Gear And Hoping In Las Vegas

22 09 2012

I love Las Vegas. I get out there as often as I can, sometimes as much as six times in one year. I have made it my business to find reasons to go to Vegas. Conferences. Research projects. Vacations. Whatever it takes, the allure of the bright lights is irresistible. Which probably explains why I am headed back out in a couple of weeks for two conferences and and to lead a student research project. I really ought to just get a condo out there.

I’ve been hopelessly hooked for 20 years, and can’t see things changing. I’m a fool for the city.

And apparently, so is Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos! Shoes. Hsieh (pronounced “shay”), whose company is now owned by Amazon yet claims the Vegas area as its home, has high hopes of turning Sin City into a tech start-up mecca.

Hell, if Bugsy Siegel could transform the barren Vegas Valley into a gambling magnet, why not? The sky’s the limit. Winner take all.

It’s going to take more than just optimism, though. Hsieh envisions turning the old downtown area into this living/working center for tech and the arts. For those of you who have been, downtown Vegas is now known as the Fremont Street Experience, a rather recent attempt to revive an otherwise crime-ridden area into an alternative to the hustle and bustle of the Strip a few miles to the south. But for those who have accidentally ventured east on Fremont, you know that this is no quaint suburban neighborhood. I was scared to death there last Thanksgiving while on an 8am photoshoot of old motels and their signs. It’s kind of like waking up on the set of Breaking Bad.

Yeah, he’s got a lot of work to do, but with $350 million of his own bank already committed, the project has the seed capital it needs to become reality.

You have to give Hsieh credit. He is to shoes what Jeff Bezos and Amazon are to books. In fact, were my research partner to awaken one morning in Zappos!’ warehouse, she would swear she had stumbled on her high heels and gone to heaven. It also helps explain why Bezos bought him out.

Zappos! is already quite comfortable in its desert environs, and its commitment to the community is readily apparent when you notice it practically owns the 15 freeway with its signs every single mile indicating that the roadway is being kept clean by the company. Hsieh has done an excellent job endearing himself to the community, and wants to see it prosper. The uphill battle, though, is going to more difficult than selling people another pair of shoes. No, this time he needs to sell an entire city, one known more for gambling and debauchery than it is innovation.

But if anyone can make this happen, Hsieh can. If anything, shoes are one of the most challenging of clothing items to sell online. Every foot is different, and it takes walking at least a few feet before you know if the shoe fits. His model of customer service is unparalleled, promising no-questions-asked free returns if that shoe doesn’t exactly fit. It remains to be seen whether Hsieh will offer the same level of service to companies for whom Las Vegas doesn’t fit like a cozy pair of Bruno Maglis, but I have a hunch he has an insole or ankle pad to make it fit like a glove.

Just be sure you don’t cross Las Vegas Boulevard and walk east. Otherwise, you may need a good pair of running shoes. Trust me on that one.

Dr “Laced Up And Ready” Gerlich

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