What We Learned from Tony Hsieh, Downtown Project, and VegasTechFund

I remember the day we stopped trying to move to Las Vegas. It feels strange to say that, because never in a million years would I have thought I’d ever want to move to Vegas in the first place. Tony Hsieh’s Vegas is a different beast altogether, however, than the glitz of casino lights on the strip. This was news to me as recently as 10 months ago, so I assume it is still news to a lot of people.

The Best Airbnb Hosts Ever

Let’s rewind to September of 2012. We were Airbnb hosting Justin from Airborne, the coolest dude from South Africa. It was his first time in the Bay Area so we wanted to show him some stuff he wouldn’t get a chance to see otherwise, namely, an Oakland Raiders game and Las Vegas (did I mention we are the best Airbnb hosts ever?)

After 3 days of the usual Vegas shenanigans, I sent a text on a whim to someone I’d met at Burning Man through one of our investors. He was apparently quite involved in the Las Vegas arts scene, and I was curious. I got a text back asking to meet at a place called The Beat at 9 AM the following morning, which came a lot quicker than I expected. Vegas.

At our 9 AM coffee meeting, I learned about Downtown Project and all the crazy projects that were happening in Vegas, including VegasTechFund, a new investment fund with a condition that you needed to relocate. My mind was pretty blown, because some of the initiatives sounded straight out of big cosmopolitan cities, and some were even pretty progressive by New York standards. I was implored to come back for First Friday, so we made plans to return in a month.

Our car Justice beside the Dusty Rabbit

The Email Intro

My Burning Man friend did an email intro to Andy White, a partner at VegasTechFund. VTF’s portfolio has some really great companies in it. And, interestingly, some of their investments are very “me-too,” that is, “I see a pretty thing in SF and want it here in Las Vegas.” I am a fan of this strategy.

Andy and I chatted a bit via e-mail, and he and hooked us up with Krissee Danger, our super-amazing tour guide/most enthusiastic person on earth. We read Delivering Happiness and got to brainstorming. My background is in publicity stunts, so this is often the lens through which I view things. This one was pretty epiphanic: “What if we built a speakeasy in a box truck?”

The team was jazzed and we made plans to build a speakeasy in a box truck as our First Friday contribution.

Let’s Meet Everybody 

Before you arrive in Vegas, you are emailed an itinerary. We were very strongly advised to go to every single event – we did. There are dinners, cocktail hours, happy hours, and tours, all with a vaguely North Korean vibe. If you are invited to visit Downtwon Vegas, I recommend meeting everybody. Everybody from DTP, everybody from VTF, everybody from Zappos, every funded startup, everybody from VFA, everybody.

Tony Hsieh Drinks Fernet Like a Boss

Tony Hsieh is universally described as being quiet and reserved. This is not true when he is drinking fernet, something we all tried for the first time in Vegas. It is often described as jägermeister mixed with Listerine. This is completely accurate.


The mockup

The Dusty Rabbit

Since Dustin had just joined the team, we nicknamed the box truck speakeasy, “The Dusty Rabbit.” Using some intel from our highly-placed friends, we determined that everybody whose attention we wanted was going to be at a SpaceX talk in some portables. We parked the truck immediately at the end of the ramp. Within minutes of the event’s end, Tony Hsieh, Will Young and Zach Ware were ordering cocktails in our box truck. That was pretty cool. We decided we had to bring it out for round 2 after First Friday. Here’s what happened:

Behind the Scenes of The Dusty Rabbit from Speakeasy.is on Vimeo.

The video was viewed 500 times, almost entirely by people in Las Vegas according to the analytics. It was a huge hit, and we thought we left a pretty good impression.

Our cease and desist from the NV DOH

(Except with the department of health, hah!)

The Third Trip

Our third trip to Vegas coincided with Halloween. No box truck this time, just a lot of meetings, strengthening connections, and generally trying to stay top-of mind. I gave a talk at The Jelly, the local downtown tech meetup. We also got to stay in the Ogden, which was pretty pimp. We were very pleased to hear we were advancing to “VegasTechFund Phase 3.” We recorded yet another video for this segment, and we were feeling like this was it, we’re in.

What Happened


We had another call with them and they said they were excited to see us after we launched.

So a couple months later, we launched.

Launch was amazing – 45 events in 3 cities simultaneously. Here’s a video:

Speakeasy Launch Weekend from Speakeasy.is on Vimeo.

We had a call scheduled with VegasTechFund 6 hours immediately after our last launch party (of 45) ended. I had picked up my rental car from a tow lot in Coney Island in the pouring rain and drove next to a Starbucks so I’d have wifi for the call. I reported our metrics and everything seemed on the right track. About a week later, we gave up.

Don’t Give Up

We did not give up because VegasTechFund said no. The last thing they said, actually, was “Come back with some more traction.” At that point, though, after thousands of dollars and huge amounts of time sunk into this mission, we decided we should cut our losses and focus our energy somewhere else. If we had kept at it, do I think we would have gotten in? Absolutely. But as an early-stage startup we have limited time and money, a couple more Vegas trips might have killed us.

We definitely drank the Kool-Aid (an expression that is used with alarming regularity in downtown Vegas), and we evangelize about Las Vegas to anybody who will listen. I can’t wait until the next time we get to check it out – I hear they have a bunch of shiny new toys. If you are looking to be part of an awesome community in the middle of the desert, downtown Vegas may be right for you.

Most importantly though, I learned that jumping through a bunch of hoops to prove you’re a good “community fit” is still not as important as what founders should really be focusing on – getting traction.

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