13 Investigates


Las Vegas visionary Tony Hsieh: The rise of a shoe mogul, giant footprint left behind

A look into Las Vegas' future without Hsieh
Tony Hsieh.PNG
Posted at 6:25 PM, Feb 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-01 13:58:03-05

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — He was a shoe mogul who left a giant footprint in downtown Las Vegas and the rise of visionary Tony Hsieh shaped that area for decades to come but many are now wondering what happens now after his death.

Hsieh made a fortune by defying what "normal" is, in fact, he encouraged people to embrace their inner weirdness and spread happiness to others.


Even from an early age, he was destined to change the world for the better.

"My parents wanted me to get good grades and eventually become a lawyer or a doctor," said Hsieh in an interview with ABC's 20/20 in 2010.

"At just nine years old, I had this idea of buying a lot of worms and then I would grow my own and then I could eventually sell," Hsieh told Barbara Walters.

"Well, what happened?" asked Walters.

"Maybe a week or two later, all the worms had escaped. So that was the end of my worm farm business," explained Hsieh.

Hsieh delivered on the good grades and he ended up graduating from Harvard in 2004.

From there he launched an internet start-up called Link Exchange which grew into a booming basement business but Tony wasn't fulfilled.

He told Walters he wasn't having fun anymore and sold the company for $265 million dollars.


Tony started in a new direction and He became involved in what would become Zappos in 1999 as an investor. At the time, it was known as ShoeSite.com founded by Nick Swinmurn.

The company's name was changed to Zappos in 1999 based on the word "zapatos," which is the Spanish word for shoes and Hsieh became CEO of the company in 2001.

Zappos moved from California to Henderson Nevada in 2004 and Swinmurn left the company in 2006.

Hsieh was known for his unique leadership style, believing in customer service above all else and essentially allowing the employees to run the company.

The notion of customer service and the treatment of employees proved to be a secret to success.

READ ALL THE STORIES: Tony Hsieh: The Rise, the Fall, the Future

There was free food in the cafeteria and employees were entitled to full, free medical benefits.

They even chose their own salaries.

New hires were offered $2,000 to leave as a final test to make sure employees wanted to work at the company.

The culture and customer service model gained notoriety in the business world, so much so, Zappos was named one of the best places to work.

Growth at the company soared under Hsieh's leadership and in 2009 Zappos was sold to Amazon for $1.2 billion.

Hsieh stayed on as CEO but had bigger plans.


"I think it will be, not just here, but the entire area around here will be completely transformed, it will be a very different downtown Las Vegas," Hsieh told 13 Action News in an interview in 2011.

Hsieh turned his attention to Downtown Las Vegas which had developed a seedy and depressed reputation over the years.

His idea was to breathe new life into the area by making it family-friendly and a place to see and be seen.

A LOOK BACK: Tony Hsieh talks about his vision for Zappos, downtown Las Vegas

"It spread a lot more development down Main Street from the City Hall perspective, on Fremont East, because Fremont Street East did not exist when I first came down here, it really changed things over," said casino owner Derek Stevens in an interview with 13 Investigates.

Stevens says millions of investment dollars poured into downtown along with a willingness to contribute to Tony's vision.

By 2012, Hsieh sunk $350 million dollars of his own cash which lead to the creation of the Downtown Project.

The revitalization effort helped create a hub for entrepreneurs along with new businesses, shops, restaurants and living spaces.

Some 300 businesses were associated with the Downtown Project.

In 2013, Zappos relocated their headquarters into the old Las Vegas City Hall building.

"I think if anybody said they weren't trying to at least catch up to what Tony was doing downtown, they were lying," said Kip Kelly, a former casino executive.

RELATED: Former casino executive Kip Kelly talks about legacy of Tony Hsieh, future of downtown Las Vegas

Kelly watched the project grow over time as downtown businesses trying to navigate the rapidly changing environment.

"Almost immediately, the next bullet point would be, 'well, how do we get Zappos involved?' because you knew if Zappos employees bought into whatever you were coming up with, you had tapped into that culture, or you were considered cool, or downtown was going to accept you in some way," explained Kelly.

An Applied Analysis report commissioned in 2017 showed the Downtown Project was responsible for more than 400 construction projects, created $209.2 million dollars in economic activity and credited with creating more than 1,700 jobs.

"We never competed in any way, but we had a lot of discussions over the years about what's the next thing and how we can grow and Tony was a pretty relentless growth-orientated guy," said Stevens.

The growth helped many minority entrepreneurs and women business owners.

By Sept. 2014, Downtown Project ran into money troubles and 30 employees were let go.

Some critics, businesses, residents and tenants also voiced their growing friction and frustration over the perceived gentrification of downtown as more affluence pushed home values and rents beyond budgets.

RELATED: Downtown businesses worried about foot traffic

Economic data in 2015 showed most people downtown were living below the poverty time and the majority were people of color.

Hsieh took a hands-off approach from the day-to-day decision-making at Downtown Project which would rebrand simply as DTP.

DTP continues to invest in businesses and projects.

The party continued on as well.

Life is Beautiful, the massive music festival in downtown Las Vegas brought in thousands of young people which also spurred more growth and economic activity.

It also ruffled some residents downtown.

Noise complaints, traffic and some seniors had to battle barricades and crowds to access their downtown homes.

"It's very hard, it's rough on us, especially us older guys," said Theo Cook who lived at 6th Street and Stewart in Sept. 2015.

The growth of downtown pressed on and now places like the Smith Center for the Performing Arts, The Mob Museum and the new Las Vegas City Hall are reality.

The trajectory has been changed for decades to come.

Hsieh stepped down abruptly as Zappos CEO in August 2020 with no additional public details.

RELATED: Tony Hsieh out as CEO of shoe and clothing giant Zappos

Hsieh turns his attention next to Park City, Utah, around the same time in 2020.

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