City Building Part 1: The Downtown Project in Las Vegas, Nevada

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It seems everyone is interested in how to build the next tech hot spot or “Silicon Valley-of-the…”. Organizations like MIT (various articles & business reports) and thought leaders like Brad Feld with Startup Communities have a pretty good take on it. Canada is no stranger to “Silicon Valley-of-the North”  thinking, with Ottawa being at the center of it in the pre-Nortel collapse days. The Kitchener-Waterloo area has long since overtaken Ottawa and now gets most of the cred. Needless to say, there are numerous bets being placed by private players and governments – with a lot of money at stake.

So what makes a good startup community or tech ecosystem? For longevity and enduring success, you need to focus on building a financially self-sustaining, strong community. Tech is a main component, but it’s only one part of the overall picture. You also need to be purposeful in its design and foster it as you would a company’s culture. Tony Hsieh and Paul Singh are doing just that.

In this three-piece blog series where, I’ll shed some light on what Hsieh is doing with The Downtown Project in downtown Las Vegas and what Singh is doing with Crystal City in Arlington, VA – sprinkled with my personal experiences with each of them. I’ll wrap up the series with some key take aways and illuminate some patterns that may lead to success – for you, for me and everyone to put to use in their hometowns. Welcome to Part 1, my friends.

I’m feeling lucky today, so let’s take a look at The Downtown Project (“DTP”) and the time I spent in downtown Las Vegas.

Overall thoughts

I love the DTP, the companies and the organizations that have come together under a shared vision to rebuild a community around creativity and entrepreneurship, in all its forms. There is an overall positive tone that resonates through every aspect of the DTP and the community. Descriptors that come to mind include friendly, inspired, cool, proud of being the underdog, controlled, purposeful, by design – yet grass roots, open, a little weird and a little uncomfortable. There was definitely a significant “drinking the Kool-Aid” vibe, but I do believe every large transformation must be guided by a strong culture and I believe the people involved are well intended.

The greatest point of interest for me was the purposeful, bottoms-up city building approach that is funded and led by entrepreneurs, not directed top-down from the government, as is a common model. I wasn’t disappointed. The community and the DTP have made great strides building a place where one would want to work, play and live. The pace and scope of change is electrifying and infectious with a lot of great examples that other regions can use and adapt for their own use.

The success of the revitalization of downtown Las Vegas and the DTP is still highly dependent on a thriving and enduring tech ecosystem as the majority of the residents in the community are a part of a tech company or their customers are part of a tech company. It will be interesting to see how the tech companies fare over the coming year as they outgrow the Vegas Tech Fund and require additional capital. Will other VCs be enticed? Outside of VC money, I question how sustainable the model is and who will step up and help carry the water? DTP’s funds only go so far. Can it be self-sustaining within the five year time frame?

Enough with the questions, onto the good stuff!

The Deets

When most people think of Las Vegas, Nevada, a burgeoning tech ecosystem doesn’t come to mind. They think of gambling, partying and the Hangover movies. Hsieh is looking to change this mindset. This is where the DTP comes into play.

Downtown Las Vegas had long been forgotten after the casinos and hoteliers abandoned it for the Strip, a mere 3.5 miles away. In Hsieh’s quest to build a campus for his ever-growing Zappos, the recently vacated Las Vegas City Hall looked promising. Once he took a closer look at downtown Las Vegas his vision grew from building a campus to building a city. After all, it’s just scale, isn’t it? Just as his approach to Zappos’ corporate culture is purposeful, so is his approach to building a city.  The culture for the city stems from Zappos’ culture of ‘creating fun with a little weirdness‘ and is very much designed to be a place where people actually want to live, work and play.

And, alas, The Downtown Project was formed – envisioned to, “Help make downtown Vegas a place of Inspiration, Entrepreneurial Energy, Creativity, Innovation, Upward Mobility, and Discovery, through the 3 C’s of Collisions, Co-Learning, and Connectedness.”

Hsieh put up $350M of his own money into revitalizing the downtown core in a large scale, live experiment in purposeful, city building. The investment is broken down into $200M in real estate, $50M in education, $50M in small businesses and $50M in tech startups.

As stated on their website, DTP aims to:

  1. Bring together communities of passions
  2. Add density of ground level activities, spaces and businesses
  3. Create the shipping container capital of the world
  4. Do it in less than five years

To make this happen, they are focusing on:

  1. Arts, music & culture
  2. Coworking
  3. Education
  4. Entrepreneurship
  5. Technology

I was very fortunate to be invited to Tech Cocktail Week May 7-10, which brings together entrepreneurs, investors and startup enthusiasts for four days in the heart of downtown Las Vegas. The goal is to inspire and connect out-of-town guests with the local tech ecosystem. It’s the brainchild of Tech Cocktail, which is run by two amazing people – Frank Gruber and Jen Consalvo. I had the great pleasure of sharing the time with Cyrus Radfar, Barb Dybwad, Jordan Fox, Mike Koh, Jason Randell, Mike McAllen, Kat Mullens, Jeremy Tanner, Natalie FonsecaLeon Gomez, Melissa PocekMuneeb Bokhari, Lance Ware, Marci Surfas and David Gallant. (Thank you Mollie Andrade for keeping us all in line and thank you Tech Cocktail for the amazing experience!)

We were put up in beautiful crash pads at the Ogden. It boasts great views of Fremont Street (the Strip of downtown), the refurbished Gold Spike Hotel & Casino, Zappos’ current campus and future expansion land, the indoor zip-line and the mountains in the distance. It is housed mainly by Zappos employees and has a very open and friendly atmosphere.

Based on what I was provided access to or what I scoped out on my own, I’ll showcase some of what is happening under each of DTP’s areas of focus.

Arts, Music & Culture

Arts, music and culture are present in all elements from the design of the downtown area, the SMBs it backs to the events it holds. Five such examples include:

  1. First Friday – brings people together to enjoy art, food trucks and music the first Friday of every month.
  2. Life is Beautiful – an event that brings together arts, music, food and learning.
  3. The Window – a space for all types of co-learning, tours and showcasing artists such as Donovan Fitzgerald.
  4. Downtown 3rd Farmers Market – a weekly farmers market showcasing local, organic food brought to you in the heart of downtown.
  5. Downtown Podcast – a weekly podcast showcasing local events, startups and community members.

Coworking

Depending on your passion, coworking is present at numerous locations including:

  1. Work in Progress (with two locations) – for tech startups.
  2. Former Uptown Motel – for tech startups (currently leased by Order With Me with other smaller tech startups renting rooms).
  3. Stitch Factory – for fashion startups and designers.
  4. Local Motors Micro Factory – for open source hardware innovators looking to bring their ideas to market. They are helping to spur the third industrial revolution via localization of vehicles. This was not something I was expecting and it blew my mind! I’ve now added another item to my bucket list – build and race a Rally Fighter!

Education

DTP believes education is the bedrock on which a truly great city is built. Most of the coworking spaces also offer educational aspects via classes, events or speaker series that cater to the needs of their audience. Here’s the four specific elements that stood out to me:

  1. Tech Cocktail – a media company and events organization for entrepreneurs, startups and technology enthusiasts. Its goal is to amplify local tech communities and give entrepreneurs a place to get informed, get connected and get inspired. It covers news, up-and-coming startups, insights, industry trends online and hosting events in over 20 cities in the US and abroad. They’re also the group that puts on Tech Cocktail Week.
  2. The Learning Village – a collection of container buildings that house various learning programs from swing dancing and meditation, to speaker series and screenings.
  3. 9th Bridge School – a private school with an approach based on neuroscience and social-emotional learning, with a focus on entrepreneurship and creativity. It is rethinking education, how our children learn and how to get the most out of them. Not all kids are hard-wired to sit in a desk all day, learn from a PowerPoint and do everything they are supposed to do – particularly future entrepreneurs. We want to encourage kids’ questions and confidence, so they will take risks and be ok with failures. (This is a subject that is close to my heart, so stay tuned for more on this topic in future posts.)
  4. Syn Shop – a DIY haven where you can share, create, collaborate, develop and learn. You can get your hands on a 3D printer, CNC & shop equipment, industrial sewing machines, pottery wheel and various electronic tools.

Entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship is supported, showcased and at the root of everything within the DTP including how children are educated, the content for events and the level of support for SMBs. There are two specific, purposeful components I’d like to highlight:

  1. Vegas Tech Fund – invests up to ~$300,000 (currently) in early stage companies with the typical criteria for investment such as evaluation of founders, vision, product and business. What’s truly unique is the requirement for and the level of importance placed on community fit. Your values and culture MUST match those of the community and the community MUST support you. It also runs two early-stage accelerator-like programs called The Mill, which awards an entrepreneur with $5,000 each week for a promising idea and provides two months’ working space and mentoring as well as Progression Labs which invests $10-25,000 with a more intensive program lasting three months.
  2. Downtown Container Park – houses SMBs such as the old-school barbershop, Bolt Barbers, various boutiques with unique wares, several art galleries, a handful of candy stores and great eats (I highly recommend Simply Pure by Chef Stacey Dougan – absolutely delicious!). It also doesn’t leave out the kids (or the kid in all of us!) with a tree house play structure including a 33′ slide. It embodies a relaxed vibe, just as long as you don’t mess with the llama’s grass (Cyrus – I’m talking to you) – they are a little protective :).

Technology

Technology is prevalent in all things DTP and is weaved through the fabric of all of the initiatives covered above.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on DTP and community/city building in general. Please comment below!

 

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