Zappo’s founder Tony Hsieh sold his company to Amazon for more than a billion dollars. This wasn’t his first success – he also came up with LinkExchange (and their social networking subsidiary event, DrinkExchange), which was sold for tens of millions to Microsoft in the “dot com” hey day of the late 90’s. He’s investing $350 million of his own money on “The Downtown Project“. These initiatives are re-vitalizing downtown Las Vegas. His vision of transformation includes large public art installations, a shipping container park, thumping electronic music til late in the night, ziplines, and a cultural mix between Burning Man, TED (which hosts TED talks at Burning Man), and Austin’s South By SouthWest festival (where BMOrg premiered their Spark movie).
PLAYBOY: You spent a lot of time at raves when you were younger. What did you get out of those all-night dance parties?
HSIEH: A huge amount. In the beginning, it was this idea of peace, love, unity and respect—the guiding principles of the culture. You could talk to anyone, with no ulterior motive; it was about being open to people. But the most important understanding was about something called the hive switch. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes about it in The Righteous Mind. Basically, if you look at nature, you discover that certain animals, like chimpanzees and wolves, compete for food and mates, while others—bees are the best example—organize themselves for the greater good. They live together as a unified force because the DNA is the same. Bees are always working together for the benefit of the hive.
As humans, we go back and forth between both states. Serving our self-interest is kind of the default mode. But certain things trigger the hive switch and cause us to behave in a way that makes us care about the greater good. When you experience it, it is pure awe, like when you see something in nature that’s bigger than yourself. A synchronized movement does that as well, which is why when you join the military you spend the first six weeks just learning how to march in units.
For me, the hive switch got turned on by raves. It was a feeling of unity with the other people in the space, unity with the music and with one another. That’s why I go to Burning Man. The art, especially at night, just puts you in a state of awe. These things are hard to describe until you’ve experienced them, I guess.
PLAYBOY: You really have an open mind. The question has to be asked: How much weed do you smoke?
HSIEH: [Laughs and pauses] Let me answer this way: I think there’s a lot of interesting research that looks at the health effects of pot versus alcohol, and pot certainly doesn’t have a negative health impact. And since Washington and Colorado have legalized its use, it’s something to keep an eye on.
PLAYBOY: You’re avoiding the question. What about ecstasy? Nobody was going to raves in those days without it, right?
HSIEH: Okay, my hesitation in answering questions like these is that there’s a perception that you need to do drugs in order to have certain experiences. People have a visceral reaction to that idea, so I don’t like to state a preference one way or the other. People think with raves, for instance, that ecstasy is what that scene was all about. I mean, there were definitely people who went to raves in those years and were on ecstasy. I don’t have a judgment about that, but for me it was really the feeling of unity I described.
Did you ever see the movie Milk? I generally don’t get teary-eyed or cry out of sadness in movies. In that movie there’s the scene where gay rights activist Harvey Milk gets shot. That didn’t make me cry. What made me teary-eyed was the scene toward the end when thousands of people show up for a candlelight vigil. That was really uplifting. To me, it wasn’t about Milk; it wasn’t about his politics; it wasn’t about his death. It was about the response he triggered in all those people.
PLAYBOY: Incidentally, you’ve been rather ambiguous in discussing your sex life. Can you explain what you meant when you told The New York Times, “I hang out with a lot of people, guys and girls. I don’t really have this one person I am dating right now. I am hanging out with multiple people, and some people I hang out with more than others”?
HSIEH: Oh that. Because of the way it was worded, everyone started assuming I’m bisexual, which I’m not. I meant it as an analogy.
PLAYBOY: You’re 40 and single. Is monogamy overrated?
HSIEH: I think, biologically, from a Darwinian perspective, it is. From a purely evolutionary point of view, the guy who’s monogamous will have fewer copies of his genes in the next generation than a guy who’s not. I think it’s pretty hard to find one partner and call it a day. Using the analogy of friends, why not find just one friend and call it a day? The answer is because you get a different type of connection, different conversations, different experiences with different friends. I would say the same thing is true on the dating side.
PLAYBOY: You’ve mentioned before that you’re a fan of the literature of pickup artistry, including Neil Strauss’s The Game. Do those techniques work for you?
HSIEH: I think I have different goals. The Game is more focused on how to pick up girls, but I found it interesting in thinking about how to use similar concepts to build relationships in general. I’ve read a lot of stuff by people in that world, so I don’t remember who said what, but I remember hearing that if you’re going on a date with a girl, the best thing to do is change locations every half hour or hour and do something different. Basically, at the end, if you’ve gone to seven different locations, it will have the same effect on memory as going on seven dates in single locations. So it’s about time compression and memory and so on. The point is to seduce a girl faster, but that technique has other applications as well. It’s part of what I’m trying to do with Downtown Project. When people come visit us we basically hop from location to location to location, so even though they’ve been here only two or three nights, it will seem as though they’ve been here two weeks. It’ll have a big impact on their memory. Humans remember things in terms of geography and number of stories. I want a city where all this stuff is within walking distance so you can have a bunch of different experiences.
PLAYBOY: Just to confirm: You’re designing a city based on techniques used to get into women’s pants?
HSIEH: Well, we’re not using the techniques to pick up girls. But I did have someone here from that world who said what we’re trying to do is basically seduce people into moving to downtown Vegas.
PLAYBOY: And have a Tesla in every garage.
HSIEH: It’s true. We placed the largest order in the United States for Teslas. Project 100 is going to have car sharing and bike sharing, and we’ll also have a bunch of ultracompact electric vehicles called Twizys. But yeah, we bought 100 Teslas.
PLAYBOY: What’s your opinion of Tesla’s chief executive, Elon Musk?
HSIEH: He’s not doing enough, that slacker. He’s got to think bigger. That was sarcasm, if you couldn’t tell. I have huge respect for all he’s doing. It’s definitely a company I admire.
PLAYBOY: What other companies make the list?
HSIEH: I definitely like and appreciate the Virgin brand. I’ve always been interested in anything that’s a consumer-facing brand. Red Bull, Apple, In-N-Out Burger. Great service for the masses. Consistency. The employees seem happy; the customers seem happy.
PLAYBOY: By the way, did you really order the “100 by 100” off the secret menu at In-N-Out?
HSIEH: Absolutely. I like a challenge. It was Halloween; we were hungry. If you don’t know about it, the 100 by 100 is a massive burger. It’s 100 patties and 100 cheese slices, all within two buns. There were eight of us, and we ate the whole thing. The plan was to go out and party the rest of the night, but we just ended up lying on the apartment floor in a collective food coma. But we were happy.
It’s good to see Burners sticking together, ordering from each other. Conducting commerce, off the Playa. The Burner ecosystem, thriving.