Hey there, Stephen Dubner, we are breaking into your feed with an extra episode this week. This is a playback of an episode we put out in 2015. It is about how one man, soft spoken but wildly interesting, an accomplished man, had a vision and acted upon it.
His name is Tony Shea. For more than two decades, he was CEO of the shoe company Zappos. He was known in the tech and entrepreneurial communities and beyond as an iconoclast and a dreamer, maybe even a seeker. Before recording this episode in Las Vegas, I had met Shea just once or twice before with my friend and co-author Steve Levitt. Both of us were really taken with Shay himself and a book he published called Delivering Happiness. About a week ago.
Tony Shea died at age 46. When I heard the news, I dug into our archives to play back the episode. I thought you might all like to hear it. To keep in mind, some of the facts and figures are now outdated, will add a few updates at the end. She himself doesn't actually appear until the second half of the episode, but as you'll hear, his ghost is sort of floating through the first half, too. You'll also hear that his drink of choice was for Branka.
If you like a drink now and again, you might want to pour one out now for Tony. We're standing at the corner of Ogden Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard, north in Las Vegas, Nevada, Nevada, Nevada, it is Nevada. Oh, God, I had it wrong the whole time.
I always try to be so respectful of the way that a place is pronounced in the place where it is like Oregon. I think Oregon. Now, I'm probably wrong on that. Oh, you're right on that. It isn't New York right now. And we're looking up at the Ogden. Yeah. The Ogden is a luxury condo building in downtown Las Vegas, not on the strip, famous part of the city with all the huge hotels and casinos and glitter.
The old downtown is about five miles north of the strip, but it's still Las Vegas, still in the state of stay with me. Nevada apartments in the Ogden cell in the low to mid six figures.
You've lived there. How long? I've lived there a year and a half. And you are? Maggie Shiu and I run a business development for Downtown Project. The downtown project is, as the name implies, a project to make downtown a thing again in Las Vegas, a vibrant area where a lot of people might actually want to live. Vegas is a very unique market. You have a family of kids, animals. It's, you know, less appealing to have an apartment downtown.
So what we're really trying to do is boost up the amenities. So you have a dog park nearby, you have restaurants within walking distance. But as you'll hear, it's more than just that, more than just boosting amenities. The downtown project, founded in January 2012, comes with a big vision and a big price tag, which is being funded primarily by one man.
So the initial allocation of the project was three hundred fifty million dollars, fully funded as a for profit entity by Tony Shea. Tony Shea. That's HCA, which is already a business iconoclast. He first got involved with Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retailer as an investor, but then became its CEO and has presided for years over a corporate culture that most corporations wouldn't recognize.
Among his priorities, having fun, empowering his call center employees and making customers happy at almost any cost.
We've written about Shey in Zappos before how, for instance, company meetings are sometimes held in a bar and why customer reps are encouraged to talk to a customer for as long as they want, all without a script and how they're authorized to settle problems without calling in a supervisor.
They can even fire a customer who makes trouble for them and how Zappos gives new employees a chance to quit their brand new job and even get a quiting bonus about one month's pay. Because Tony Shey figures he would rather without anyone who doesn't really, really, really want to work at Zappos.
All those gambles paid off. In 2009, Amazon.com bought Zappos for about one point two billion dollars.
Now she is using some of his money for an even bigger gamble to try turning downtown Las Vegas into a very different kind of city.
So in this episode of Freakonomics Radio, we'll do what most of you think about doing whenever you visit Las Vegas.
I'm sure we sit around a campfire and chat with Tony Shea and campfire appropriate beverages.
Not really normally a beer.
And this is your first PBR. I mean, ever. It tastes like beer. Yes, we had it. Vernette shot earlier, for those of you just tuning in.
From Stitcher and Dubonnet Productions, this is Freakonomics Radio, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything.
Here's your host, Stephen Dubner. Compared to the rise of Las Vegas itself, gambling and entertainment mecca built in the middle of nowhere through the moxey of some Jewish gangsters, Mormon bankers and other colorful characters, the downtown project that Tony Shea envisions isn't quite so bold.
But for anyone who cares about cities and about the future of cities, it's worth paying attention to.
The idea for remaking downtown Vegas began when she relocated Zappos headquarters from Henderson on the southeast edge of Las Vegas into downtown.
But Shea, being Shea, didn't settle for some random address. Zappos moved into the Old City Hall. So today, the former Las Vegas City Council chamber is now an auditorium for Zappos company meetings. The old jail has been converted into an employee gym and one Zappos made over city hall. Tony Shea began to wonder if downtown itself might need a makeover.
One of his main inspirations was a Harvard economist named Ed Glaeser, who four years ago published a manifesto called Triumph of the City How Our Greatest Invention Makes US Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier.
So let's start there, Professor Glaeser.
Hi, Stephen. How are you? I'm very well, thank you. How are you? Great, thanks.
And where are you today? I'm in Paris, France.
Poor fella. How are things there?
It is a spectacular April day in Paris. And now we should just establish for the record, you do not live in Paris. So just give us quickly your geographical bona fides.
Usually I live outside of Boston and I'm currently on sabbatical attempting to civilize my children, but by taking them to a variety of different cities. Very good.
And you have a particular interest in cities, do you not, sir?
I do indeed. I do love cities very much. I've spent almost all of my adult life studying cities, and that's also one of the reasons why I'm here in Paris.
So, Ed, you grew up in New York City, so you may be biased, but just rank for me if you don't mind, your five, let's say, favorite cities in the world.
Oh, come on.
That's like ranking your favorite children. That's that's highly you don't have that many children, so it's probably a little easier.
Yeah, but certainly I love New York and I love Boston and I'm very, very fond of Hong Kong. And I think Singapore is still remains the best run place on the planet. And Europe is filled with wonderful cities full of charm and history that I also love very much.
If you had to pick one since you're in Paris right now, maybe it would be Paris if you had to pick one Western European city to make your top five list, what would it be?
Oh, you know, certainly Paris is great. I also, you know, I just spent a month in Barcelona, which I also love. And I'm passionate about London as well.
Mm hmm. You've shared with us your five or seven favorite cities, noting that what makes them your favorite is not necessarily universal.
Where on your list and this list can be as long as you want of cities in the world. Where would Las Vegas rank on that list? Again, I gave you cities that I loved. I'm not sure that I'm comfortable making any sort of a list, but certainly there's a lot to like about the dynamism in Las Vegas. Las Vegas was one of the fastest growing American cities for many decades.
It was a place that, until the boom, succeeded marvelously, as many American Sunbelt cities do at providing vast amounts of affordable housing for ordinary income Americans. And that's terrific. It cannot be faulted for its pro-business policies. All of these things are to be are to be loved. It is true that what people often think of as the core of Las Vegas, the Las Vegas Strip, which is really in the unincorporated city, that's that's a thing which as a as a lover of cities, I mean, marvel at.
But it's hard to sort of fall in love with it. Yes. I think historically the great weakness of Las Vegas has been education. So much so that in, you know, my earliest work documenting the connection between education and urban growth, Las Vegas was an obviously huge outlier because it grew so quickly and had so little of a base in terms of share of the population with a college degree. And in the city, you still have about 21 percent of Las Vegas adults with a college degree, which is a lot closer to Detroit, which is about 12 percent than it is to Seattle, which is about 50 percent.
And I continue to think that that is Las Vegas. His greatest challenge is making itself attractive to, you know, a wider range of skill categories.
This message, the need to attract highly educated people, got through to Tony Shea and the other architects of the downtown project. One of them is Zack Ware, who's a general partner at Vegas Tech Fund, the venture capital arm of the downtown project.
The work that we we first found that really, I think, sow the seeds for what would become the downtown project was Ed Glaeser's book. I was very flattered when Terry reached out to me. He read my book and seems to have been excited by it. And it's deeply flattering, obviously. And Zappos paid me to come out and give a talk to their workers. And I got to spend about three days with Tony hanging out in the downtown area of Las Vegas.
I thought it was fascinating what he was doing and I thought it always seemed like it was an uncertain bet.
The bet was whether Tony Shea could use his fortune to reshape downtown, not, however, by building big attractions that draw visitors, but rather by reconfiguring things for the locals.
Zack, where again, so in Tony's case, he set about on the real estate side to acquire a fairly large, contiguous area of land. And his perspective was, I don't necessarily need to build everything. I don't want it. I don't want to program the neighborhood. I'm not someone who can do that. But what I can do is be a force as best as I possibly can. So our secret weapon, if you have if we wanted to have a restaurant, bookshop, your bar, coworking space and so forth, sort of coexisting together.
Our secret sauce was that downtown project owned all the property.
The idea is that when you look at coworking spaces, offices, cities, the magic and creativity that happens in those places is as a result of random encounters and conversations with people you otherwise wouldn't know to reach out to, couldn't reach out to, didn't know existed.
They have a word for this collisions.
Collisions are one of the most important metrics that where and shey have in mind, that's engineering in an environment to support collisions, to inspire collisions and being very mindful that a master plan, single idea can be very, very risky, that letting the neighborhoods revolve itself is what makes our minds long term magic happen.
Ed Glaeser says this vision is very different than most visions about how to build or grow city.
When you look at the globe and what you know, building cities, usually it means it means that somebody has come up with a couple billion dollars to build some form of project convention center, sports stadium, maybe something to do with transportation. And then they try to wrap a city around it. And sometimes it works at least half of the time it doesn't. But it's very much of a view that what cities are physical structures and let the people, you know, follow that.
Shay was remarkable because his view was that the structures should actually follow the people. And that's that's a view I largely share that actually focusing on the real heart of the city, which is always the humanity that's dwelling in that city, is the right thing to do. And it was very much a view that that the neighborhood would grow organically, that it would originally be housed in older buildings and have businesses housed and things like shipping containers. It would focus on the social net.
Works on the bumping into each other of different people. It was a very exciting vision. Now I think it's hard to make dense downtown area work in Las Vegas. Right? I mean, the entire Sun Belt area in the U.S. is an area that's built around the automobile.
Now I'm back on the street with Maggie Shiu, who runs business development for the downtown project. It was about five p.m. on Tuesday. In February, Vegas was just recovering from a cold snap that had gotten into the 40s. There had been snow on the surrounding mountains. Zappos had been planning a charity event featuring Britney Spears and a bunch of zoo animals. Britney Spears was still going to show up, but the zoo animals were kept at home because of the cold.
So we're at the very beginning of the downtown project near Las Vegas and Ogden. So if collision colliding and ability and collision ability, et cetera, are what you're after, it's primetime late afternoon and we're the only people on the corners and there are 200 cars within eyesight. So they're all colliding with Earth, not colliding, but interacting with each other. How much more urban does it need to get before the stuff that you want to happen starts to happen?
Yeah, and I think it's a mix of increasing the residential density, but also increasing walkability. And so Las Vegas is a very car centric culture. And, you know, people are used to driving places. There's nothing surprising in this, all of the world's urban areas are built around the transportation technology that was dominant in the era in which they were being produced.
So, you know, the Western cities, which are post-war, typically were built around the car, Las Vegas, as much as any. So the vision of a sort of a denser walking area was always a little bit at odds with that, although Las Vegas was always somewhat quirky because of the desire of tourists to be able to walk places.
So it always had more density, more walkability than, let's say, yeah, Phoenix did, or Oklahoma City.
And I think the the attempt to sort of creatively reuse old space, the attempt to focus on social connections, all of that seemed, you know, exciting and visionary, if indeed something of a gamble.
The downtown project is now one of the biggest landowners in downtown Las Vegas. It directly employs more than 250 people and estimates that it has helped create at least 900 jobs through its startup investments.
It owns and operates some properties like the container park, an open air shopping and eating and entertainment zone, a grocery store, a boutique hotel, and the gold spike.
That's a bar and restaurant that also serves another function. So this is the gold spike that used to be a casino with dollar blackjack and lots of other interesting games. And we converted into a coworking space. So you'll notice power outlets, free Wi-Fi. It's actually a great place for startups that don't have offices to to make you happy. So with these guys over there, coworking, are they just drinking? So the gentleman in the far corner actually runs our food and beverage operations.
And so he's having a meeting, a little bit of both.
The gold spike is perfectly inviting, but only a handful of people had taken up the invitation, at least on this one weekday afternoon. They felt a little bit like a really nice model home version of a bar.
It doesn't have to be perfect. When you first opened it, it was intentional. So being able to understand how people use the space and the best example is the backyard. So the backyard actually was a parking lot when we first opened. And one day someone said, why not build an ice rink? So we built out what we called the cold spike and we had ice rink. These were all decorated as gingerbread houses. Not many people went ice skating.
And so we decided to retool. And what really stood out in the Yelp reviews and customer feedback was these giant games. And so we decided to get rid of the ice rink and build this area full of giant games.
There were indeed a bunch of giant games out there, including the classic backyard contest known in some parts of the country as cornhole. It is basically a beanbag toss toward a sloped board. The big hole in it.
How do you score in the hole is something in on the board is something no. Is three on the board? Is one OK? Where do we shoot from? I'm like, you know, from this time. OK, what's our wager. A one bedroom apartment in the Ogden. Is that too much. I was going to say for fanaticized for the Airstreams later. OK, it's a deal. OK, you go ahead. OK. Oh beautiful shot.
That's three. All right. So a total of four. Yeah. OK. Zero, all three to tie in, sudden sudden death, sudden death to another. All right, I owe you a shot of Tony's failed battalion in the car.
After cornhole, the tour continued snow on the west side of the streets of Fremont Experience and its business improvement district mix of casinos and restaurant predates has been a lot of it was the original strength. And I think I've been over here. We're calling this E a free money for lack of a better name, but many of these restaurants and bars were around, have been around for several years and existed before Zappos moved downtown. And they were kind of this unique spot where the bartenders and the owners and the restaurants would go to other people's restaurants after work.
And so is this naturally supportive community. And what Tony saw, there was something that, you know, had the beginnings of a really great unique space across here, like a Brooklyn or in Austin. If you know Brooklyn or Austin, it might seem impossible to remake the old downtown section of Las Vegas in their image. But remember, the downtown project has a secret weapon.
An urban economist, Ed Glaeser, who believes that the key to an effort like this is to attract a certain kind of entrepreneur. Ed, you wrote a paper back in 2009 called Clusters of Entrepreneurship, and it seems as though Tony is following this plan quite closely. I'll read you the beginning of your abstract. Employment growth is strongly predicted by smaller, average establishment signs both across cities and across industries within cities. And Tony, as you know, is trying to import a lot of or trying to start up and encourage a lot of small businesses, restaurants, shops, bookstores and so on.
Talk about that for a minute. Obviously, you think that's the right way to go.
Why is that the right way to go? How does that work in cities?
Well, you know, I think this is maybe best illustrated by the counterexample, which is Detroit. So Detroit goes from being one of the most entrepreneurial places on the planet in the 90s. Right. Which is filled with a cluster of smart, you know, people just trying to do the new new thing a lot like Silicon Valley in the 1960s.
And it succeeds so well that it creates these massive, massive automotive companies that provide fantastic wages are incredibly productive. I mean, it has a 70 year run that is, you know, almost unimaginable in terms of its its urban triumph.
And yet the very success of those companies basically kills off the tradition of entrepreneurial human capital. It trains people who make superb company men, but not scrappy entrepreneurs. And entrepreneurship, like anything else that matters, is a skill. It's something that's built. And if you've spent your life working for General Motors, you're not likely to be the right person to start up some, you know, scrappy new electronic greeting cards company if General Motors falters. And that's really, I think, what the that paper is about and what the sort of long litany of evidence trying that shows the sort of role of proxy's of entrepreneurship is predicting urban success suggests that just as you know, normal human capital share the population with a college degree is very predictive of which areas do well, measures of other types of human capital, like the amount of entrepreneurial skill in the area, also predict urban success.
And I think that's what Tony Shea is trying to do, is trying to create enough of a cluster of entrepreneurship, both because those entrepreneurs will themselves create employment, but because some of that entrepreneurial skill is likely to be infectious, that people will learn from each other and you'll create an overall cluster of this.
And that's why the downtown project is helping fund all kinds of small entrepreneurs. So far, it has put money into more than 50 businesses. And through the Vegas Tech Fund, 100 tech startups. Here again is square.
And in our case, we said, hey, there's an amazing chef who wants to start a restaurant. How can we get behind that? Here are two or three really awesome tech company ideas that we think are really awesome companies to invest. And let's do that. And the idea for us has always been create value by creating diversity. Try not to bet on one thing, but rather have 100 amazing ideas, an interesting ideas where 20 percent, 30 percent, 40 percent can fail and you still have a very diverse active economy and ground activity.
Rather than choosing one big gigantic thing, like a stadium, you know, or a big building that can fail. And when it fails, the whole neighborhood goes down with it. The epicenter of the downtown project, the densest small business incubator, feels like a cross between an outdoor mall and a county fair. So this is this is looking like I don't know what to describe this like a public plaza playground to their kids and people climbing on stuff and but shops and of signs.
So what is this? This is the container park. It was an old Motel six that we tore down, wanted to build both a retail space retail incubator for first time entrepreneurs, as well as a space for families and children. And so both components were equally important. So you have around the outside a lot of first time owner operated small business owners that can test out their concepts in a small space. And if they succeed, they can move to a standalone brick and mortar or they can shift locations.
So we actually had a few stores go from second floor to first works are so successful and they needed more square footage. And then at the same time, we had this giant Swiss family Robinson tree house in the middle with three slides, a play space for children, and we can actually take a walk around the park. And just if you would, just look around and tell me the name of some of the shops here and if the name doesn't contain what they do, tell us what they do.
So Big Ernes Barbeque is a barbecue shop and the owner is a gentleman named Ernie, and he was working at the call center at Zappos and his passion was barbecue. So was another small business investment funded him. He was going out of the back of his truck for a while and this was his first ever store. And I believe he's now the, you know, the top or second grossing food and beverage outlet in the entire park. And when the park opened, he got up on stage and I remember he was crying and this was a life changing opportunity.
And then we'll go into the toy store toys. So Lizzie and her husband Trevor are from Austin, Texas, and they were at a toy store. Several of us were there for South by Southwest, stumbled upon the store and. They were actually going out of business, and so we said, you know, why not open a toy store in downtown Vegas? What do you think about that? It seemed like a really natural fit with the kids, and they've been here ever since.
And they're absolutely amazing what they can do. Also cool, there are the actual owners listening. Yes, you kind of supposed this is, you know, just even less meet. Nice to meet you. How do you do?
Explain to me just a little bit. Are you a subsidized business? And how does it work? I don't know. Subsidized would be how I would explain this business specifically because we are part of that fully funded autonomous group. So we are which is sort small business, I would almost call it. I see it as venture capital, which I don't see a subsidy so much as investment risk.
So what's it feel like to be the business owners? And in that scenario and what are you thinking about is like how do you measure success and how long can you go without being as successful as you might be if you didn't have that backup?
Yeah, we've we've done small business for 10 years now, specifically in the toy industry. And one of the biggest difficulties in such a weird niche industry, especially since the whole banking crisis, has been finding capital. And so what we really appreciated overall from working before is, is it a huge pressure is off, like we can focus on what we do best and we're not constantly stressed and we're not constantly having to also learn how to, like, find funding and organize everything.
Like it's in a funding that we can, you know, really work on the business and not constantly freak out about where our next line of credit is coming from. You guys are a couple. You have kids? No. Why is that so funny? Everyone asks. And I think this is the best birth control you could ask. We get really cute kids in and I love them. And every time I start thinking seriously about it, we'll get a little nightmare end and all of a sudden I'll add another year onto our waiting period.
We started discussing it, but we're a few years old. Yeah, I think. Doc, first, what are your big sellers here? Toy ones.
Yeah. I mean, we really set it up so that we keep in stuff that sells well and there's not much we have that doesn't move. Brody is a personal favorite. I've worked with this company for years. So they're bouncy ponies. They're made in Italy. They're actually they're beautiful. So there you see that design. Yeah, they're over 30 years old. Both of them are safe to four hundred pounds. So even so, even though it's a kid's toy, it's totally adult friendly and there's so many drunk run ups on them every Saturday night.
OK, all right. Oh, I got to come back. We won't be here. You cannot bother the employees. Well, thank you so much. You know, it's nice to meet you.
Maggie Shue and I head out of Container Park where the density falls in a hurry, so. As neat as all this is, we're encountering very few actual humans is that because of time of day they have weakened temperature? It's it's still less dense than you would find in many other cities in downtowns. But you'll notice that what we try to do is build block by block. So the container park a year ago would have even less traffic. So we built that extra block.
You walked extra back to the container park. We've started activating further down. We're about to walk to the bookstore and we'll see a few more people. So, you know, we're making that journey. And the thought is as we build more of that out, so we're building a music area on the right with the bunkhouse, which is a music venue, the wheelhouse, which will be a wind powered stage and a record store. So once that opens, you have even more people.
And so it's this one block, one block strategy.
And part of that strategy is to attract technology startups.
I asked Ed Glaeser what kind of tech startups downtown Vegas should be thinking about.
If there was some tech cluster that you could clone or import or steal, what kind of tech cluster would it be? What you know, if you could transplant something, would it be like a Silicon Valley or Route 28 corridor or a Provo environment?
Or do you want a different kind of industry represented than the kind of current traditional tech industry? What would you bring in to Vegas if you could bring in anything that you think would help it to succeed?
I would think the more that you go towards, you know, things like Silicon Valley, where you're focusing on making faster and faster transistors, I can't imagine that that has any synergies with Las Vegas. That being said, think about what Tony Shea found attractive at the Las Vegas area for Zappos. It was the consumer oriented workforce people who came out of working in the hospitality industry. People came out of the entertainment industry, people who were fantastic manning the phones for Zappos.
Now, the question is, what other sort of consumer service tech companies could potentially take advantage of that? What to what other areas are there synergies with the traditional strengths of Las Vegas? You know, maybe that's another angle to play.
But if Tony Shea wants the downtown project to do more than just make life a bit more interesting for Zappos employees, that is a much bigger challenge.
I think it all depends upon whether or not there's going to be enough. Entrepreneurship that he can attract into the area and particularly enough educated entrepreneurs. I think this feels fairly central to me is whether or not he can attract more people like himself into the area and probably not just people who are in service industries. He needs to, you know, get something more of a chain of, you know, tech people who decide that this is a whole lot cooler and a whole lot cheaper than other places that they could move into.
Let me propose something where we'd be killing, where Tony, say, could be killing a couple birds with one stone.
What would it take for you to bring your family to Las Vegas, to downtown project for, let's say, three years to establish a kind of triumph of the City Urban Institute, where you'd be the star attraction and you'd work there and live there, and then the other IQ would flow.
How much does Tony Shea need to pay you per annum?
Well, I don't know about money. I mean, I think the problem is that my welfare function depends critically on having people who are smarter than I am around me. And I would need to make sure that my kids also had a lot of people who are smarter than they were around them. And if you can guarantee me that, you know, it's I think I'd be willing to go.
That, in some sense, is the challenge that you face in starting a new city is to sort of attract a cluster of of a cluster of talent that can then feed on itself. And I don't know how well, how how feasible that is or whether or not that will be achieved. But if if you judge the project in the abstract, I mean, if it were me doing it, I'd be pretty sure that I would screw it up. Right.
I mean, but he is a remarkable guy with a remarkable track record who is, you know, deeply charismatic in many ways. So you would have lost money in the past betting against Tony Shea. So I'm not sure I would be ready to start betting against him now.
Coming up on Freakonomics Radio, we finally get around the campfire with Tony Shey himself to hear what he's got in mind.
A lot of city revitalization projects are really top down master plan, and we're really into that. And it's really more about backing the entrepreneurs and their passions.
That's coming up right after this. Hey there, I'm Stephen Dubner, and you were listening to a playback of a 2015 Freakonomics Radio episode called Could the Next Brooklyn Be Las Vegas? Back to Vegas we go.
After our tour of the downtown project, we head to the outskirts of the area. The streets here are very quiet, sidewalks empty. It's getting dark. Now we turn right and come upon a guard shack. We get waved through. We're with the band, and now we find ourselves standing in what looks to be a very funky trailer park. So we're walking on a very nice Astroturf, not trademark Astroturf, but artificial grass walkway with colored lights and a kind of canopy.
The structures are some airstreams, but also a lot of tumbleweed, tiny house Tumbleweed is a name brand tumbleweed, tiny, tiny home. And how many how many residences or how many buildings are there? About 20 airstreams intent. And are they all full? It's a mix.
One resident is Tony Shea, the CEO of Zappos and the man who's putting his own money into the downtown project. We began as apparently many get togethers here begin with a shot of Shay's favorite drink.
Frenette Broncho is an Italian liquor that's soaked in 40 years, including ginseng, Merkava meal, and these good tasting smells like Chinese medicine. 60 seconds. If you drink it, it coats your stomach. It's a digestive. It actually gets rid of mojo. So it's like a. Healthy like it? No, I don't I'm not fancy. OK. Cheers and cheers to everything. This is delicious downshifts, felt like I hurried through it just out of being the only one with a bottle like pink, but you'll see throughout the night as goes as you to the.
Yeah. Do you want to do this outdoors or. I don't know what's coming out because there's a great spot up there on top of the hour. Cool. Where we can do it next to the campfire so he can get the crap every once in a while in the background. I like that. Tony, can you just kind of set the scene like, say, where we are and what happens here? We are in a half a city block, and so this was just a completely empty lot.
Three and a half months ago, and a bunch of us decided to move in as a living experiment. And the original idea was, let's see what happens if we do an urban version of Burning Man. Right. I think there's probably 15 or so of us that live here. But then we also have a whole bunch that are set up as guest airstreams. And you're living here now. You sleep every night or. I've been here over three months now.
Oh, yes. Oh, it's November 4th. Oh, no. OK, so I used to live there in the afternoon. Right. And so do you. When you say you see, you literally don't live there anymore, you kind of moved out of there. This is this is temporary, right? No, this is really. Yeah, I've probably been back there five times. Wow. This whole time to keep all your stuff. You have an Airstream.
Yeah. It's the one behind that one. OK, so Maggie, walk us around. And it was great. I'm baffled that you've been able to do what you've done so far and even more baffled that you wanted to do what you've done because it seems like such. A massive undertaking, not just physically and logistically and financially, but psychically, so that's what I kind of want to talk to you about, is where did the psychic like what made you want to reinvent a part of a city?
And where did that word, the desire come from? I guess for me, it wasn't really about reinventing like this area we're in near Freemont, which is an area that most tourists don't know about, already existed. And just by magical coincidence, it was a few blocks from the former city hall, which is now Zappos headquarters, and didn't have you didn't have any desire or idea to do this until Zappos moved there. So originally, actually, we were looking to do what a lot of corporate campuses do, where we're looking to buy a big plot of land and then kind of build our own little community for the company.
So we actually toured campuses like Apple and Nike and Google that have these amazing campuses and then ask our employees for ideas for what happened during campus. And we literally got hundreds and hundreds of suggestions where we realized it was going to be physically impossible to fit all those things. Actually, the number one request we got from the employees was actually doggie daycare, which shrank significantly higher than human daycare. And so is that because more of your employees have dogs and kids?
Are they care more about their dogs and kids? You know, I'm guessing people have dogs and cats and, um, but as we got all these requests, we realized that it was going to be physically impossible to fit all of them under one roof. And the other thing we realized was that all those other campuses that we had looked at were great for employees, but we're actually really insular and didn't really integrate or contribute to the surrounding community. And so we started thinking, what if we actually turned the entire concept inside out?
And rather than just focusing on ourselves, we took an approach that was more analogous to NYU, where the campus blends in with the city and you don't really know where one begins, the other ends.
Why did you care about that? I mean I mean, aesthetically, I understand that. I personally happen to agree with it, that it's a nice idea. But there are all these other corporations. I mean, the typical corporate campus throughout history has been very segregated from where people live. What made you think that was worth doing? I think it was based on a lot of just different research reports I read. So we were talking about Ekklesia earlier.
And and then there's also Jeffrey Moore that's done research on cities. And every time the size of a city doubles innovation and productivity increases by 15 percent. But the opposite generally happens with companies as they get bigger innovation and productivity per employee. And Joan goes down. So part of it was wanting to avoid that fate and really think about how do we over time get supposed to function more like a city and less like a typical bureaucratic how how much of that from year end was a desire for business growth and how much of it was a desire like a kind of aesthetic choice for you, like you thought it would be better, nicer, cooler if your company could be like that, as opposed to necessarily the productivity end of things.
It was a few different things. There's the productivity part of it, and then there's also the attracting and retaining employees. Part of it. If employees that we're looking for want to be part of an urban environment, then and, you know, that was definitely part of the motivation. But then the other interesting research is that most innovation actually comes from something outside your industry being applied your own. And so I think kind of companies that are just in for walls ultimately end up being less innovative because they don't have the interactions with people from other industries and so on or on a typical suburban campus.
Most people who know you and know who you are and know what you've done would consider you an innovator. I mean, that's kind of in addition to being a success, a business. That's what you're known for. Do you think that having been an innovator in business necessarily has inherently turned you into an innovator in this kind of thing, this kind of social urban experiment? I mean, are they is it one in the same? Is it necessarily related or is it just something that's kind of an outgrowth of who you are as a person and what you like to do?
I think it's more about because I was never interested in anything related to urban revitalization or anything or real estate until relatively recently. And for me, you know, 10 or 15 years ago, I used to throw a lot of parties and I would think about how how do you design the space so that people I collide with each other and interact with each other. And so, for example, if there's. Two bars at a party then would shut down the first bar that's closest to the entrance, and then everyone eventually finds the alcohol and and then maybe an hour or two later open up the first bar and then that promotes the circulation.
And then within an office environment at Zappos, culture is really important to us. We want people to have those equivalent of water cooler conversations. And so we do a lot of thinking about how do you create more collisions. So we would do weird things like in our Henderson office and the building I was in, the parking lot was behind the building and the previous tenant actually had all their doors on all four walls of the building and employees would go in and out whichever door was most convenient.
So we actually shut down those doors and had everyone actually walk around the entire building and come in the front entrance, which created which which ended up making the reception area this collision point where guests and employees wouldn't collide. And we have evidence that that leads to better outcomes. Part of it is just personal experience and anecdotal and made me really care if it's empirically a lot better. Because, you know, when I talked to Levit about you recently, he said that as much as he is, you know, kind of a slave to the data at the end of the day, like if he's trying to do something as a consultant with the business or with an NGO or with the government, he's going to take even if there's a one percent advantage in scenario A over B, and that might require doing something that most people think unpopular.
He's going to do it because it's going to be better. And he said that Tony doesn't care at all about anything like that. He said Tony just cares about people being happy and people having a good time. And with Zappos, it's been incredibly successful. But Levitt, like, for instance, wasn't sure if the success was due to that happiness or maybe orthogonal to that happiness. So do you know? Do you care? I do care. And I guess.
I'd be interested in whatever data or research that, you know, maybe you guys can come up with, but if you read books like Good to Great or tribal leadership, there's a clear at least correlation, right, if not cause between companies that do well in the long term financially and the culture. Although if you look at the good to great companies, if you looked at those lately, well, so there's a follow up book that Jim Collins came up with, which was How the Mighty Fall or fail.
And so that's also interesting reading. But generally, the great companies, whether it's in good to great or in general, have strong cultures. And so some people might think it's a strong culture that results in the long term, positive financial results. And some people could say it's the other way around that because there you have the ability to kind of develop your culture if you're being successful. Right. And so I can also tell you just from, I guess, personal experience and from experience, at least of the close friends I have at Zappos, that that I talk to that when you're working with friends and super engaged, just time flies and you want to do the best job possible, not because you're insensitive, but just because you have that intrinsic motivation.
Right. You grew up in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, and you do kind of borderline rural, suburban. What was it like? It was in the suburbs and you went to college where you went to Harvard. Would you study computer science? So you lived in Marin County, then you lived in Cambridge. What did you think of cities like what we had had you been in cities? A lot of you lived in any other cities.
And which cities did you love? No, actually, I guess, yeah, I mean, aside from Cambridge, which did you go into Boston much or, uh, I think I went twice during college, so. So, yeah, I was never a city person, but I did like the community aspect of living in the dorm environment. Huh. Right. Right. So then obviously went on to do a whole bunch of things, including Zappos, where you still are.
What are your favorite cities now in the world? Uh, I love visiting New York, um, Amsterdam and downtown Vegas, obviously. Um, San Francisco. And what is it about those cities that makes you happy? I think, um, probably a combination of the walkability and the accessibility of really whatever you want. If you're in the mood for some random type of Indian food, you can find it. Or if you want something delivered, you know you can find it.
So we're we're sitting here. It doesn't resemble what most people think of his city is all what's your ultimate dream of where we're sitting right now, which is feels more burning man at the moment than the middle of a city. Do you want to have this feel like it's what Brooklyn now feels like someday or. No, I don't really know Brooklyn that well, but but yeah, one of the you know, a few years ago, the easiest way to describe what we were trying to do from the downtown project perspective was imagine, Ted, the conference meets South by Southwest meets Burning Man, but as a lifestyle and sort of as an annual event and.
I think more generally, it's I guess a lot of city revitalization projects are really top down masterplan and we're really anti that, and it's really more about backing the entrepreneurs and their passions. And so our goal is to help accelerate stuff, help make downtown Vegas a place of inspiration, entrepreneurial energy, creativity, innovation, upward mobility, discovery and all that combination of creativity and entrepreneurism. So Glazer's his whole thing is that the density of cities creates not only productivity, but a whole lot of other gains that are not necessarily predictable and not necessarily even that measurable, that just the density in the propinquity of all the people coming together in terms of value and in terms of intellectual property and stuff just totally changes the game.
I'm just curious, like how like do you see Glaeser as a kind of guru for what you're trying to do? And how did you come to like him so much? Um, yeah. I mean, basically after reading his book, it was probably a big part of, I guess, formulating the strategy behind what we're trying to do. So, uh, about, you know, cities are ultimately about the acceleration of idea flow in different industries and so on.
And so just being more purposeful about that approach versus let's say he has something I think he refers to as the edifice complex in his book. So versus let's build a giant. Right. Whatever, and then that will magically revitalize the city. But for me, it was more the progression of we talked about the looking at party flow to within an office, getting employees to flow and collide to this is the same concept just at a different scale. But getting residents to collide and talk to each other and and just knowing that the more often that happens, just statistically, the magic will happen on its own.
Will the magic happen on its own? It's obviously too early to say, but shouldn't stop you from rooting for it if cities are your kind of thing, as they are for me and for Tony Shea, even though he came to them late and as they are for Ed Glaeser. And let's say that 50 years from now or 100 years from now, downtown Las Vegas has turned into one of the most dynamic and original and productive and even aesthetically pleasing cities in the United States and the rest of the world.
And you and I will presumably be long gone by, certainly 100 years from now. What does it feel like to be the guy, the economist who studies cities and how they thrive and how they've triumphed? How would that feel to have played a not insignificant role in that triumph?
Well, that would be that would be lovely. Of course, if it doesn't do well, I have to take the boats for that is for that as well. But to be clear, I think, you know, if if I am one hundredth of one percent of this, that would be a lot.
This is the the dream and the energy of the downtown project and Tony Shea and his people.
And I think there's often a tendency of people to point to academics and say, look, look at this, you know, fancy Harvard academic who gives me an imprimatur for the idea that I want to do anyway.
And I think that, you know, while it's it's lovely for me to puff myself up with importance and think that I played some huge role in this, I think really the vision was in Tony's head and in the people on the on the ground.
But look, I'm not trying to dodge responsibility if it goes badly. I certainly you know, I certainly didn't say that it was a bad idea in a major way to him. So if it does crash, you can come knocking on my door and tell me I screwed up.
That, again, was a playback episode from 2015, the downtown project, now known as DTP companies, hasn't succeeded as much as Shey or others would have liked. Some of the companies they funded ran out of money and shut down or moved elsewhere. Critics complain there wasn't enough investment in housing. Also, they said Tony Shea could be mercurial, changing his mind too much.
That said, the project did help make downtown more attractive for other developers and projects. A new resort and casino called the Sterckx just opened nearby. It is the first new downtown casino in decades, and before the pandemic shut down, there were plans afoot for an expansion of Symfony Park, an arts and culture and residential venue.
A few other updates from the episode. Ed Glaeser is still a professor at Harvard. But Maggie Shiu, who used to run business development for the downtown project, she now works at Amazon and she founded a nonprofit called Gold House Collective, which promotes the accomplishments of Asian-Americans. Zach Ware, who was a general partner at Vegas Tech Fund, is now managing partner at what is now called ETF Capital and Lizhi and Treva, the couple who ran the toy store.
They were unsatisfied with the financing and other elements of the downtown project. So they moved their shop to a mall on the Vegas Strip and know they still do not have kids.
As for Tony Shea, he retired as the CEO of Zappos earlier this year, although no formal announcement was made. He died on November 27th, more than a week after sustaining injuries during a house fire in Connecticut, again, just 46 years old.
When I saw the news, I immediately thought back to that night in Vegas, sitting around a campfire, talking about the sun, the moon stars. I loved his curiosity, his appetite to always know more. What I remember best is that after the interview, we just kept talking. He asked me about people I'd interviewed and books I'd read and written. He told me about research papers he'd been reading and where they let him. He'd been reading a lot about the widespread adoption of artificial intelligence and it concerned him.
How did we know the A.I. wasn't going to turn on us humans once it had everything it needed and wipe us out? I wouldn't say it was a tortured conversation, but it was intense.
I've thought about that conversation many times since, especially as the world has seemed to catch up to some of his concerns.
I didn't know Tony say well, but I'm certainly going to miss him. Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Dubner Productions. This episode was produced by Greg Resul and Anna Hyett with help from Rick Kwan, Dan Missoula, Paul Schneider and married to Duke. Our staff also includes Allison Craig Lowe, Mark McCluskey, Greg Rippin, Zach Lapinsky, Daphne Chen and Matt Hickey. Our intern is Emma Tyrrell. You can get Freakonomics Radio on any podcast app if you'd like the entire back catalog, use the Stitcher app or go to Freakonomics Dotcom, where we also publish transcripts and show notes.
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