This post is part of the “Small Business, Big Ideas” series, in which business leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators share their stories of overcoming obstacles and achieving success. “Small Business, Big Ideas” is sponsored by Chase.
It happened to be the same day the e-commerce company was massively hacked, affecting 24 million customers, and keeping its employees working around the clock.
It also happened to be “Pajama Day” at Zappos.
“I went there because I was trying to do an office re-model — which my team was pushing back on — with large, communal, creative spaces,” Choudhry tells Business Insider. “They happened to be in the middle of a security breach. It was the worst day in the company’s history, and everyone is wearing their pajamas, working 72 hours straight, but they could only focus on the culture, on pajama day. The best day at any other company usually feels pretty bad, with someone trying to overtake you for a promotion. But at Zappos, on their worst day they focused on how it was pajama day.”
And that made all the difference. “The event pushed me off the cliff,” says Choudhry, who quit his job just a few days later. “I couldn’t be happier. The happiest day of my career was my last day of work, but I had no idea what I was going to do. Nobody was telling me what I could do.”
A friend, Ryan Doherty, recommended The Beat Coffeehouse in downtown Las Vegas as a place to “find inspiration,” so that’s where Choudhry ended up spending a lot of his time. “I tried coffee shops on the Strip, but it’s like trying to find peace in the middle of Times Square. I needed the intimacy and energy that only a neighbourhood coffee shop can provide.”
During those months, he started a marketing strategy company, Aurelian Marketing Group, “what I know best,” he says. “I have a passion for human interaction and bringing large groups together. It could be an intimate or large festival; figuring out our how brands integrate into larger social cultures.”
“The brand is meant to inspire people to take bigger risks with their lives and pursue careers and life passions that they had when they were six years old. I challenge a six-year-old to say they want to be a car dealer or cocktail waitress when they grow up.”
One of his ongoing side projects was planning a huge festival for Las Vegas, called “Life Is Beautiful,” along with partners Planet Entertainment and MAKTUB Marketing. Through a mutual friend, he met Tony Hsieh, who’s investing $350 million to transform downtown Las Vegas, and the Zappos CEO came on board as a partner.
The “Life Is Beautiful” festival is happening in October, and Choudhry is expecting 70,000 guests — 50 % Las Vegans — making it competitive with any large festival, like Coachella or Burning Man.
But Life Is Beautiful is essentially four independent festivals — food, learning, wine, and music — in one. “Each festival could stand up on its own,” he explains.
They’ll have 60 to 65 bands and DJs, street art, and a TED-inspired learning series, where there will be everyone from social entrepreneurs to Fortune 500 CEOs talking about how they found success and happiness.
“With the learning series, the brand is meant to inspire people to take bigger risks with their lives and pursue careers and life passions that they had when they were six years old. I challenge a six-year-old to say they want to be a car dealer or cocktail waitress when they grow up. It’s a mantra that will inspire them back to their roots. We’re specifically focusing on the arts, and the learning series is really driving that home.”
And Choudhry knows all about taking big risks to succeed. His own career path has been zig-zagged. A few years before he started working at the Cosmopolitan, Choudhry was an IT consultant for the Department of Homeland Security.
“The work I did there was specifically around developing emergency response tools, designing and maintaining a system that prevented failure during 9/11. I realised I didn’t like IT. So I went to [Vanderbilt] Business School in Nashville, then got recruited by Caesars in Atlantic City to help stop the bleeding in Atlantic City. There I found a passion for doing large-scale events.
“Then I got a call from the CMO from the Cosmopolitan in Vegas, and I moved there and opened an entertainment program there for two years. I left my job in April of last year.”
Now he’s pouring everything into making his new venture, and Life Is Beautiful, work.
“It’s 99.9 per cent of my life right now,” he says. “It’s every minute, every dinner, social interaction, everything is all around the festival, so many people are catching onto the idea and are inspired by the idea.”
What’s his best advice for success? “Increase your risk tolerance. Embrace fear and uncertainty. Know that you’ll be in that state, knowing it’ll exist regardless. Now I find myself coming to work hours earlier than I used to, and staying hours later than I used to.”
As for what’s happening in downtown Vegas, he says, “You’ve got one of the most well-known cities in the world. There’s a huge gap between what the world knows is Las Vegas and what we’re living in (downtown). We’re coming from a raw place, which is exciting. The amount of incredibly intelligent and experienced people has created a once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity.”
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