San Francisco Tech Noob Diary
I think, as an nine monther now, a few salient points about SF/SV culture:
#1 every technology that you use on a regular basis if you are in the tech sector is based here. You are at a bar talking about github and there’s another party on the other side of the bar who are developers for github. (That happened. They’re right in SoMa and hang out at 21st Amendment. Not hard to miss since they’re all wearing “github” tee shirts.)
#2 salient point, yeah, people in other parts of the country aren’t going to understand how you can have a new job every year. To them, that’s called “being a flake.” In SV/SF, that’s called “how the system works.” People join and leave startups (sometimes because they fail) within the same year. That is certainly not ideal (especially if you’re like me and want some semblance of stability) but it’s super prevalent. As a famous entrepreneur here told me when I first arrived, “your life is subsidized by venture capital.” Venture capital is not in the business of making every investment work. They’re in the business of spreading it far and wide and ensuring that they have two companies that do grow like gangbusters to make up for the other eight companies that failed. They price that in to every investment. If you think that a failure makes you a failure, this isn’t the life for you.
#3 and this is huge; the engineering talent here kicks all the other engineering talent in the world’s ass. Don’t take that the wrong way if you live somewhere else. I lived in Chicago for almost all of my adult life and know some absolutely lights-out developers there. I’m not talking about the single superstar, I’m talking about on average. Also, you have 500 meetups going on everyday and can therefore network like a fiend amongst other engineers and cross-pollinate. In Chicago, for instance, you have like two iOS meetup groups. In the Bay, you have like 50. There are whole buildings that have something what you could think of as “condo boards” that require that you be an entrepreneur/technical person to get in. The reason is NOT because they don’t like other people. The reason is strictly for networking purposes. Again, on the plus side: phenomenal cross-pollination of ideas. On the downside, can and does lead to insularity.
#4 You are going to meet a lot of know-it-all Valley assholes who regard where you come from as flyover country and who don’t appreciate a mix of perspectives. Ignore them. Some of the biggest names in this town went to my alma mater which is smack-dab in the middle of central Illinois! You will meet a lot of thoughtless, transactional short-sighted pricks. Get used to it and don’t take it personally. They eventually alienate everyone/destroy their personal brand. A close cousin is the 24 year old kid who has two years at Facebook who thinks that credential means he knows more than the 34 year old guy with 12 years in “startup school.” If you get a chance, pat that guy on the head.
#5 There are huge downsides to single-minded emphasis on “killing it.” San Francisco is, and I’m sorry to say this, what most of the rest of the country would consider a “rich people only” city. *More* than 50% of the single family homes on the market in San Francisco this year were listed at over $1,000,000. What does that mean? Well, just google around. San Francisco is a one industry town. If that industry bombs, the entire city will start suffering overnight. The racial makeup is getting less diverse, not more so. Lack of diversity clearly has its downsides. For one, you lose touch with the non-tech world. I see that all the time. Being from Chicago means that you still understand people who don’t live, eat and breathe technology. Chicago looks like the rest of the country. I can absolutely see why some companies succeed in Chicago no one would take a chance on in SV/SF. Therefore, when you are doing market research, is it better to do it in Chicago as opposed to SV? In some cases, absolutely! I definitely see an advantage to the approach that Chicago is a better place to test hypotheses for certain products for which you hope to achieve a critical mass of adoption from semi-technical people (GrubHub, e.g.) Being from somewhere else means you have perspective on whether or not a bleeding edge technology is a bad idea or if it just takes some time for the rest of the country to “catch up” and adopt. It’s easier to adopt the perspective that a bad review on TechCrunch does not mean that your company sucks. Your idea may just not play to the wealthy demographic that is San Francisco. You don’t necessarily have to build a product exclusively for white, upper middle class people to create a winner. Massages on-demand may seem like a brilliant idea in SF but absolutely cannot scale because while you grab a lot of clients in San Francisco, in other parts of the country, they’re looking at you like you’re out of your mind. (I don’t have to remind people about how insane things were circa 2001.) It’s easy to lose perspective like that (we’ve got 10,000 users in San Francisco, therefore, its only a matter of time for us...) If you’ve been in this world too long, you may not realize that there are demographics who aren’t on the grid 24/7 and who see a $200 on-demand massage service and burst out laughing.
I could imagine, someday, being an Angel specifically focused on companies who are on the ropes because they are not achieving adoption in SF, but could and will work in other parts of the country. *Always* having SF as your test market is going to skew your data due to the exceptional demographic here. Of course, this is obvious, but sometimes people forget. Especially if you’ve been here forever.
#5 and maybe most importantly: this is a town where collaboration across teams is the de facto. Being an open book (within reason,) is an advantage when building a company. I haven’t signed an NDA in over a year. People on the bus will tell you what their company is doing and solicit advice. Keeping your ideas to yourself seems bezerk in this town. If you go to the Harvard Innovation Lab, they sit around basically keeping quiet about what they’re working on, even to lab mates. They may require you to sign an NDA before they’ll even discuss it with you. That is *not* what’s going on here. Polar opposite. Except for really crucial proprietary market data, *everyone* is open book about what they’re up to. If you aren’t, you lose out on that stranger’s perspective of: “yeah, we tried that. It didn’t work. Let me tell you what we learned.” tl;dr If you like collaboration and believe a high tide raises all ships, you’ll fit in like a glove. You’ll also quickly lose perspective on what the non-tech world cares about and possibly nip a good idea in the bud because it doesn’t play in San Francisco. Again, an angel fund that focuses on companies that aren’t winning in SF but could win in other parts of the country sounds like a really compelling idea (especially since the team will feel like they’re completely on the ropes, and give you a tremendous deal on your capital infusion.)