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10 years after Zappos, is there still a tech startup community in Las Vegas?

In this Jan. 12, 2017, photo, the Navya Arma autonomous vehicle drives down a street in Las Vegas. The driverless electric shuttle has begun carrying passengers in a test program in a downtown Las Vegas entertainment district.
John Locher
In this Jan. 12, 2017, photo, the Navya Arma autonomous vehicle drives down a street in Las Vegas. The driverless electric shuttle has begun carrying passengers in a test program in a downtown Las Vegas entertainment district.

When the late Tony Hsieh moved Zappos to downtown Las Vegas in 2013, it sparked a hope that maybe someday Las Vegas could become something of a mini Silicon Valley.

Ten years later, is there a tech startup community here? What does it take to create, launch and grow a successful startup here in Southern Nevada?

Joshua Leavitt is the president and CEO of Tech Alley, a nonprofit that hosts educational workshops for start-ups to share ideas in Reno and Las Vegas.

He joined State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann along with James Rupe, the CEO of and Carpool Education; Caleb Green, an intellectual property and technology attorney; and Robert Rueter, executive director of Web Q.

Robert Rueter, James Rupe and Joshua Leavitt with State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann
Kristen DeSilva
Robert Rueter, James Rupe and Joshua Leavitt with State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann at Nevada Public Radio on Jan. 11, 2023.


On the current tech community

LEAVITT: I give Tony Hsieh and the folks that were part of that scene 10 years ago a lot of credit for really starting or planting the seeds of what Las Vegas has become today. … Now what we're doing with Tech Alley, with the startup and in entrepreneurial culture, we're seeing today again, it's just a continuation of it; it sort of died there for a little bit. … But at least those roots were planted, you had had meetups which weren't around too long ago, you had groups of people getting together, you had still, in some ways, a little bit segregated, or siloed. But at least these discussions were happening. And now you have places for people to get together in the downtown area to participate in Tech Alley, which basically said, ‘Let's make it even easier, we'll pay for the venue spaces, and for opportunities for people to get together and turn it into a one-day event.’ So people weren't popping the meet-ups throughout the week or the month. It's simply one space for everybody to get together.

On the importance of design justice

RUETER: The idea is that we want to make sure that anyone that this system impacts, whether that's positive or negative, has an opportunity to share their perspective of how this is going to play out if the system is designed without their input, right? We see communities left behind all the time, if we look at communities of colors, and the redlining that the banks took place, and there's any number of examples throughout history where the wants needs and desires of the system creators didn't align with the wants, needs and desires of the people that would be impacted by those systems.

On making modern tech accessible

RUPE: We have an education program called Carpool Education, which talks about first principles, valuation of blockchain, focusing on the individual human, and how they are pre- and post-interaction with blockchain networks. We feel that blockchain is a powerful tool for all to use. And the best thing that we can do is teach people how to interact with it appropriately, understanding where safety is and where danger lies. And, once they have those tools, then they can start to learn and educate themselves on how to leverage that technology in their work environment or in their business environment.

We're not trying to pump an NFT or a token or leverage somebody to make money off of them. We realize this tool is essential and as essential as email. Everybody had to stop at some moment and say, ‘Wait, I've got to figure this email thing out.’ … Back in the day when everybody was looking for the outside on the keyboard; we'd never used it prior. And so this is that revolution happening again, that new spark that's going to lift the economy into a new, more independent platform.

On the importance of intellectual property for startups

GREEN: One of the biggest pitfalls I've seen is, people don't look at the legal questions or the legal issues that may come up early in the process. For example, a lot of times people look at things like, getting an LLC and they may put that on the back burner, or securing intellectual property rights, whether it's an idea, if it's an app, the source code, those are a lot of things that people don't typically think about. And it can become a pitfall down the road when you have a competitor, you have someone who leaves, and maybe take some of that intellectual property with them. And you may not be in a position where you can actually enforce or stop them. All your goodwill, your reputation, and your innovation can walk out the door, and you may not have any means of recourse.

I think the biggest issue is not thinking about intellectual property, as well as the legal structure of the startup. At the front end, we hear a lot of the success stories about what startups [have] achieved. What we don't hear are the horror stories that as a lawyer, I have to deal with, where someone adopts a particular name for their business and three years later, they find out someone actually had prior rights to that and they have to do an entire overhaul of their brand, their packaging, etc. Where people may be late to filing a patent application in order to secure the rights in their particular idea, or particular word. Sometimes a lot of companies have trade secrets, whether its source code algorithms, in some cases, customer lists, etc. And they don't properly protect those and now they've lost out on an ability to use trade secrets as an option to protect a lot of this work that they put together.

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Zachary Green is the Coordinating Producer and a Reporter for KNPR's State of Nevada Program. He reports on Clark County, minority affairs, health, real estate, business, and gardening. You'll occasionally hear Zachary Green reporting and fill-in hosting on the State of Nevada program.