The usual way entrepreneurs launch businesses today start with building a product, raising funds, and then scaling, or some other combination in that realm. It’s rare to find an entrepreneur who truly started from the bottom and worked their way up to the top. This is why I find the story of Jesse Waits, co-owner of XS Las Vegas and Tryst Nightclub, so fascinating. What’s also amazing about Jesse is the fact that he’s been able to form deep relationships with the people that he’s worked with. There was even an instance where renowned DJ Deadmau5 played for free one evening at XS, largely because of the great friendship he has with Jesse.
While entrepreneurs typically have a direct plan of what they want to build, this wasn’t the case initially for Jesse:
“I came to Vegas without a big picture plan. I think when people come to Vegas, they have it a little bit mapped out, like a goal. Mine wasn’t an actual position or career. It was more like what I wanted. I wanted this car and this dog and this house and I had a list of things that I wanted when I came here. “
Jesse’s lack of a specific career direction proved beneficial for him as he slowly fell into the nightclub industry by accident.
“I was working at the resort Mt. Charleston as a snowboard instructor. I met some people from the resort that got me a job at a restaurant. So I started in the restaurant business first, then moved into a place called House of Blues, which was a music venue, but it was like also a hybrid nightclub on Sunday nights.
I was a bar-back and then worked my way up. I was always ambitious to move up. So I did anything to make my business better. I was passing out flyers, cards and building relationships. I was always going the extra mile and when things were needed, I was always available.”
While there are a select few people who have the talent to talk a big game and get themselves opportunities, Jesse’s had a more conventional approach to success.
“I came from really humble beginnings, so I had a rougher life when I was younger. I think it’s important to have goals and dreams, otherwise you’re kind of lost in life. You have to have something to shoot for basically. Every time I got myself into a position or situation at a job, I would always want to go for the top… I don’t think I’ve ever been in the position where I was able to talk myself into a situation, I’ve always worked my way up… so, when I was a bar-back, I said “one day I’m want to own a nightclub.” That was my mindset. So I worked my way up towards that position.”
I recently had the pleasure to speak with Jesse at XS nightclub in Las Vegas. Here, we discuss his approach to building quality relationships, dealing with being an introvert, and the lessons in entrepreneurship he’s learned from the legendary Steve Wynn.
What do you think separated yourself from all the others that only dreamed to be in the position that you are in right now?
“The one thing I’ve learned is if you have integrity, honesty and you work hard, then you’ll just rise to the top. It’s as simple as that… I think for life in general, there’s different types of people. There are some people that just want to get by, like the mouse getting the cheese and going back into its hole. Then there’s the people who have the ambition to want to be on top, and it’s not about power and money or anything like that, it’s just about making yourself better.”
You have an amazing relationship with everyone you worked with, including some of the world’s best DJs. What’s your secret to fostering these relationships and making them more than just purely business?
“I think it’s being genuine. I genuinely like people. I genuinely want to make people happy. I don’t know if it’s believable, but I’m really a shy person. So, it’s really hard work for me to actually talk to people, make small talk and all that stuff. I’m not somebody who can go out and be a social person to people I don’t really know that well. But, for the people I do know and have fostered these relationships with, they just keep on building. I give myself away to people where I would almost do anything for anybody. If it’s like in the middle of the night and somebody called me with a flat tire, I’d get out of the bed and go change it for them.”
Being in the industry that you’re in, I’m sure that you had to force yourself to be social at times when you were coming up. How did you deal with getting over being an introvert?
“It’s a funny story. I worked in a restaurant called Planet Hollywood. It was my first restaurant job or being in the business of hospitality. Basically, I met the manager and had landed a job there as a bar-back. During that same time, the GM of the restaurant had come to the resort and I yelled at him for something, being a supervisor. So, he demoted me in orientation, basically. He called another guy and he’s like ‘I know that guy. He’s no longer a bar-back, he’s a host now.’ So I mean, everything I guess happens for a reason. As a bar-back, you don’t talk to anybody. It’s good money, good tips. A host is like the bottom of the barrel. You make minimum wage and are forced to talk to everybody. There were these positions that we’d have to rotate through and one was called the ‘ambassador.’ So you had to sit at the very very front door and every single person that walked by, you had to greet and talk to and speak to and engage with great eye contact. It was really, really tough from the beginning, but to survive, make money and have a job, this is what I had to do.”
After all the success, do you still find yourself uncomfortable talking to new people?
“I’m in this position now, which is probably not the best thing, but I’m less likely to talk to somebody and I’m less approachable. I’m just not a smiley person in the first place, but it doesn’t mean I’m not a nice person. I’m just kind of quiet and keep to myself. I probably look grumpy a lot of times, but in reality, I’m not. I’m very likable. I just like to contain my emotions.”
How are you able to keep up with current trends and form new ones as fast as the world is right now?
“Like I said, it’s a lifestyle. If everything revolves around what you do, then you know what’s happening, you know the next steps, you know what people want, you hear what they’re complaining about. You hear what they’re happy about. You hear both sides. There are people that aren’t engaged as much and are not involved. It’s so important- and I see it in other nightclubs, how the operators aren’t fully engaged in the business. They’re not at the door with the employees, they’re not dealing with the customers, so they just kind of lose relevancy basically, and the club isn’t able to move forward and evolve.”
If you could change one thing in the industry, what would it be?
“A big thing right now is, and I think it’s talked about by a lot of people, is the amount of money that’s getting put out for the talent and stuff. It’s like changing the bottom line, so you know you made x amount of money before and you never had this much. Now with DJ costs that’s included, it’s like sucking fifty percent of your gross.”
From working with Steve Wynn all these years, what are some lessons that you’ve learned from him?
“Detail. Steve is so detailed about everything. He makes me work so hard. When I see him, I have everything, all my numbers, my PNLs, and my margins. Whereas before, it wasn’t really part of my program. If he asks a question like ‘how many pixels in the LEDs?’, it’s crazy because he knows everything before I do, and it’s my business. He wants to know the bottom line and what the margin is, how many pixels are in the LEDs, who’s the DJ. He has so many questions and if you slip, you feel like a fool. So he’s taught me a lot in terms of making sure I know every part of the business.”
What is one thing you think that today’s young entrepreneurs just don’t get?
“Again, I think it’s just being engaged in your business. I think it’s the biggest part of it. Many people go out thinking that they can simply start a business. If you’re starting a nightclub, you have to know the city. You have to know the culture. You have to know what people want. There are so many details to a recipe for building something that’s successful. So I think big thinkers actually have to dig in and figure out the entire formula.”
Can you explain the feeling of what it’s like coming from the bottom to where you’re at now? Aside from all the superficial stuff like more money and fame, what do you notice that’s different?
“I wonder what people feel like when they have a back-up. Like when you have a cushion behind you. What I’ve always felt is that I can’t stop going forward. Otherwise if I stay in one place, I feel like I’m going backwards. I’ve never felt fulfilled like I’m at the top of the hill ever, like I’ve made it. I’m always scared that something can happen. I’m always worried. I feel like in life, it’s like one mistake, one thing can happen. It can be a car crash or whatever it is and change your life, so I never feel like I’m stable… It’s good because it forces me to keep working harder and look for new ideas and stay on top of things. The bad thing is probably whatever comes with it, like being worried all the time.”
What’s next for you? What are some things that you haven’t done and are itching to do, whether it’s business or personal?
“The dream is that I’d love to be Steve Wynn one day, I’d love to open hotels, bigger picture stuff. When Steve does things overseas, hopefully I’d be part of that stuff. If it’s in Monaco or London or wherever he goes, I’d love to have that worldwide brand.”
Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseCWaits.