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July 18, 2018

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Hsieh clarifies role at Downtown Project in wake of ‘crazy headlines’

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Charley Gallay

Tony Hsieh.

Following a presentation on his downtown empire at a Las Vegas startup convention Monday, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh took a few minutes to “clear the air” about recent rumors that he has stepped away from the $350 million Downtown Project.

Interviewed in front of dozens of entrepreneurs at Inspire Theater for the 2014 Tech Cocktail Celebrate Conference, Hsieh spoke candidly about recent struggles with the media after news of 30 layoffs at the Downtown Project broke last week.

“There’ve been a lot of questions and concerns,” said Frank Gruber, co-founder of the tech blog Tech Cocktail and one of the conference’s hosts, of Hsieh’s role with the Downtown Project. “Is it a doughnut or bagel? What’s your roll?”

The audience laughed, awaiting Hsieh’s reply.

“Drums,” Hsieh said. “Drum role.”

The audience laughed again and many simulated a drum roll on their laps.

“I saw these crazy headlines,” Hsieh said. “What’s kind of crazy is you get one website that says it ... and within minutes it’s on a million websites.”

Technology news site Re/Code last week published a report that Hsieh had stepped down as the Downtown Project’s leader. That’s when a panic seemed to sweep through the downtown community.

“Wonderful journalism,” Gruber joked, prompting more laughs.

Hsieh clarified that the Downtown Project is not a single entity: “It’s actually about 300 different businesses and legal entities,” he said.

Hsieh said he’s not involved with the day-to-day operations of most of those investments.

“So I’m not sure where the miscommunication came from,” Hsieh said. “That was exactly true six months ago.”

“OK, good,” Gruber said. “That clears the air.”

Gruber then asked the audience to raise their hands to ask Hsieh questions. The first question came from a startup owner who asked Hsieh about the challenges that come with “community development.”

Hsieh focused his response on the word “community,” which has been a tough subject for the Downtown Project for a while now.

“Our biggest surprise in the beginning was just using the word community,” Hsieh said. “People had different expectations ... There are a lot of cases where people expected us to be either a charity or do things the government would normally do ... That was part of the reason why on the Downtown Project side, we focused more on the words collision, co-learning and connectedness as our goal. In retrospect, we probably wouldn’t have just started out using that word in the first place. Our goal is definitely to help the community, but I think it just creates strange expectations.”

Though Hsieh’s camp used the word often at the Downtown Project’s inception, officials later removed all mentions about “return on community” from the Downtown Project website, adding the word “connectedness” to cut down on confusion.

At the end of the question session a foreign correspondent visiting from France asked Hsieh about the recent rumors about the Downtown Project’s fate and whether the shoe guru has made any mistakes since starting the $350 million campaign.

Hsieh said he views the Downtown Project as a startup — an endeavor that often comes with mistakes waiting to happen.

“Every startup makes a ton of mistakes,” Hsieh said. “There have been investments that we’ve made and they’ve gone out of business.”

Hsieh’s key to moving forward?

“Learn and adapt quickly,” he said.

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