Las Vegas has a specific reputation: gambling, bars, partying, up-all-night-antics. We've all been there (or not). I won't tell if you won't. Either way, unless you're in the business of showing guests a good time, it's hard to think about business in Vegas. Until now. Over at Forbes I just wrote about the changing face of business in las Vegas. It's not what you think. Thirteen years ago, cell phone battery dead and no ATM in sight, I walked from the Hard Rock Café to Mandalay Bay on the Strip in Las Vegas. Not my smartest move ever: two and a half miles at 3:00 a.m. leaving behind a gaggle of girlfriends who weren’t ready to end their night. I hated Vegas.
Las Vegas is defined by the Strip. It revels in its notorious, brightly lit glory from ad campaigns to pop star concerts. But tourism and hospitality make money—the Strip brought in $6.2 billion in gaming revenue alone in 2012. It’s like the sad tale of a Hollywood actress who tried to make it big and realized she could make more money as a stripper. At first she was a little embarrassed, but now she relishes walking a line of disrespect and lavish living.
If the Las Vegas Strip is the Saturday night stripper famous for her routines and earning potential, downtown Las Vegas is an aging call girl. But good investors know the difference between a tear-down and a rehab.
Enter the Downtown Project.
The founder and CEO of Umba, Lauren Thorp is like many entrepreneurs—deeply focused on growing her business and doing what it takes to make that happen. She and her husband had briefly relocated from Washington, D.C. to Menlo Park as part of 500 Startups. But she wasn’t moving again.
Lauren hated Las Vegas too. And she’d never even been there. She begged off opportunities to visit, imagining Vegas just like the media portrayed it to be. That was until investors came calling—community members, really. All from the Downtown Project.
“I’ll be honest, it was mentally confusing,” said Thorp. “How did I have such a strong opinion on a place I had never been to? We made a weekend trip after much convincing and in 48 hours we were sold. And there wasn’t even a sales pitch.”
Much has been made of the Downtown Project, Tony Hsieh’s heavily publicized venture in downtown Las Vegas. He’s moving Zappos’ headquarters into the old City Hall building, and piled $350 million of his own money into turning once-seedy Downtown Las Vegas into a business, cultural and lifestyle mecca. And while Tony may be the one who saw the potential, he’s rallied a team of builders, doers, thinkers, and huggers to bring companies, education and healthcare to drive this call-girlish investment.
It’s not about the money. It’s about the people.
If you listen really carefully you’ll hear the sound of quieting egos and a community getting louder and louder. This is the business of people. Not just startups.
Rehan Choudhry had been begging me to visit Vegas for months. A former MBA classmate of mine, Rehan runs startup Aurelian Marketing Group. Aurelian’s the agency behind the Life is Beautiful Festival responsible for turning downtown Vegas into a music, arts and learning mecca in late October.
Like many MBA types, Rehan’s career was a series of short-term wins, metrics and promotions. He never looked through a long lens of what he wanted and what he could give back. From corporate consulting to hospitality management, Rehan kept building towards short-term wins, but was never really satisfied.
“I finally realized that to be happy in business I had to both follow my passions and make my life more meaningful and the Downtown Project is a perfect example of marrying both.”
Vegas is still Vegas…but it’s getting better.
To be clear, Vegas is still Vegas. Coming out of my hotel on my recent visit, I passed a barely-clothed man wearing only a loincloth and Native American face paint. On our way to Downtown Lowdown (a mandatory monthly meeting for Downtown Project members), we passed a bearded lady. My non-smoking hotel room still smelled like stale Marlboros. There’s still a long way to go.
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