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Downtown Las Vegas Is the Great American Techtopia

Downtown Las Vegas Is the Great American Techtopia Re code


There’s a whimsy but also a danger to the charismatic-leader-driven development that could fall anywhere between Google-ish playfulness to Howard Hughesian eccentricity — Hsieh bought the swath of land in the shape of a llama — at first accidentally, and then intentionally, because, hey, he likes llamas. But there’s been trouble. There’s been disappointment. And there have even been suicides.

There are more than a dozen new bars in this new city within the old city, but not yet the long-awaited grocery store. Many of the new companies follow a business philosophy created by software developers called “Holacracy.” Importing tech and cocktails into Vegas, Hsieh is hoping to turn this startup city into a social-science petri dish, and has funded people to track residents and study “the ROI on collisions,” or the financial benefit of bumping into one another. If the project works out, he says, he’ll expand to other cities, like Detroit.

“[Downtown Las Vegas] is TED meets SXSW meets Burning Man, but as a lifestyle, rather than events,” Hsieh told me one night. “And we can scale this to multiple cities — you can see this as the MVP (minimum viable product).”

What’s happening here started with Hsieh, and it is growing around him in concentric circles. Now there are people who have never met him moving to town because of him.

“If I’m going to follow anyone’s vision, it’s going to be his, here, his philosophy,” said entrepreneur Amy Jo Martin, who is in her mid-30s and moved from Phoenix a few years ago, after reading Hsieh’s Facebook feed and seeing how his employees were tweeting so happily. “And I know that for the petri-dish experiment to work, you have to be in all the way. You’ll hate it otherwise.”

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ounding this innovation-driven city has been hard. Though there are community dinners and trivia nights, and a sense that founders are part of making history, it can be a lonely place. In the last year, three of Hsieh’s most-high-profile entrepreneurs, including a very important Downtown Project employee, committed suicide as their companies went south. Entrepreneurship is a solitary life, and for the young founders who pack up and move to the desert with the promise of funding, one’s life and one’s company are very tightly intertwined.

“It’s the trailblazers who move West,” Will Young, a partner with the Vegas Tech Fund, told me one day. “Don’t expect this beautiful log cabin at the end. We need people to chop down trees.”

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