City As Startup

A Dialog with Tony Hsieh and Geoffrey West

Zappos CEO and urban innovator Tony Hsieh (pronounced Shay) spoke in Santa Fe September 3 on the Downtown Project – his inspiring $350 million effort to revitalize downtown Las Vegas, Nevada He was joined by SFI Distinguished Professor Geoffrey West. After Hsieh’s talk, the two discussed what science tells us about cities and urban growth and the implications for the City of Santa Fe.

The talk, tilted “City as Startup,” was sponsored by the Santa Fe Institute, St. John’s College, and Creative Santa Fe.

In 2011, Tony Hsieh announced an ambitious five-year, $350 million effort called the Downtown Project committed to rejuvenating Las Vegas’ decaying, increasingly lifeless downtown. Using his personal fortune, Hsieh has invested in real estate, a tech fund, small businesses, and education to transform this area into a thriving, vibrant, connected urban core. Hsieh will discuss the Downtown Project and its successes and challenges and what Santa Fe might learn from this extraordinary urban experiment.

A morning workshop held at Santa Fe Institute gathered leaders in science, city leadership, tech, urbanism, research, and innovation to discuss the future of cities. That evening, over 450 people crowded the James A. Little Theater for the public presentation and discussion. Hsieh shared his experience and innovative role in developing downtown Las Vegas. West shared his findings on cities and why building public/private partnerships to critical and long term vision is key to the success of a city. The day was a testimony to how long term and sustainable development in cities is best created when the private sector gets involved and engages with the public.


At the age of 24, Tony Hsieh sold LinkExchange, the company he co-founded, to Microsoft for $265 million. He then joined Zappos as an advisor and investor, and eventually became CEO, where he helped grow from almost no sales to over $1 billion in gross merchandise sales annually, while simultaneously making Fortune magazines annual Best Companies to Work For list. In November 2009,, Inc. was acquired by in a deal valued at $1.2 billion on the day of closing.

The Downtown Project, which is focused on an area that is about two miles from the city’s famous Strip, includes an investment of $200 million in real estate, $50 million in small businesses, $50 million in education, and $50 million in tech startups through the Vegas Tech Fund. So far the initiative has created 533 jobs and led to the creation of new downtown areas like Container Park, which is filled with about 40 repurposed shipping containers that have become home to bars, retail stores, and other small businesses.

Geoffrey West is a Distinguished Professor and former President of the Santa Fe Institute. He has a BA from Cambridge and PhD in physics from Stanford, where he was on the faculty. West’s interests are in fundamental questions ranging from elementary particles and universal scaling laws in biology to developing a science of cities, companies and global sustainability. His research includes metabolism, growth, aging and death, cancer, ecosystems, innovation, and the accelerating pace of life. Geoffrey’s work was selected as a breakthrough idea by Harvard Business Review in 2007 and for Time’s 2006 list of “100 Most Influential People in the World”.


"So much of Santa Fe’s promise lies in entrepreneurship, innovation, and community building. This is the perfect moment for our community to be motivated and inspired by Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project."
-Santa Fe Mayor Javier Gonzales
"We are thrilled to host Tony Hsieh in Santa Fe. Our city is at a critical juncture as we explore ways to build a community that can thrive, prosper, and attract dynamic younger residents and tourists."
-Cyndi Conn, Executive Director of Creative Santa Fe
"What could be more inspiring to young people who still believe in big ideas than to see, through Hsieh’s visionary example, the ways they can transform the world and the places they inhabit?"
-Victoria Mora, Vice President of St. John’s College