April 7, 2022
IN THE 2010-2015 timeframe, when Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh was moving his company to the heart of Las Vegas and launching Downtown Project, a $350-million fund to revitalize the area, both Joe Schoenmann and I had already lived there for several years. Joe was a Las Vegas Sun reporter known for his Joe Downtown column, and I was freelancer then staff writer for Vegas Seven. As a generalist, whose Downtown roots were in the Arts District (where my husband has owned a business for 13 years), I observed DTP from the outside, sympathetic to the complaints of those who watched resources and enthusiasm flow away from a grassroots movement toward a millionaire’s personal vision. Joe, on the other hand, covered DTP and city politics almost exclusively, and got to know its players — including Hsieh — from the inside. We brought these two points of view to our reading of the new book Happy at Any Cost: The Revolutionary Vision and Fatal Quest of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, by Kirsten Grind and Katherine Sayre.
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Last week, we met for a beer at one of Hsieh’s old haunts, the Gold Spike, to talk about the book. The authors don’t dwell, as many Downtown Las Vegans still do, on questions about the costs and benefits of DTP. That’s because Happy at Any Cost is first and foremost a biography of Tony Hsieh, an attempt to understand how the celebrated tech entrepreneur ended up dying alone in a Connecticut home’s storage shed in November 2020 at the age of 46. Consequently, Joe and I spent most of our conversation trying to make sense of what Grind and Sayre reported — in the context of what we’d seen ourselves. Here’s an excerpt, edited for clarity.
I'm curious: What did you think of the book overall?
I was so disturbed by it that I read it in one day, and I couldn't sleep. I couldn't believe the anecdotes about (Hsieh) were true. I mean, I do believe them, I just — it’s hard. … When I heard that he yelled at people and got angry — I'd never seen that. I never saw him laugh.
Yeah, one of the interesting lines I underlined toward the end of the book was … “His character, full of so many contradictions — awkward but exceedingly fun, unfailingly generous, but lacking empathy.” (The authors) talked many times in the book about how (Hsieh) was so concerned about everyone else's happiness, … but, at the same time, so detached from his own emotional state, and so out of touch with his own his own needs. That kind of speaks to some of the shortcomings of Downtown Project, which was that it had grand ambitions, but ignored the immediate needs of the neighborhood sometimes.
I thought they could have gone more into his death — you know, the speculation about it (being) maybe suicide, or accidental — and then talk about the suicides of people who were related to Downtown Project. That was just glossed over. … I wish they'd gone a little bit more into that.
The title of a book is really right on: Happy at Any Cost. (DTP) pushed it, and they pushed it fast. They wanted to create this change very quickly. That was a big complaint among people down here.
There were so many incidents where I found myself just putting the book down and shaking my head because I couldn't believe them. Was there any one incident that stood out to you?
In general, I had this thought: He did know a lot of people … people I would consider his friends, close friends. I didn't see much in the book about them trying to help him when he was in dire need. … Maybe they wouldn’t talk to the authors. But I wonder, when you're befriending somebody who's worth almost a billion dollars, I think it’s hard to forget the money behind that person the whole time. Maybe that's just me, maybe I'm wrong. But I don't know if he really had any true friends. It saddened me.
There’s this idea the authors introduce early on that Tony collected people — interesting friends and associates and employees … I think there was something really beautiful about that, because it showed how he wanted everyone who had an interesting idea or a unique personality or perspective to have the opportunity to thrive and share their gift. But at the same time, it's not necessarily a healthy way of forging relationships.
Yeah, it would be a different person, every two days, somebody flown in here. It was fascinating. I really loved it, seeing and hearing some of these people talk at gatherings, then in the evening at Downtown Cocktail Room, about these grandiose ideas. I loved that part of it. But you’re right, I think it was like you’re in one day, and then you're out, and then somebody else comes in. It's this revolving door. So, who was really truly there? Was anybody there for him?
One of the fascinating parts of this story is that Tony, in the last year of his life, when he was declining mentally, kept track of all of his quote-unquote contracts on sticky notes.
Yeah, that was unbelievable. … On the wall of his house (in Park City, Utah), imagine, you had sticky notes, where somebody would say, “I want $10 million.” They'd write it, and it was considered contract, sign it.
It's appalling. And the fact that he hired court reporters to follow him around and record all of these conversations he was having with people who were coming there to pitch him ideas, it's so interesting. It shows at the same time how paranoid he was and also how smart he was. I'm sure that those court reporter transcripts are now helping attorneys sift through all of this and figure it out. The authors quote a couple of those conversations where you can clearly see that (Hsieh) is not in his right mind, but the person that he’s talking to is going ahead and proceeding with a business deal anyway.
That, to me, showed there was something way off. And they’re talking about what a trash bin that 25,000-square-foot mansion was. There was some point when a sheriff or cop was there, and he said it looked like there was like an inch or two thick of empty nitrous oxide cartridges on the ground, as well as dog crap. And Tony seemed to intimate that it's better to have this trash everywhere, because people will see how much trash they’re creating, so maybe they won't create as much.
It’s such a great illustration of where his head was, right? Local art critic and historian Brian “Paco” Alvarez is quoted in the book, and the day it came out, March 15, Paco posted on Facebook a copy of the cover with a comment to the effect of, “Wow, this is gonna be a tough read.” And I thought of him and other people like him while I was reading the book, because Tony's condition is so bad. I thought it must be really painful for people that loved him to read. He really was in such terrible shape, doing so many drugs.
At one point in the book, they said Tony was taking nitrous oxide during some interview every 30 seconds, and they talked about the dissociative quality that it gives a person. There are so many interesting little side avenues (the authors) go into about life hacks. I met some people, when Tony was here, who were into like hacks, or were the author of some book that talked about stuff like that. And Tony's life hack was ingesting lots of nitrous oxide to somehow change his brain chemistry. He kept telling people, Once I've reached a certain stage, I'm done. I won't be addicted.
He told them he was going through a metamorphosis. According to the book, his biohacking also involved sleep deprivation. He felt like a combination of the sleep deprivation and the nitrous oxide would increase his creativity, and basically instigate this metamorphosis, and he would emerge on the other side this new person.
What makes me angry is, he’s saying this to people, and, except for (former Zappos employee) Tyler Williams and his brother (Andy Hsieh), no one was trying to get help. But what can you do? What can you do when somebody you love is addicted? You can't pin them down. You can't handcuff them.
I found it comforting to learn that there were people trying to do something. Jewel clearly tried. His brother Andy was communicating with her and trying to orchestrate some type of outside intervention to come in. His family directly tried to intervene one time and failed. … But to your question, what about the people who are around him, the only answer that I could come up with is that they were just living in an environment where they had somehow all convinced each other that this was normal, and it was okay, because of his intelligence and his charisma, and the fact that he was rich and successful. Or they were just straight up taking advantage him.
Which one do you think it is?
I don't know. I think that it’s probably fair to let some of those other people have their say or respond to some of this as well. What do you think?
I say 60 on one side, 40 on the other. He's (saying), “I'll give you twice your salary to come here and work for me.” It's hard to say no to that. And then you’ve given up the job that you had. So, what do you, go back? There are so many factors that just regular people are considering when they make that jump. It's hard to say, it's hard for me to blame people. I wasn’t there either. So, I don't know.
Also, let's not discount the possibility that maybe they genuinely believed in him. Maybe they genuinely thought these ideas they were pursuing could happen. It sounds outlandish to me, but again, I don't run in circles where people have a million dollars to spend on an idea, so who knows.
I've met so many of these people. I would picture them when I was reading the book. None of them, I think, are bad people. I really don't.
About a year and a half before Tony died, I went to his (Airstream) trailer park after he moved it a little bit further north of downtown. He was there, and he looked disheveled. He was sitting at a table with a bunch of people, and he was just staring. I walked up to him, and he looked very listless. He looked up at me very slowly, and just stared at me. And then he said hi. … About three weeks after this, maybe spring 2019, I saw somebody who knew him at a bar Downtown, and I told him, Tony looks terrible. Is somebody going to get him help? And the guy said something to the effect of, he's an adult.
They’re not wrong. … Overall, it's a very sad story. There’s no getting away from that. But to pull back from that a little bit, one of the fascinating parallels I thought the authors drew was between Tony Hsieh and Howard Hughes.
(Former City Councilman) Bob Coffin talked about that, yeah.
Two super wealthy outsiders, who see something in Las Vegas, some kind of potential, some kind of irresistible draw, come here to remake a certain area or build a certain area and then end up in these terrible circumstances. I thought that parallel was eerie, and I wondered if people would say, “Well, that's Las Vegas, it draws you out to the desert and drives you crazy.”
What I've heard mostly is, it's a place for last chances. A lot of people come here to better their lives, and there are obviously a lot of people who live here and are doing that.
So given that, do you think Downtown is better off for having had Tony Hsieh (here)?
Oh, yeah, I do.
So, I guess, thank you, Tony.
Yeah, I'm very sad about his death but definitely, we should thank him.
Happy At Any Cost , by Kirsten Grind and Katherine Sayre, 302 pages, $27.99, Simon & Schuster
HEAR MORE: For a longer version of this conversation, listen to the State of Nevada segment.
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It was in the midst of this 21st-century gold rush that Domenick Pontoni, then a 20-year-old college basketball dropout, decided to shove all his belongings into his Toyota Prius and make the pilgrimage to 439 N. Fairfax Ave., Supreme’s West Coast HQ, to try his hand at the reselling game. It was a gamble. Pontoni was living in his car with less than $2,000 to his name, subsisting on takeout and showering at L.A. Fitness outlets, but the former Bishop Gorman basketball player was willing to take the risk.
“It was a cool lifestyle, if you think about it,” he says. “Staying in L.A. by myself gave me a lot of time to think and meet people. I’d put my chair down in line and walk around Fairfax and Melrose and go talk to everybody. As I got to know people over the weeks, I realized that no person with an actual life could sit in line from Monday through Thursday. So I got into knowing the right people, and got a crew of kids working for me. After that, I went from being broke to making great money every week.”
This penchant for hustling allowed Pontoni to obtain the most coveted sneakers and apparel from Fairfax institutions such as Supreme, Vlone, and Bape, which helped him secure a relationship with Jaysse Lopez, owner of Urban Necessities, a consignment store in the Forum Shops at Caesars selling high-end, exclusive footwear and merchandise. By the end of the year, Pontoni had gone from living in his car to becoming one of Urban Necessities’ most prolific consigners. After several months of curating his inventory and developing a cache of the hottest sneakers in the shoe game, Pontoni decided to branch off and start a sneaker reselling business, Correct Merch.
“In the back of my mind, I always knew I needed to build my brand,” he says. “Seeing guys like Jaysse do their thing gave me hope to pursue this industry. Back when I started, few people knew you could make money from reselling, now it’s mainstream. People are making real money from this stuff.”
Before long, Correct Merch grew from a small Instagram business to a full-scale reselling operation. As word grew about his company, so did his clientele. Word of mouth brought Pontoni in contact with other big players in the shoe game, and with those connections, he was able to secure links with some of Las Vegas’s most well-connected sneakerheads, such as Nelson Rivera, barber for NBA superstars Tyrese Haliburton and Jalen Green.
“I started cutting his hair when he first started selling shoes,” Rivera says. “We’ve both had great conversations in the chair — both of us have big dreams for entrepreneurship. As our relationship grew, I naturally gravitated towards telling my NBA clients about Dom and his brand, and they were fully supportive of it.”
What started as a routine trip to the barber became the catalyst for Pontoni’s eventual explosion on Instagram. His followers grew from 200 to several thousand, and he was soon the official supplier of a who's-who list of basketball’s biggest sneaker influencers. Before long, he had LiAngelo Ball (2.8m followers), and Lonzo Ball (13.1 million followers) rocking Correct Merch.
“The hoop culture is pretty tight-knit. It all kind of ties in together,” Rivera says. “In the basketball community, all the bigger players have a platform to show off their drip. Players love getting haircuts and they love wearing shoes from hype brands. Basketball is one thing that barbers, resellers, and everyday people can play — so we can relate with each other.”
This connection to Las Vegas hoop and sneaker culture was something Pontoni made sure to take with him when he opened the Correct Merch store in the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood with the help of his old college basketball teammate Richie Thornton, and his two friends Ugo Amadi and Rashad Muhammad, both of whom were Division 1 college basketball players.
“It’s cool that we have dudes working here that are really good at basketball,” Pontoni says. “It’s interesting because when you think about it, basketball players were the first to wear Jordans. Five to 10 years ago, this culture was completely underground. Now it's mainstream. Now you have white girls wearing Jordans. Think about what a Jordan is — it's a basketball shoe. I think we’re different because we grew up in these clothes. Now you see 10 years later, the whole world dresses like how we used to.”
Correct Merch’s authenticity is what resonates with local sneakerheads. The store may not have the fanciest decor or the most inventory, but what it does offer is a connection with customers you might not find in other sneaker boutiques. “What a lot of people like about our store is the fact that you do not have to come in and spend money,” Pontoni says. “You can just come in and say what’s up. We're here hanging out, and it just so happens that we're also running a business. When you come in, we’re cracking jokes with you and telling you how cool you look.”
That atmosphere is best encapsulated in Correct Merch's Wall of Fame, Pontoni’s way to spotlight frequent customers. In this case, the fame is egalitarian: Everyone from A-list rap producers to sales executives have been immortalized in Correct Merch’s pantheon of valued clients.
“The whole point is to make the customer feel like they're a celebrity,” he says. “People have the time of their lives here. You can ask anyone who walks into Correct and they always say, ‘The vibe is so cool.’ We've had people call their families about getting on the wall the fame. It's the little things like that that make people’s Las Vegas vacation.”
JOSHUA ROMAN MEETS me for lunch at Coffee Religion with his cello. I want to write something like lugging his cello or hefting his cello like a piece of luggage — you know, something that conveys bulk and clumsy weight — but, truth is, I barely notice it. It says something about how naturally Roman handles the main tool of his trade. As an independent performer, he’s used to handling it a lot. Formerly the principal cellist for the Seattle Symphony, he left that job at age 24 to fly solo, parlaying his youthful energy and penchant for musical mash-ups into an independent career. Most recently, the Las Vegas Philharmonic snapped him up for its three-year Arts & Impact Residency, so expect to see a lot of Roman around Vegas, delivering master classes to university students, connecting with youth in schools, and collaborating with other nonprofits to weave music into their public service missions.
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Tonight he performs at The Smith Center’s Troesh Studio Theater in “ A Cello Celebration,” a concert of cello-forward works for small ensembles. Over lattes and egg sandwiches, we discussed Roman’s crazy cello life. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’re known for having wide-ranging musical tastes and sensibilities. How did you come to embrace everything from Bach to Radiohead, to paraphrase your bio?
I think it’s for a couple of reasons. One, the way I grew up in my family and where I grew up in Oklahoma, where I wasn't plugged into a classical music infrastructure. I wasn’t even studying with a cellist for the first 10 years — I took lessons from a violinist. And my family is into all kinds of music. I grew up in a church musician family, so learning how to improvise with the church band, or with my mom on the piano, was a very early thi
ng for me.
When I was growing up, music was just music. And I played with anybody who would play, it didn't matter what the style was. But the other piece of it, and what I try to harness, is that the cello is so technically versatile. I think it’s the most versatile instrument that there is simply because it has an incredible range. It can be the bass, it can be in the middle, it can be the soprano, it can be the lead. But it’s also the kinds of sounds you can get — everything from percussive to melodic to harmonic and pizzicato. You can make it sound kind of like a guitar. It’s able to go almost anywhere, stylistically.
How did you go from violin to cello?
My dad and my mom, they’re church musicians who also play classical instruments. The story is that my dad steered me away from the violin by saying, “With the violin, you just have to stand up the whole time and you get headaches. And why would you do that?” And I was only three. So … yeah, although, I would like to be able to stand up sometimes because you sit down all the time with a cello. Not great for the back.
Do you have a physical regimen for playing cello? Your posture is impeccable!
Yoga is always a part of it. Just generally being in shape. I have this philosophy that the thing you do for your work should not be the most physically demanding thing that you’re capable of doing. And so I am trying to just be a strong, healthy person. So when I’m playing the cello, I don't want to be at my physical limit, because that’ll stop me from being able to put everything else I have into it.
Do particular classical instruments get trendy? I would imagine that, for instance, Yo-Yo Ma has inspired countless young cellists.
It’s absolutely true. In fact, I think this is probably a little hyperbole, but the Seattle Youth Symphony started — I wouldn't call it a crisis, but they had a thing happening. A decade ago, all of a sudden, they had so many cellists that the cello sections were becoming as big as two violin sections! I think Yo-Yo Ma is directly responsible for that. That said, there are also giant historical lines that have a lot to do with the technical capabilities of the players. And it’s a symbiotic relationship with the composers who are writing for them. So you see that happening with the viola now. Players are better than ever, so more people are interested in writing for the viola, and then more pieces for the viola means more people are then interested in playing the viola in the first place.
It’s challenging enough being an independent musician. I imagine it’s even harder being an independent cellist.
It is a very competitive field. Given the number of people coming out of conservatories and universities who are trained beyond the job that they’re going to be able to get versus the number of jobs that are available, we have to be very creative and make things happen for us. I’ve been very lucky to occasionally have been prepared at the right moment when an opportunity comes along — and to be the kind of flexible person who has survived, and maybe even in some ways thrived, as the classical music industry has started to look at what it means to be a classical musician. It’s not just about playing certain pieces from a long time ago. Having versatility like mine is an appeal rather than a drawback. I don't know if that was always the case — Yo-Yo Ma sort of got his classical street cred first and then started exploring collaborations.
But when you’re like, “Who’s gonna come here that can improvise with this non-classical musician that we have, and then play the Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, and succeed with both in a way that brings in a lot of people?” — that’s kind of my brand. It’s opened a lot of doors.
What else do you like to do outside music?
I study languages — like French now — and I love hanging out with people. I spend a lot of time in my life alone with a cello, so really, the main thing is getting together with people.
I love doing outdoor stuff! I would be all up in all kinds of sports if the risk of finger injury wasn’t so much. Rock climbing would be so … like, meeting Alex Honnold and hanging out with him 1,000 feet below him on the wall! But I can't risk the injuries — even if I’m out for a week, that’s pretty bad. I also love cooking. Same thing though. Like, when I’m chopping, I wear chain-mail gloves. Yes, they make gloves like that!
You’re a composer as well, and on the roster for this concert is one of your original pieces, Offshoot. What’s the story behind it?
The name is my geeky way of using process to name the piece. There was a day when I was playing around on the cello, looking for chord progressions, and trying to make something happen — and I found one, and it was really fun, but it didn’t fit what I was looking for in the piece. I felt like I should go back to trying to find what I was looking for in that piece, but part of me said “No, you’re having fun, you’re creating, you’ve got time, you should follow this thread and see where it goes.” So I did. I spent the rest of the day playing around with that chord progression, and found a melody for it, and that became Offshoot, which is really kind of a poppy song form. It was an important moment for me creatively, just recognizing that control in the creative process is a quite a dance — and sometimes you just have to let things go where they’re gonna go.
Photos and art: Tony Hsieh: Alamy; Domenick Pontoni: Ganny Belloni; Joshua Roman headline photo: courtesy; Joshua Roman inset photo: Ryan Lash
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