Colliding with Tech Stars in Bugsy Siegel’s Vegas

by Kolby Solinsky

White Cover Magazine

The main stage is some $30 cab ride from the Vegas most people see, the Sin City on the Strip most people know and write about. That’s the Vegas you’re going to visit, and you can’t be blamed for it.

But this location, a good hike north along the highway connecting Salt Lake and Los Angeles, is almost certainly on purpose.

“It’s the complete opposite image of Vegas,” he says.

That’s Tony Hsieh, the well-known boss of Zappos and one of a few with means who’ve taken to re-vibing Vegas’s Downtown – a left-behind section of America’s home to cheap entertainment and Big Gulp-sized pina coladas, which now stretches the length of Fremont Street from the Golden Nugget to the hip Container Park, from Old Vegas to East Vegas.

“A couple years ago, I myself would have felt unsafe standing outside where Container Park is now,” Hsieh says. “Now, it’s a super-safe family place… people go there to just meet regular people.”

10 years ago, he says, Hsieh moved the Zappos office and its 70 employees from Silicon Valley’s palm in San Francisco and planted them in Las Vegas. As the area’s evolved and bloomed, Zappos has grown, too – up to 1,500 employees and a campus in Nevada’s new age hub.

“This whole Collision thing… for me, it’s been this ongoing thing,” he says. “Most innovation comes from something outside of your industry being applied to your own.”

And there you have it – the golden nugget to pry from this two-day startup conference, with 7,000 entrepreneurs, hobbyists, media types, investors, and attendees. It’s called Collision, as you read above, an intended one-word metaphor for intentionally-by-accident networking – the idea that, if you cram talent into a room and shake it up, the fizz will produce. It’s essentially the Big Bang theory, and Las Vegas has always been a study in Big Bang.

(It should be noted, in that Guardian link above, that the ‘Downtown Project’ has received its share of criticism in its third year of operation, with one former staffer calling it “a collage of decadence, greed and missing leadership”. So rumours are there’s some crust beneath the group’s fingernails, but you wouldn’t know it in the middle of an internationally imported event. That’s the challenge of something like Collision – you need a periscope to see outside the tent, or you may be under flattering light. It’s hard to tell; you have to be patient and sprinkle some grains of salt.)

What Hsieh said above, about innovation coming from someone outside your industry, directly refers to the idea that I, for example, might head into Collision as a journalist – but the inspiration I take and the ideas I’ll get aren’t likely to come from someone else with a byline. Instead, they’ll come from one of the thousand (it seems) booths and exhibits, one of the tons of speeches delivered by men and women much more influential and successful than myself, or perhaps something I can’t predict.

But it relates to Vegas, too. This is a city that became a destination by cherry-picking the best of a dozen travel best bets around the globe – Caesar’s is Ancient Rome, Paris is Paris, New York/New York is New York, and The Flamingo was named after the girlfriend of the Hollywood-based gangster who founded the place.

And Collision couldn’t find a better home than Vegas, a town where what’s old becomes nostalgic and its coolness never fades, while new money invades and plants luxurious, sky-scraping hotels and casinos – places like The Cosmopolitan, The Wynn, and The Encore.

Vegas is the result of a collision (get it?) of so many things – eras, demographics, tastes, and trends.

“Approach the event with an incredible, open mind,” says the conference’s founder, Paddy Cosgrave, an Irishman whose success with Dublin’s Web Summit paved the way for Collision. “Explore, meet as many people as you can, throw yourself in the path of serendipity.

“You just never know who you’re going to bump into.”

Cosgrave bringing this event – now in its second year – to Las Vegas is a perfect fit with the city’s identity. He and his team are outsiders invading through McCarran Airport – like Hsieh before them, or Sheldon Adelson and Bugsy Siegel before him. This place’s success has always been determined by nomads on the hunt for a fire hydrant to lift their leg at.

“Sin City was true, it was real,” said artist Anthony Bondi, in last year’s Vegas-set episode of Parts Unknown. “Part of moving out here was, you were never going to see the family again. I mean, that was it… It wasn’t that somebody came out here because, ‘I’m going to make a million bucks.’ It was, ‘I’m gonna come out here and I’m gonna survive and you all ain’t gonna bug me anymore back home.’

“What is the rest of the country? I don’t know, but it’s that place where they all leave and come here.”

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Of course, most of these conference thingies are cult-y.

It was one of my fears of attending Collision, that they’d just try to suck me into a TED-ish environment where buzzwords and bold statements are disguised like they’re concrete and money. The idea that an idea is more important than a plan is what plagues so many startups – and it will, for sure, plague most of the ones at Collision, too. That’s not slander, it’s just math – most start-ups die young.

But you can’t deny the relief and the excitement of escaping to a world where everyone’s reaching for the belt atop the ladder. There are real problems back home, in the office – you’re focused on your quarter, on your budget, on dulling and breaking everything down so you can fit it on a spreadsheet. So how energizing it was, honestly, to spend three days among thousands of people for whom the solutions are inevitable: It’s out there somewhere. Somebody’s going to find it. Why wouldn’t it be me? Why can’t it be me?

“Really, everybody should just know what we’re doing,” says Hootsuite CEO Ryan Holmes, down here from Vancouver (like me) to lecture on corporate culture and its importance. “We’re all on the same page here, let’s just go charge the hill.”

Those quotes above are perhaps obvious, age-old tips for how to run a business. But at a conference where the word disrupt is as heralded as the word influence, it’s perhaps a big deal that Hootsuite isn’t quite speeding away from the pack. You can disrupt, but make that interruption worth our while, basically.

Holmes’ speech leaned on the importance of outing poisonous employees, the sorts whose negativity can infect and pollute those around them, why you need to pull out the roots of those weeds early. Fire them before their disease can spread, basically. And his thesis isn’t far from Hsieh’s message from the day before, where he commented on Zappos’s recent move to axe all managers – strip the bureaucracy, and let the humans grow.

“Every employee is a mini-entrepreneur,” Hsieh said of the sort-of controversial decision. “I think the Internet serves as a great example of what happens with self-organization… It frees people up to focus on their passions.”

That line will branch off into almost everything else said at Collision.

A day later – we’re back to Day 2, Wednesday – puts Kabam founder and CEO Kevin Chou on Collision’s Marketing Stage, where the video game creator credits his industry for its rise from the silly time-wasters on your phone to a $115 billion marketplace.

And companies like Kabam aren’t just competing with themselves or with PlayStation anymore. Now, they’re competing with Television, with Hollywood, with anything that might want your attention.

“We’re all in the entertainment business,” he says. “You really have to put out an incredible, high-quality product (to thrive).”

Last year, Kabam took $120 million in funding from Alibaba, jettisoning the company’s value to up over $1 billion. Chou is one of the important guys here – certainly, he’s rich enough to preach from practice, but young enough to fund the future.

And that sort of accelerated success may be en route for re:3D, a company out of Houston that builds and sells its own industrial-sized 3D printer, called the Gigabot, for a personally affordable (perhaps) price tag under $10,000. re:3D won Collision’s PITCH competition – a Dragon’s Den-like bracket whittled down to one winner by several judges assessing contesting companies’ finances, potential to disrupt, and presentation.

Walk the floor, and you’ll find a slew of other ideas – some of them already up-and-running – that cater to your interests.

There’s Link2Golf, a smartphone app that hooks you up with other golfers in your area. Or Lettrs, with lets you customize your texts and messages, striving to give the hand-written feel of a pen, pencil, or feather and paper to our instantaneous world. Or ParkiFi, which lets you GPS your way to find open parking spots downtown – not just in lots, but right on the street, saving you the time and hair-pulling hassle of parallel-ing in rush hour. Or TalkToChef, a hotline which lets you video call and chat with one of the company’s expert cooks, who walks you through what you need to do and how you need to prepare that alluring, but complicated, meal for dinner.

There’s The Author Hub, a website currently in beta, determined to link aspiring writers and novelists with agents, publishers, and a market they – and so many others with the idea for a book, or several books, or a few chapters – know hardly anything about entering. There’s Happily, a wedding planning service that – like so many digital companies – does the hard work for you, playing the educated middle man, but leaving just enough fun for you to take credit for ahead of your special day – control your own destiny, call it a DIY. There’s Loop 88, a social media marketing firm that’s cornered the last great, somehow still-underrated social network, Pinterest, and has churned out campaigns for FOX, Home Depot, and Ragu.

What you’ll learn quickly, on a floor like Collision’s, is that there’s probably an idea out there for everything. But don’t let that depress you, because there’s nothing saying you can’t do it better, if your idea is taken – there’s nothing saying you don’t have the secret, or the solution, to a fill a cavity you swear you were the first to recognize.

And of course, there are titans here, too.

“If you don’t have a creative agency, you need to come up with a creative idea yourself,” says Lars Silberbauer Andersen, showcasing for the gathered his company’s YouTube campaign, ‘What is a Kronkiwongi?

Perhaps you’ve heard of Andersen’s company. They make bricks and unite spacemen with policemen. LEGO.

“Kids have the ability to take a trip to Mars or to the Moon while they’re playing with LEGO bricks,” he says. The Kronkiwongi campaign was a social media push, asking families, children, or their parents to send LEGO their creations – nicknamed the Kronkiwongi – over YouTube or any other online channel. Without the numbers to prove what Andersen obviously claims was a success, it’s obvious that LEGO is using the power of the web to enhance its identity.

“A lot of kids just basically go on YouTube and search for LEGO… then they basically click around on recommended videos,” he says. “We try to inspire kids with the great creations, with content, with history and stories about product lines.”

The key for LEGO is the key for other incumbents – don’t abandon your business model for the digital world, but don’t be blind to an opportunity, a new way to promote your brand and yourself.

“Its okay not to always have the answers,” says Eamonn Store, the CEO of The Guardian USA, perhaps the brightest bulb in the thousands of newspapers that have tried – and some have failed – to move from ink to pixels. “We didn’t set out in the U.S. to be a cool, millennial brand.

“We have a core reader base… our audience is growing and it is very young, so it’s fluid.”

Of course, The Guardian‘s 200-year-old history in England has given their online version a solid starting point – like rolling two sixes to kick off Monopoly. But what the publication and its offshoots have done since then – launching an apparently unlimited number of verticals, an endless barrage of well-followed Twitter handles, and a multimedia quality rivalling (maybe trumping) the BBC – is the envy of the editorial world.

The U.S. site’s most famous for its coverage of the Edward Snowden case, Store says, and his company’s received praise for how it’s covered soccer, bringing its own brand of UEFA, Premiership, and MLS snark to the States.

But the secret to their steady, non-stop rise? It’s sort of obvious, and it’s always been there.

“The currency we have is trust, is our independent perspective, and ultimately it’s the influence,” Store said. “You do have to make money. But what makes us different… We just do it (our editorial) in the way that we want to do it, in the best possible way.”

Just do it the way we want to do it.

That’s Vegas. That’s why we go.