and its 1,500 employees into new headquarters at the former City Hall building. Hsieh’s investment consortium also bought nearby land and buildings for future developments.

He also restructured the way the company runs. Hsieh, who lets business leaders tour Zappos for ideas on creating a varied corporate culture, said the e-tailer operates more like a city and “a lot less like a top-down driven organization.”

So far, he said, the master real estate project is working, though not without its share of challenges. (Las Vegas has struggled with high rates of unemployment, mortgage foreclosures and hotel bankruptcies. It also has one of the country’s most transient populations.) The city’s downtown, he said, has created hundreds of new small businesses, such as a hotel chef who opened her own eatery and a former Zappos employee who now sells his own barbecue sauce.

To prove his point further, Hsieh listed other culturally driven examples such as the Life Is Beautiful event, a three-day festival of music and food that attracts more than 30,000 people every fall. Launched three years ago, it now hosts major headliners. The next event, held Sept. 25 – 27, will feature Stevie Wonder, Hozier, Snoop Dogg, Duran Duran and Kendrick Lamar, to name a few.

“As a business, we needed to be integrated with the community around us,” said Hsieh. “Instead of focusing on us, we encouraged our employees to go out and interact with the community.”

For Hsieh, it’s a personal juggling act. He splits his time evenly between both Zappos and the Downtown Project initiative.

He said the effort to improve downtown is important because more than half of the human population currently lives in a city. In the future that figure will jump to 75 percent, he said.

“What we think we are doing is far bigger than downtown Las Vegas,” Hsieh said.

The ultimate goal (and tagline), he said, is to make downtown Las Vegas a place where people will become smarter.