Tony Hsieh’s Really Big Shoe

Dreams of the legendary 23rd Floor of the Ogden

Illustration by Travis Jackson

Illustration by Travis Jackson

Last month I arranged an interview with Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos and head of the Downtown Project, a $350 million initiative he funded out of his own pocket to create business, community and educational opportunities in downtown Las Vegas. The Downtown Project offices are on the 23rd floor of the Ogden apartment building, where Hsieh and many Downtown Project staffers live and work. I had questions about a property that Hsieh had acquired—a former 7-Eleven, now an empty shell—and he chose to field the questions himself.

So I took the elevator to the 23rd floor and went to the door to which I’d been directed. A staffer handed me a cold beer—Full Sail IPA, my current favorite.

Hsieh met me in a room festooned with plastic “vines” and shook my hand, smiling. I apologized for being a few minutes late. “Hey, no problem,” he said. We walked past giant windows with spectacular views of Las Vegas, past walls upholstered in Post-it notes scribbled with ideas and inspirations, and to a handsomely appointed public room.

“We’ll hang here for a minute,” Hsieh said. “I have a presentation to show you, but it’ll take a minute to boot up.”

“I know you’ve got a beer, but you’ve gotta help yourself to some Kool-Aid from the dispenser,” said an aide. “It has 356,000 flavor combinations, including Tuaca and Edward Glaeser.”

Just then I realized that all the furniture was shoe-shaped. The chairs, the beds, even the refrigerators. Staffers called it “shoeniture,” and one helpfully added that it represents a quantum leap ahead in the previously unexplored field of “nursery rhyme-activation technology.”

Before I could take a seat in a giant Steve Madden slip-on, Hsieh said “No, no,” and I was measured head-to-toe with a $10 million laser scanner. The old Madden chair was wheeled out and a custom-size shoe divan was produced, in brown patent leather.

“I’d prefer it in black,” I joked.

Hsieh nodded to a staffer, and the brown chair was wheeled away and instantaneously replaced by a black chair in the same style. I took a seat; it fit perfectly. Hsieh informed me that they’re working on a mobile app to streamline the process I’d just been through.

“Android, or just iPhone?” I asked, holding up my Evo 4G LTE. He shook his head sadly.

Briskly leading me to another room in the catacombs, we came to a rest at a boat dock, where a perfect replica of the boat from the 1971 film Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory awaited, its engine purring softly.

“Got the original schematics from Harper Goff, the production designer on the movie,” Hsieh said absently, typing out something on his phone. “Had my guys fix it up so it actually works.” And on cue, a bunch of sharp dressers—some of them bartenders I recognized from local bars—emerged from doors hidden behind the giant, flowering trees and came down the green lawn, each toting two bottles of Fernet Branca apiece. They poured the bottles into the engine, and we were off.

“That’s the Burning Man co-working space coming up on our left,” Hsieh said. I looked through the one-way glass and saw a giddy, torch-lit bacchanalia taking place. Thousands of revelers, many of them naked and covered in dust, cavorted in a room larger than a football field.

“Impossible,” I said. “This entire building isn’t that big.”

“Wormholes,” Hsieh said. “Anyway, we’re testing a theorem that one of our people had, that creative energy produces electrical power when mixed with dust, nudity and absinthe. And there’s another excellent reason to cultivate a creative class in Las Vegas. If this works, we’ll have enough juice to light the entire Western seaboard. Except for Mountain View.”

“Wow,” I said with soft wonder. “Does Burning Man really look like that? It looks kinda unsanitary.”

Hsieh ignored that. “The next room is where we’re doing model work for our various Downtown Project endeavors. We’ll be getting off here.”

It was not a minute too soon; the intoxicating, medicinal fumes from the Fernet exhaust pipe were beginning to make me believe in a higher power. We disembarked and walked through an anonymous door that deposited us on Fremont East.

“Wrong turn?” I asked.

“No, this is the right place. We build to scale. It’s easier that way. Model work and schematics don’t quite capture the sight lines.”

“Hey, there’s Figler,” I said, as my friend emerged from The Beat. “And there’s Kristyn, the bartender at the DCR. Hey, guys! Over here!”

“They’re machine replicas,” Hsieh said. “It didn’t make sense to build models to human scale without humans to interact with them. There’s a startup in a crash pad on this floor; those guys make something like 20 of these a day—hang on a second.” He took out his phone and spoke into it: “Krissee, where’d we put the guys who make the replicants?”

“Why not just get real live humans in here?” I asked.

“It’s Preview Thursday. Everyone’s busy,” he said.

That made sense to me. Virtually everyone I know does Preview Thursday instead of First Friday.

After that, the interview was pretty much run-of-the-mill. We strapped on our anti-gravity suits and flew around the 1:1 scale replica of Fremont East, diving low over the world’s largest upscale Airstream trailer hotel and banking lazy circles around the bustling shipping container retail and dining complex, whose giant, ornate neon sign read “TBA.” Then we landed at a warehouse rave where Madeon, Chicane and M83 played alternating sets, and I got married to actress Alison Brie, who used her Mad Men and Community influence to get me a first-look sitcom deal.

And as the last notes of M83’s epic “Lower Your Eyelids to Die With the Sun” faded away, Tony Hsieh tapped me on the shoulder.

“I’ve got a 5 o’clock meeting,” he said. “Thanks for coming by. Hey, you should come to the next ‘Delivering Happiness: Inspire’ night at The Beat. See you around.”

And I followed him out the door, which deposited me by the Ogden’s elevators, like nothing had ever happened.

At that moment, I decided to throw all journalistic integrity out the window, as I had done repeatedly in years past. I would write up my visit to the 23rd Floor, but I would leave out every detail that might make you want to go up there and take away my Fernet-powered boat and smoking-hot actress wife and simply tell you that Tony Hsieh has a great vision and we must support it at all costs. Therefore, in my own self-interest, I ask that you forget everything you’ve just read and let this last paragraph be the final word on the subject:

The Downtown Project’s plans are moving apace. The Tony Hsieh-funded initiative currently intends to put a shipping container retail park at Seventh and Fremont streets, and an international newsstand and lecture hall in the former 7-Eleven building at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Fremont. Both projects will likely be completed by the first quarter of 2013. That is all.