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Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: Don’t call it a cult—Zappos, at its core, is just like any other business

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Not-so-humble beginning: Zappos employee Ana Santiago catches confetti during the grand opening of Zappos’ Downtown location in 2013.
Photo: Steve Marcus

Is Tony Hsieh leading a “cult” right under our noses? Because that word and all its negative connotations get thrown around quite a bit these days whenever someone mentions Zappos or Hsieh or his Downtown Project.

The argument is that “Tony’s people” only eat and drink in places he has invested in via Downtown Project or on his own. Some say Downtown Project operates in a bubble, is highly secretive and is buying up property without a game plan—at least not one known to those outside “the cult.”

And some talk about those tattoos before Hsieh’s birthday party. (More on that later.)

But a cult?

I know a bit about so-called cults. I have six siblings, and when you have that many kids, laws of probability dictate that some of them will take the road less traveled. Indeed, our family history is chock-full of unusual individual stories. One of those is about a brother who years ago became a Hare Krishna devotee.

Krishnaites still exist, but they don’t stand out as much as they once did, dancing to chimes and drums at airports and selling flowers and hand-made candles on college campuses. In the 1980s, you knew them by their saffron robes and heads shaved but for ponytails, which, I was told by someone long ago, remained so their god could grab hold and yank them to Nirvana upon death. It also helped alienate them from society.

Back in the ’80s, Hare Krishna was widely held to be a cult. Devotees were said to give up homes, jobs, families and savings for reasons familiar to anyone who believes in any particular religion: adoration for their god, love, devotion. And for the belief that they were onto something greater than an illusory, material world.

I’m certain my family only strengthened my brother’s convictions when we kidnapped him, holed him up in a cabin in the Wisconsin woods and waited for California “deprogrammers” that my dad hired with money from selling his tavern.

As these things sometimes go, the cops were tipped off by a farmer and showed up before the deprogrammers. Then came federal law enforcement. Kidnapping was alleged. The rest is a very long story.

The point is, my brother’s devotion to his religion shocked our parents and siblings, who until then, were mostly ignorant to anything beyond garden-variety Catholicism—chicken-dinner Sundays, lots of beer and devotion that faded a few hours after the sermon.

What’s going on Downtown isn’t shocking. No one is being driven away from family. No one is being fooled by Tony Hsieh. No one is being “brainwashed.”

Even that notorious tattoo party—for Hsieh’s birthday, some people were asked to get a pixel tattoo—some Zapponians have told me since that they would never have submitted to such a thing. But dozens did, as evidenced in a video of the tattooings posted online.

I looked over that video. Some of those shown are Hsieh’s true friends; others are simply doing what they think is best for them in the long run. It’s not much different, frankly, from what most of the workers in this country have felt over five or more years of a torrid economy and shaky job market.

It boils down to job security and economics. Even in the best of times, there’s always someone steeped in office skullduggery looking to stab a friend in the back on the way up the career ladder. But in a bad economy? Gossip is rampant as coworkers seek to ruin a colleague’s reputation so that management has an easier time when layoffs come around. So it’s always best, the thinking goes, to make sure the boss knows you’re on his side.

DTP came in with a flurry of good will and expectations—based on its own proclamations, mind you—to create an ecosystem where cold, harsh economic realities would be put aside for the sake of “community.” The reality is Downtown Project is no haven from the Machiavellian office politics that dominate businesses the world over.

But it is certainly no cult.

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Joe Schoenmann

A native Wisconsinite, Joe earned a journalism degree to get out of college early but wanted none of the craft ...

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