Las Vegas is not an easy place to be an entrepreneur. The Vegas most of us picture is a hot, sprawling behemoth made up of gigantic, labyrinthine casinos focused solely on getting people to spend as much money on questionable decisions as quickly as possible. Unless you have your own private jet and millions of dollars to drop on new hotel construction or a crazy food and beverage concept, building a business in this environment feels to many as bleak and hopeless as the desert wasteland the city is built in.
But not everyone shares this opinion. If you spend any time downtown you’ll discover a small (but mighty) community of people attempting to shift this pre-conception and create the next hub of innovation in the United States.
Unfortunately for this community-with-gumption, there is literally nowhere for them to work. Downtown Las Vegas, in its current form, is made up of casinos, seedy weekly hotels, bars, and empty lots. The community of entrepreneurs downtown is being forced to reinvent the traditional work space and what a professional environment means out of necessity; they lack the material resources to build new construction or even convert old buildings. To survive, this scrappy group of pioneers has had to think creatively.
"We’ve all heard that most business is closed over cocktails. Why not just work in the bar?" says Shaun Swanson, cofounder and chief science officer of Ayloo, a bootstrapped Las Vegas mobile application designed to connect like-minded people through community gatherings. Based on this concept, Ayloo began hosting "pop-up" co-working sessions, an idea pulled from the pop-up restaurant trend in the food and beverage industry, at area bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and backyards to encourage their community of users and thinkers to work together toward common goals.
"We think concepts in an industry are best defined through interaction with people outside that specific industry. By colliding with people outside of your industry more, you accelerate the definition of your ideas," says Swanson. "Instead of being singularly interest-focused and insular, pop-up coworking sessions are inclusive of all types of communities—specifically to encourage cross-industry pollination—so a band manager can spark ideas for a restaurateur or a hacker can help an artist with their website."
The idea that colliding with people outside your specific industry has also born tangible, live-work communities, sparked by the Downtown Project's occupation of the Ogden, a high-rise building downtown. Downtown lacks office space, so newly funded startups often take up residence in vacant apartments in the building, living and working in their spaces. Because of this overlap between work and life, relationships develop in a neighborly fashion—instead of borrowing a cup of sugar from next door, individuals in this environment borrow a front-end developer or a designer. The mindsets of these communities are different than elsewhere; the sole focus of entrepreneurs here is not individual success. Entrepreneurs in Las Vegas support each other and help each other to succeed, even when in direct competition.
A similar concept, #StartupBlockLV, is taking this idea of a live-work hybrid to the streets, literally. Located in the John S. Park neighborhood of downtown Las Vegas, #StartupBlockLV has plans to create an entire block of startup live-work environments. Already the home to six local startups and with 20 more headed the Las Vegas direction, space on the block could be limited very quickly.
"Startup culture and entrepreneurism in general is a lonely road. While you may be surrounded by friends, your mind is never completely off your project—it consumes you," says Gabriel Shepherd, #StartupBlockLV community organizer and the mind behind the South by Las Vegas initiative.
Shepherd continues, "Non-traditional work environments and self employment sounds appealing on the outside, but it also presents many challenges. Your human interaction is significantly reduced by odd and long hours, as well as the lack of a 'water cooler’ to converse around with your coworkers. The concept of Startup Block is to get the people in that scenario all living and working on the same block. You build a micro community among the larger tech scene, become more in tune with those companies, and a sense of accountability to each other forms."
I’ve personally experienced accelerated successes through these shifted priorities. I organize a local monthly speaker series in Downtown Las Vegas called Delivering Happiness Inspire! Las Vegas. This event is professionally produced—an effort that under typical environments would cost upwards of $10,000 a month easily. Because of my relationships with individuals in the downtown Las Vegas ecosystem, I’ve been able to organize this event monthly for over a year and have never paid for anything. This is not meant to be boastful, but to illustrate the willingness to help fellow community members succeed.
Everything from the venue to the video production and editing has been donated to my event for the betterment and cultural edification of the community. The event has grown from a small showing of 20 people coming together to consistently over 200, from all over the state of Nevada. All told, I’ve been able to produce events that should have cost over $100,000 for nothing; the only thing expected in return is an understanding that I help and contribute the same way I have been helped when I can.
These concepts are unique for several reasons; "adapt or die" being one, but the main differentiator is the focus on building a thriving entrepreneur’s community from the ground up before success comes. An "all for one, and one for all" model. Every other place with an established co-working scene, such as San Francisco, New York, or London, has built its communities after the city has had one or two runaway successes and started to look like an attractive hot spot for upstart innovators and talent. Community and depending on each other’s resources is a result of, not the reason for, success in the more traditional model.
The entrepreneurs in Vegas have flipped this paradigm on its head. Placing a bet on the idea that accelerating ideas and maximizing existing people resources before the material resources appear will allow them to accelerate the growth of entrepreneurism through each other. An entrepreneurial oasis is being built in an otherwise desolate business vista, based on relationships, mutual trust, and maximizing the scant resources available for the greater good.