Tony Hsieh spent the last weekend of October celebrating with some 30,000 people at Life is Beautiful, a three-day festival in downtown Las Vegas with one main sponsor: Hsieh. People wrote their biggest dreams and fears on a wall; two actors improvised love stories. A Ferris wheel, solar-cooked tacos, and 53 custom cocktails were available. Kanye West and Lionel Richie performed. So did Hsieh’s favorite band, Rabbit! “They play only happy music,” he says. “They’re our ‘hold’ music.” Hsieh is chief executive officer of Zappos.com, the online shoe retailer known for boasting about the happiness of its employees and customers. He’s also the founder, financier, and impresario of the Downtown Project in Las Vegas, an ambitious social experiment in urban renewal.
Hsieh, who’s 41 and single, sold Zappos to Amazon.com in 2009 for $1.2 billion. He received about a third of that, mostly in stock. Two years later, Hsieh promised to spend $350 million to create his own utopian community, a place of inspiration and serendipity where everyone could become smarter and, of course, happier. He wasn’t leading people into the desert, exactly, but to a down-on-its-luck neighborhood two miles from the Strip that he hoped to turn into a thriving hub of high-tech creativity. When he started in 2012, his pitch was, “What if you could play SimCity for real?” Sometimes he calls the project a startup city.