Photo: Melissa Pierce
As Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh invests $350 million of his own money to change downtown Las Vegas, he’s relying on others to carry out his vision.This is a huge challenge, especially since it’s a run-down part of town in the middle of the desert — not the easiest place to attract top talent.
But he’s convinced leaders like Andy White, who ran tech accelerator BoomStartup in Salt Lake City, and developer Andrew Donner of Resort Gaming Group, to help manage the $50 million tech fund and $200 million real estate funds, respectively.
We recently spent a week in Vegas with Hsieh and his colleagues at Downtown Project and Zappos, and were struck by his ability to get people to follow him, literally, wherever he goes. It’s more than his status or vision; people genuinely like being around him.
We asked Hsieh who taught him how to lead, and he told us:
“I don’t know if there’s any one person. I like reading a lot of books and meeting a lot of people. It’s always being open to whoever you meet, and then you just learn a lot from exposure to different people. … Personally I cringe at the word ‘leader.’ It’s more about getting people do what they’re passionate about and putting them in the right context or setting. They’re the ones doing the hard work. … [Zappos is] structured a lot less hierarchical [than most companies], so we’re a lot more flat. We try and decentralize a lot of the decision making. We all hang out with each other, at all different levels.”
Jamie Naughton, whose title is Speaker Of The House at Zappos, says that Hsieh “has a really good ability of spotting people’s talents even when they don’t know it. A few years ago there was this position I thought I was perfect for; I thought I was a shoo-in. I had the technicalities to get the position, and Tony said no. At the time I thought, ‘This has to be the worst thing that has ever happened to me.’ Almost instantly he started casting projects at me, and it completely changed the direction of my career. They were clearly more suiting for me than the position I was shooting for. … People ask, what is he like as a boss? Tony doesn’t push you outside the box, he throws you outside the box.”
Hsieh has done that with everyone he’s relying on to manage his $350 million investment in Vegas. He asked Zach Ware, 31, the lead developer for Zappos, to handle the $40 million renovation of City Hall (where Zappos is moving next fall), even though he has no urban development experience. Ware told us that he declined the offer three times, but after having drinks with Hsieh, he finally said yes.
This is the same sort of strategy Hsieh used when he moved Zappos from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas. He convinced about 70 per cent of the company to make the move. “That was in 2004,” Hsieh tells us, “and we were all young, had nothing to lose, and thought, ‘If it doesn’t work out, we can always move back.’ We thought we’d try it out for six months and then see what happens.”
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