By Nancy Dahlberg
Like so many others, I woke up to the devastating news of the death of Tony Hsieh, who died way too soon. And like so many others, I also went down a social media rabbit hole reading all the personal posts about how Tony Hsieh touched their lives in some way. Well, Miami has such a story too.
In February 2013, Hsieh spoke at Start-Up City Miami, one of the first large-scale events in the early days of Miami’s efforts to build a startup ecosystem. Spearheaded by Matt Haggman and the Knight Foundation with urban affairs expert Richard Florida, Start-Up City brought together national and local voices. Hsieh’s talk, which focused a great deal on the startup city he was developing (and funding) in Las Vegas, was super inspirational at a time when many said it couldn’t be done in Miami. Even I was skeptical, but the energy at the event couldn’t be ignored.
“The inaugural Start-Up City with Tony Hsieh remains a singular moment in the life of Miami’s growing startup community,” Haggman tweeted on Saturday. “Tony showed us it’s possible. The memory of him that day will continue to be a source of inspiration.”
That one-day Start-Up City event, that drew more than a thousand people, was one of the reasons I continue to this day covering the tech and startup community.
Below I included an excerpt of my post that day, which ran in my former Miami Herald blog The Starting Gate on Feb 13, 2013. But I encourage you to read my posts on the event – here and a second post here – because they are interesting to read what the local voices of the Miami ecosystem were saying way back then about Miami’s opportunity to develop into a startup community.
From my Starting Gate post:
When it comes to building startup communities, the keynote speaker, Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos.com, knows a thing or two. He has been on a mission to build one in downtown Las Vegas — what he calls the “the anti-strip.”
Hsieh has committed $350 million, mostly his own funds, to help make Las Vegas one of the world’s great cities and a technology hub. For a city almost entirely dependent on tourism, and one that was a poster child for the housing crash, these goals might seem ambitious. Sound familiar?
As part of The Downtown Project, Hsieh is moving his own company — the giant shoe retailer — from the Las Vegas suburbs to the former City Hall. Nearby, he told the crowd, he is also amassing other real estate for co-working and traditional office space, more affordable housing, retail and restaurants — all to ensure an “entrepreneurial energy” and places for “serendipitous collisions.”
Some of the projects in Las Vegas have included a shipping-container park, bike-sharing and car-sharing, 60 furnished apartments for visiting entrepreneurs, and an “Inspire Theater” that hosts thought-provoking speakers throughout the day.
Hsieh has also established a $50 million fund to help tech startups — just two years ago there was no startup scene in Las Vegas, he said. He’s also investing in the arts and small business.
For Hsieh, the goal is to create entrepreneurial density for the resulting “collisions’’— serendipitous meetings. “We want to open-source what has worked and what hasn’t. Just think, we are doing this in this place where you would least expect it.”
In a short interview before the talk, Hsieh told me, “It’s the local entrepreneurs and residents that are suggesting how the neighborhood should evolve. We’re pretty anti-top down. Focus on getting people talking to each other and that is how innovation happens.” Hsieh said he learned a lot about all this building a culture at Zappos: “Culture is to a company as community is to a city.”
Since that event, I read his book Delivering Happiness and have come to admire his contributions to business, with all his innovations in e-commerce and customer service magic that he introduced at Zappos, and the importance of a strong company culture behind it all. In 2019, a year before Hsieh retired as CEO, Zappos’ “Culture Maestro,” Ryo Hanalei Zsun, gave a talk to a gathering of entrepreneurs in Orlando. Zsun told how early in his career at Zappos, he received a gift from Hsieh after having had a good week on the job. But it wasn’t just any gift, as Hsieh did research to find one with added meaning for this music fan: Front row tickets to see Zsun’s favorite singer, Taylor Swift, in concert.
He shared that Hsieh believed a company’s culture and brand are so intertwined that the brand is simply a lagging indicator of the culture. “When you work in an environment where people are genuine people, then the laughter, the smiles, even the happiness, that’s authentic, that’s real – and it is contagious,” said Zsun, who started his career at Zappos as a barista.
Every employee goes through four weeks of customer service training regardless of position, Zsun shared. “During the holiday season, from our CEO to every person in our entire company, it is all-hands on deck. Even Tony Hsieh is taking calls,” Zsun said in 2019. “We are a company culture of service, who knows what we will be selling in the future.”
In an interview, Zsun said even the 2009 acquisition by Amazon didn’t change the culture. “That’s because that was a non-negotiable: they don’t touch our culture, that we operate autonomously, and that we collaborate with each other and we have been doing that since 2009.”
Hsieh stayed on as Zappos CEO until this summer. There were many more great Hsieh and Zappos culture nuggets shared that day in Orlando. Read more in my post, 9 things any small business can learn from Zappos.
Follow @ndahlberg on Twitter and email her at [email protected]
Pictured above: Zappos.com’s full-page tribute to its former leader.
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