So began the first post-WWII column of the Daily Mirror’s William Connor, reboarding the train of thought he was riding before Hitler invaded Poland.
Unlike Connor, I’ve no interest in carrying on the theme of my last published column. Everything that needs to be said about that thoroughly unpleasant episode has been said and re-said — and with the launch of PandoDaily, it’s time to move forward.
In any case, the launch of PandoDaily (are we calling it just ‘Pando’ yet? ‘PD?’) is proof of the old maxim that everything happens for a reason. Without all the unpleasantness, how else could I have the unmitigated pleasure of working with my old friends Sarah, Mike and MG — plus a bunch of new ones — on a splendid new enterprise, free from the yoke of corporate ownership?
Moreover, were it not for the events of the past few months, I wouldn’t have relocated to Las Vegas and embarked on my new venture: Not Safe For Work Corporation — a tablet-and-e-reader-focussed publishing company, backed partly by Crunchfund. (That last sentence serves as both a plug and a disclosure.)
Curiously, despite the fact that I literally wrote the book on entrepreneurial failure, it’s not my starting a new company that elicits the most surprise from friends — it’s the fact that I’ve chosen to base myself in Vegas. “What in holy hell is wrong with you?” is the most typical reaction.
Even when I explain the logic behind the decision — Tony Hseih’s project to redevelop downtown Vegas as a start-up hub, the fascinating people who live here, the favourable business environment — they still think I’ve taken leave of my faculties. I understand that Vegas is an atypical place to start a company, and I get that people conflate the Strip with the entire town, but it’s not like I’m setting up shop on the moon.
It took me until last week to understand — really understand — why people think starting a business in Vegas is madness. Because last week, for the first time in my life, I went to CES.
Good God. What in holy hell was wrong with me?
To see Vegas through the eyes of a CES attendee is to stare into the loudest, brightest, most colour-saturated nook of hell. With 200,000 people — mainly men — crowded into an area just a few miles square, the city becomes one big lumbering, sweaty mass of ill-fitting suits, bluetooth headsets and shwag. What few women punctuate the crowds are mostly promotional sirens in tight-fitting t-shirts, luring men onto booths or promotional buses filled with watery rum. Wandering around the Las Vegas Convention Center, you suddenly understand how Rachel Sklar sees the tech industry. No wonder she’s so pissed off.
Venturing away from the convention halls — and after an hour or so you have to — means either waiting two hours for a cab, an hour and a half for a bus or (pro-tip) forty minutes for a monorail for the long and winding journey back to the Strip. A Strip that, of course, is packed with the same people you just paid to escape from.
And then there are the fringe events. There’s the parties — Twitter presents Usher, or Bing hosts Will.I.Am or Webvan pays a million dollars for the halo effects of Kriss Kross– which are designed to make junior marketing execs from Nvidia feel like rock stars and which succeed in so far as visiting a safari park transforms one into a puma. For members of the media — a badge category embracing the New York Times and the 2nd largest Android blog in Ostend — there are the product showcases where companies pay five figure sums in order to show their wares to a slightly smaller number of people in a slightly smaller room.
(A sidenote: one of these showcases provided my only real CES highlight when, taking a postprandial stroll, Andrew Keen and I stumbled upon something called ‘Pepcom Digital Experience’, tucked away in a shitty conference room at the MGM Grand. Despite carrying press credentials, and having accidentally registered for the showcase, Andrew’s reluctance to hand over his email address (“you just want to spam me! admit it!”) caused the organizers to aggressively bar him from entering. Chaos ensued. Security was called, and a physical fight narrowly averted. Not long afterwards, the same organizers turned away Leo Laporte on the basis that they’d never heard of the most famous man in consumer tech journalism. When he talked about the event on his blog, Leo’s fans proceeded to bombard Pepcom’s Twitter account and Facebook page with a clarification of Leo’s importance. Showing true mastery of social media, Pepcom responded by banning the Facebook commenters and deleting their Twitter account. Apparently they pull this shit every year — once even threatening to ban CNET if the news organisation dared to hold their own get-together after Pepcom’s event.)
(A second sidenote: next year I’m planning to host a free event in the hallway outside Pepcom’s conference room. Leo and Andrew can do keynotes. There’ll be free ice-cream for everyone. The event will be called “No, Fuck You Pepcom.”)
Add in the impossibly of getting a restaurant reservation or hotel room in town last week, the surge in “passers” (the lads and lasses handing out ‘escort’ cards on the street) and the fact that everything is twice as expensive or annoying as normal and it’s no wonder my tech friends think I’m out of my mind living in Vegas. If CES — and the Strip — were in any way representative of the normal Vegas experience then, good grief, I’d never want to set foot in the place let alone live here.
As I’ve written before, the real Vegas couldn’t be further from the Strip during CES. In fact, Downtown Vegas has more in common with Austin or San Francisco than it does with the Strip. Close your eyes in the Beat coffee shop at 6th and Fremont and you could be at the Creamery at 4th and Townsend — every second person is a start-up founder, and the chance of running into someone you recognise from a thing is about 80%. The coffee is good too, and unlike at the Creamery, the Beat has power outlets and a place to buy (and play) vinyl.
A block away from the Beat, Tony Hsieh’s downtown project has all-but taken over the Ogden apartment complex, filling it with scores of visiting entrepreneurs and tech personalities. Hsieh is committed to turning Downtown into a ‘start-up hub’: providing investment in new companies (disclosure: including mine), opening a tech library (‘usr/lib‘) on Fremont street and planning a collaborative workspace / incubator space. Just for shits and giggles, he’s also bought a private jet to shuttle people back and forth between Vegas and Silicon Valley.
Will Hsieh’s plans work? God only knows. Certainly the fact that he’s relocating 2000 Zappos employees from Henderson to a new Downtown campus will help the area’s regeneration. As will the hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money he’s pumping in (an all-or-nothing strategy which echoes his decision to plough most of the proceeds of his sale of LinkExchange into bailing out the struggling Zappos, which subsequently was acquired by Amazon for $1.2bn).
Right now, though, what matters is that Downtown Vegas is a hell of a place to live and to found a company — an entire city as a start-up — and it’s a fascinating story to be part of. A story that, of course, I’ll tell here on PandoDaily.
In the meantime, my plea as a newly-minted Vegas local is this: don’t judge this — my — town on the hellscape that is CES. Come and visit this week, or next, or the week after — and stay downtown rather than on the Strip. If you have a start-up idea, bring it with you and I’ll gladly introduce you to the tech and investment community here, or at the very least buy you a coffee at the Beat and listen to your pitch.
The muffins are pretty decent too.