For many of us in the startup world who don’t live near San Francisco, a deep connection to the talent, ideas, partners and investors in the area is not optional. It’s important to our success. But this area is an impractically expensive place to live, especially on a measly founder’s salary. The median two bedroom apartment rent is now $5,000 a month in SF:
That’s more than 5x what it is in Durham, North Carolina, where I live!
This may be reasonable for a Google product manager and a Facebook engineer who are married and making a combined $200k+ but for those of us keeping our personal and company burn rates as low as possible it’s almost impossible to imagine affording rent like this before our Series A.
The good news is that there’s an amazing hack to living in Silicon Valley: don’t. Instead, live in your current, cheaper, location and commute once a month for way less.
Why I Wrote This
I’ve been traveling back and forth to Silicon Valley (SF & parts south) from my home in Durham, NC for over two years now. A friend and fellow startup CEO recently asked me for a few recommendations of what neighborhood to stay in. Then how to find a good place. Then how to get around. At the end of this conversation I realized that the various best practices I’ve developed would be very valuable to other founders, so this post is everything I use to make this trip monthly with a minimum of expense and hassle.
If you’ve got your own tips to share, please don’t hesitate to drop a comment. I always love learning about new deals.
To commute monthly to SF/SV you’ll need the following things:
- A flight
- A place to stay
- A way to get around
- Reliable internet
- Cheap food
Let’s dive into my recipes for each of these, one by one.
I get my cheap flights from either Hipmunk, which helps me find the right price-to-agony ratio, or Kayak, which offers awesome ‘Hacker fares’ that can combine one-way flights on two different airlines to save $50–100. All in, my flights cost $380–560 per, even booked the week before. So I know I can reliably get out to SF when needed, even on relatively short notice.
One caveat on Hacker Fares: they’re often high-agony flights, meaning they’re at crappy times or have long layovers. I’ll do it if I have to but if I can avoid one 6 hour layover out and one horrible redeye back for ~$50 extra or less I’ll pony up. So I check Kayak for cheap and non-horrible flights but if there’s nothing I usually book Hipmunk’s cheapest low agony option.
Recipe: A Place to Crash
Airbnb has indelibly changed the way I travel for business. When I travel for work all I need is a quiet place to sleep, a shower, and good access to public transit (more on that below). I search Airbnb for listings under $50/night and usually have more than a few good options. Since I almost always spend some days doing meetings in SF and some days in points south (existing investors in Redwood City, prospective investors in Palo Alto, partners in Mountain View, etc), I find that Millbrae is often the perfect place to stay. I can reliably get a bed for $35–45 that’s about a 5 minute walk to Millbrae’s combo BART/Caltrain station. Plus, it’s right across the 101 from SFO, very convenient for those late night flights.
If you’ll only be in SF I’d still recommend Millbrae unless you can find a bed for $50 or less. The ~$8 round trip commute isn’t bad at all (see also Reliable Internet below) and most beds in SF are $80+ and they can take just as long to get into downtown.
If you’ll only be in the South Bay, Mountain View has lots of hacker houses with beds in the $45 range. YCombinator and 500 startups are both in MV so I think that’s why there are so many good options for founder types.
Recipe: Getting Around
Public Transit is your friend. The Bay has one of the best transit systems in the world (don’t listen to locals’ gripes), so make good use of it. The Bay’s transit is as follows:
- Caltrain gets you from city to city on the Peninsula (i.e. from SF to Silicon Valley)
- BART gets you from place to place in SF and can get you over to Oakland or Berkeley if you need to go there. It’s also the best way to get to the airport.
- MUNI is SF’s local bus system. It can get you to any random place in the city you need to go. (but see also Lyft Line, below)
- Other cities besides SF have busses etc but I almost never need to use them. Silicon Valley is for the most part a long thin line of stuff within easy reach from a Caltrain station.
If you use Transit you’ll want a Clipper card. These rechargeable farecards will save you money and time. Your first ride you’ll need to buy a one-off ticket at one of the vending machines in a station. But once you’re in the city, buy a Clipper card from your nearest Walgreens or Whole Foods (there are other stores that sell them that you can search for here).
Whenever you’re going anywhere, use Google Maps’ Transit mode to plan your route. It’ll calculate the best way to get there and automatically answer the question of when it’s best to transfer to BART, take a MUNI etc.
Do not, I repeat, DO NOT use Apple Maps.
Some Random Tips:
- Since transit schedules vary by the hour, use Google Maps’ Depart at / Arrive by options if you’re planning a route for some time in the future.
- Keep your Clipper in the front of your wallet and you can easily bing through the gates by tapping your wallet to the pad
- With Caltrain it’s very important to bing both when you get on AND when you get off. When you tag off you’ll get a refund according to the distance you travelled. Otherwise, they’ve charged you for a full San Francisco to San Jose ride. With BART you have to bing again to get out of the station.
- MUNI is a pay once ride all you want kind of deal. When you bing you get 2 hours of bus rides, so don’t worry about taking transfers etc. For some meetings you can get there and back for one $2.50 fare.
Lyft and Uber
Lyft and Uber are generally a bad idea for founders looking to save money. An Uber from SFO to Mountain View can be $100. No good.
That said, if you’re in downtown SF, Lyft Line (the carpool option) will get you anywhere you need to go for $5 or less. They’ve also set up ‘hot spots’ where you’ll get the best price for this service, as low as $3 for a ride anywhere in downtown SF. You’ll see little flame icons on your map if you’re near one. If you are, go there before Lineing. They tend to be near BART and Caltrain stations, which is super convenient. In some situations Lyft Line is as cheap and much faster than MUNI. Just make sure to leave some extra time before meetings if you’re Line-ing. You’ll be carpooling so they may have to pick up or drop off.
If you have a tight connection and need to, for instance, get from the Twitterloin (Market St near the civic center) to Galvanize (a coworking space in SOMA) in under 25 minutes like I did recently, splurge for a real Lyft. It’ll be $10–15 and you won’t keep your investor waiting.
I don’t use Uber much because they’re more expensive and the company just reminds me of Darth Vader too much. They’re very quick and reliable though so nice to have in the rare must-be-on-time-and-why-is-Lyft-not-working situation. Just don’t go over to the dark side.
New to Lyft? Use this link to sign up and we’ll both get $10 in free rides. Sign up while physically in SF for the best deals (they’re tagged to your location).
If you need a car, RelayRides has got you covered for $20–25 a day. Book the cheapest car you can find at the SFO lot, take the free shuttle to the Westin/Aloft when you fly in, and drive off in someone else’s car. For the cheapest price you’ll be renting from a pool of whatever’s available rather than a specific vehicle. The picture on the listing will be a Yaris or something. But since almost no one in the Bay area who uses Relay Rides drives a Yaris, I usually get a Volvo S60 or a Lexus hybrid or something for $20 a day. That’s less than a pro-rated car payment!
If you listened to me and stayed in the Millbrae hacker house you can also walk 10–15 minutes to the Aloft parking lot to pick up your car for only the day you need it instead of renting it for the whole trip.
Even if you do rent a car, do not drive it into SF unless you *know* you’ll have free parking somewhere. Take transit or you’ll be paying $5/hr in some crappy parking deck.
When would you want to rent a car? If you have a bunch of meetings in the ‘burbs (away from Caltrain and BART), it probably makes sense to rent a car. Sand Hill Road is expensive to Uber to and slow to bus to. I sometimes visit schools that use Trinket while in SF and they’re almost always very far away from Caltrain. In these situations I rent a car for an entire day for the price of a one-way Lyft ride. I also try and bundle all my car-needing meetings on the same day(s).
Recipe: Cheap Food
I kinda already wrote everything I know about eating on the cheap in my post about Soylent Freeganism. One addendum: remember that Soylent 2.0, the liquid version, does not get thru airport security. So until you can buy Soylent at the store, keep schleping that powder. I bring n-1 bags of Soylent where n is the number of days, since I’ll be eating at least 3 free meals each week.
Looking for free food to go with your Soylent? Subscribe to Startup Digest for the SF Bay area and crash events for pizza. Tech meetup groups for programming languages and frameworks are an excellent source as well. I recently went to the Python and Meteor groups and both were delicious and great for networking with engineers.
Recipe: Reliable Internet
The internet is a human right or something, right? If you deny yourself a basic right you have no one but yourself to blame.
Your Hackerhouse should have passable Wifi. But in the land of Comcast and the wilderness that is cafe Wifi you need to pack your own. There’s nothing like the sinking feeling of not being able to make that final tweak to a deck or send that critical file. Reliability is the name of the game.
My solution is Verizon’s awesome LTE network. Now you may be willing and able to pay for the ability to tether to your phone. If so, good on ya. I have AT&T so my Internet access is the one splurge in this list. I got an awesome Verizon Jetpack over two years ago and it’s been my trusty companion since. Get a model with huge battery life- mine lasts 15 hours on a charge- and good reviews. Mine was about $200 but you can probably get a better one for cheaper now (the exact model I have is out of production). It may seem like a lot but combine that with a $399 Acer Chromebook and for $599 you’ve got an always-connected, go-anywhere, do-anything-except-hardcore-media-production machine. If you develop in the cloud like a pro and use Google services like Gmail and calendar all day every day this is the perfect setup.
But we’re talking about Internet, not how awesome Chromebooks are…
BYOInternet will save your butt. I always fire up my modem and get a connection *before* an investor pitch. That way you can shake hands, pop open your laptop and go instead of durdling around with their guest Wifi passwords, etc for the first 5 precious minutes of their time when they’re forming first impressions. This setup lets me do video meetings and email on those smooth but otherwise unproductive Caltrain rides.
Verizon’s data is pricey, $30/mo for 4gb plus $20/month per device. The good news is that if you already have data from them you can buy a modem and for $20/month you’ll have near flawless internet with you at all times, hooked into your existing data plan.
I love cheap stuff, but only if it’s good. The reality is that Verizon’s network is the only Internet that’s reliable enough for my needs while traveling, so I splurge on it. Until anyone else catches up, I recommend you do the same.
If you happen to go over your data plan they will text an alert to your modem and you can bump up your plan for the month to avoid overage fees.
As a nice bonus, having good wifi with you will help at home too. I’ve used mine in cafes, meetings, airports and even to patch over office internet hiccups. My modem can take up to 10 devices so I’ve had the whole team on it when we’re waiting for outages to be fixed. I literally never leave for work without it.
Adding up your Tab
Here are my rough average costs for the items above for a 5 day/4night trip:
- Flight: $450
- Place to Stay: $40/nt * 5 = $200
- Getting around: ~$10/day * 5 = $50 on Caltrain/Muni/BART/Lyft Line
- Reliable Internet: $20–50/mo / 5 = $10 from Verizon
- Cheap food: $8/day * 5 = $40 from Soylent
That’s $750 on the dot. It’s not inexpensive, to be sure. But since you’re building the relationships that will help make your startup successful it’s a very productive use of the money if you can afford it.
If you enjoyed this post, check out the list of tools I love and recommend to startup founders. And consider following me on Medium and/or Twitter.
Postscript: Why a 5 Day Trip?
If you can’t tell, I like to max/min things. I used to reason that the most expensive part of a trip was the flight so the way to minimize the per-day cost was to stay for as long as possible while out here. Now I only take 5 day trips, M-F. Why?
The error in the min/max equation above is not equating it back to business value, which drops precipitously after that first week. Regularity is much more important that quantity when it comes to maintaining relationships. Now that I know I’ll reliably (and cheaply) be in SF once a month it’s easy to keep my relationships up. I can see people in person, schedule video chats if they can’t make it, or worst case see them next month. I see some of my contacts more regularly than they do their SF-based contacts.
Trust me, part of me cringes at the cost of the flight. I wish they were cheaper: I’d buy them in bulk. If you live in DC they probably already are since there are many direct flights. But with all the other hacks in here if you’ve got $750 a month to spend on this you too can build a meaningful and regular presence in Silicon Valley.