Downbound Project

[Update: an official statement from the DTP says that 30 employees, or 10% of its staff, are being laid off, not 30%. However, it also gives the impression that many of its projects are being shut down or defunded, which means that the people employed by those projects – and therefore not technically DTP employees – are losing their jobs as well. I’d be curious as to the actual numbers of those people, but I’d be surprised if even the DTP knows for sure, given their less-than-stellar organizational skills.]

A lot of people have reached out to me today asking my opinion on the news that Las Vegas’s Downtown Project is laying off 30% of its workforce, and that Tony Hsieh seems to be actively distancing himself from it. They want to know what I think because, for a few years, I was maybe the most vocal critic of what Hsieh was doing with downtown Vegas.

My immediate feeling is: it sucks to be right. My heart goes out to those folks who’ve been laid off and now have to figure out how they’re gonna survive. I know that fear intimately, and wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemies. I wish them very good luck.

Beyond that? Well, I am Jack’s total lack of surprise. I warned people this was coming, for a long time, and very few people paid attention. I was very angry about what was happening downtown, but not because I thought the DTP was going to collapse. I mean, I did, and it seems I wasn’t wrong, but my primary concern was with the collateral damage to both the existing Las Vegas cultural community and to the marginalized population of downtown. Unfortunately, despite all of my rage, things proceeded as planned: the poor people and existing small businesses were pushed out and replaced by whatever the hell Hsieh and his circle wanted to put in, like the Container Park, which is neither a park nor made of shipping containers.

So what can be learned from all of this? There are some pretty clear lessons here.

1. Hire people who know what they’re doing, not just people you like hanging out with. It’s not much of a secret that Hsieh brought people into the DTP because he felt they were a “culture fit”. Unfortunately, the culture in question was very much a frat bro party culture, which means that a lot of the people who got discretionary power over projects were, to put it mildly, not qualified for the jobs they found themselves in. And a lot of people who were competent who came in on projects were either marginalized out as not being “good culture fits” or left in disgust because their ability to do their jobs was limited by the useless idiots that they found themselves answering to.

That culture pervaded and continues to pervade a lot of the entire Vegas tech culture: startups that seem more like excuses for a bunch of bros to go and play witless giant board games at the Gold Spike and talk about marketing strategies for their awful ideas, rather than actually producing products that people would want. There are a lot of hard-working people in Vegas tech, to be sure, and some very bright ones…but very few of them were the ones actually making decisions, and their hard work and good ideas are stymied by the dipshits who are put in charge.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it here: if you want your business to be successful, hire people who are good at their jobs and let them do their jobs. You may not want to be besties with them and do shots with them every night, but who gives a shit? As long as they do what they’re supposed to do and are capable of working within your team, that’s what you should be focusing on.

2. Cities are not startups. Nor are they fucking Burning Man camps…but that’s exactly what Downtown Vegas, as envisioned by the DTP, seemed to resemble. What the decision-makers seemed not to understand is that, rhetoric aside, Burning Man is not a city. It’s not permanent. It couldn’t be. There’s a reason that Hakim Bey — one of the people who influenced the whole initial culture of Burning Man — called such places “temporary autonomous zones“. For all the talk of anarchy, Burning Man is a deliberate and very controlled environment, primarily made up of people who buy into the culture around it.

real city like Las Vegas is far more chaotic, and filled with people who have absolutely no intention of getting with the program. And in a real city, you can’t just throw those people out for not being cool, man, no matter how many Downtown Rangers you hire to move the street bums and the crazies along. You can’t just make those people vanish. In a city run by responsible people, there would be places for the people who were pushed aside by the DTP to go — but Vegas is not a city run by responsible people, and a lot of those folks just ended up on the streets.

If you want to create sustainable private urban development, you need to understand the community you’re operating in, and Hsieh never did, nor showed any real interest in learning. He just wanted to remake the city in his own image, and seemed surprised when the city didn’t respond with the total slavish enthusiasm he anticipated.

3. Coordination, realism, follow-through. Hsieh’s people were constantly telling me that nobody was really in charge of everything, as if this was a good thing. But nobody seemed to know what anybody else was doing. It was disorganized and uncoordinated, and God knows how they handled the budgets for everything. (Today’s news suggests: not very well.) And a lot of the initial visions were utterly unrealistic, or simply required a lot more money than anyone involved anticipated. Not because realistic budgets were hard to project, but because Hsieh didn’t hire people who were capable of it. As a result of this, a lot of the announced projects just never materialized, or materialized in some half-assed form.

The Container Park is an excellent example of this: while I am a big fan and longtime advocate of reusing things like shipping containers in architecture, the fact is that Vegas is smack dab in the middle of the hottest desert in the Western Hemisphere; building a shopping mall out of steel boxes (and then, inexplicably, decking it out with shiny metal outdoor furniture and metal children’s playground equipment) is therefore kind of a stupid idea. They would’ve done far better to build an Adobe Park. But the essential unworkability of that idea didn’t seem to matter: they built it the way they wanted to — or kinda sorta, since they didn’t actually use real shipping containers for the majority of the space — and then managed to run it in such a haphazard way that something like a third of the occupants moved out within the first six months. One of the original tenants told me that, due to the tinted storefronts, nobody could tell if her space was open; when she propped the door open to let people see that she was, they turned off her air conditioning.

4. I do not think this word “community” means what you think it means. The Downtown Project was hammered so many times from so many quarters for their use of the word “community” — by myself maybe loudest of all — that they finally removed it from all of their statements. And rightly so. Tony Hsieh  and his circle don’t know the first fucking thing about what communities actually are, and what they need. It’s not about building a bunch of douchey bars and hipster eateries for you and your bros to hang out in. It’s not about turning a profit. It’s about providing safe spaces and opportunities for everyone around you — not just the people you personally like. Community is not about velvet ropes, it’s about throwing the doors open and helping people to help themselves and thrive. You don’t tell people how to build their community — you ask them. And you pay attention, instead of co-opting people’s ideas or ignoring people who are just as invested in the community as you are, or more so.

And that’s exactly what the DTP did, time and time again. They alienated Vegas’s existing cultural community and then pled, over and over: “We’re learning as we go along. We’re making mistakes.” So how many times do you need to make the same mistake before you learn from it, dummy? That is, of course, if you actually recognize that you’ve made a mistake, instead of assuming that you actually know best and other people can go along with your plan or get the fuck out. Which is, from what I can tell, what DTP’s actual modus operandi was. Turns out that’s not really the best way to do things, doesn’t it?

The sad part about all of this is the very real collateral damage that’s been inflicted on the lives of all those folks who’re suddenly facing an uncertain future. But Tony Hsieh has proven, time and time again, that he doesn’t give one single fuck about the collateral damage inflicted by his half-assed “vision”, unless it directly affects his PR. But there’s not enough spin in the world to make these layoffs go away. By all accounts, things have been spiraling out of control at DTP for a long time, but they’ve finally gone too far for anybody to finesse away or hide.

But the worst part is that none of this had to happen this way. Plenty of very smart people were telling Hsieh and everyone else involved in the DTP that they needed to change their tactics and strategies for a very long time. But they simply chose to assume that, because they’d run a successful shoe company, that they knew better than everybody else. So they ignored and condescended to a lot of people — like me — and fired the people whom they’d hired who didn’t reinforce the idea that they were brilliant visionaries who were destined for success.

So fuck ’em. I left Vegas because this shit was way too depressing to be involved in anymore. Not my circus; not my monkeys. Except that a lot of my friends are still monkeys in that particular circus, and I’m worried about how the aftershocks of this will affect them, even the ones who didn’t drink Hsieh’s Kool-Aid.

Starting a tech community is a daunting task: after six months in Yakima with plans to try and do exactly that, I’m pretty discouraged myself. But I’m discouraged because there’s no money for me to do it; when I think of what I could do here with a hundredth of the resources Hsieh had at his disposal, it makes me want to weep.

I certainly wouldn’t botch things up the way he and his people have. I learned my lessons watching all of this unfold. And maybe the next swinging dick billionaire who decides to remake Las Vegas in their own image will too.


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