Winning San Francisco's Startup Scene

February 28, 2011 holman

I moved to the Bay Area right after I finished school a few years ago. Luckily, as a recent college graduate, I knew everything there was to know about life. Easy as pie! Give me my VC check, dammit, I’m ready!

I’ve since come to understand that maybe there was a lot I’ve learned about San Francisco since then.


This post is me trying to lay some knowledge on naïve Zach Holman circa 2008. It’s a collection of things I’ve fretted about and heard others stress about. If you’re about to move to San Francisco, if you’re in school and thinking about moving out here, or if you’re already here and want to make the most of it, this may be relevant to your interests.

Usual disclaimer applies: this is my outlook on startup life in San Francisco, and you may disagree. That’s cool, I don’t mind. Let me buy you a beer.

San Francisco vs. the Bay Area

There’s a lot of debate on where to live: in The City (which always means San Francisco), or somewhere more suburban like Palo Alto or Mountain View. I’ve lived in Palo Alto before moving to San Francisco, and it really depends on what you’re looking for. If you want to be out barhopping more often, you’ll want to head to the City. If a less stressful, more laid-back atmosphere is more important, try to pick somewhere on the Peninsula.

If you do choose San Francisco, the next thing you’ll ask is where to live. San Francisco is the most neighborhood-y city I’ve ever heard of: within a three block walk you could hit four neighborhoods, all with a completely different feel and population. Some of them have more drugs than residents. Your best bet is to just spend a few weeks here with a friend or in a hotel, scope out which neighborhood initially interests you, and pull the trigger. You’ll probably end up moving in a year anyway once you figure out what you really want.

Get drunk a lot

If you don’t drink much yet, you should. Part of what makes San Francisco great is the technical meetups in the area: lots of conferences, lots of presentations, lots of small tutorials. Those are all well and fun, of course — it’s great to be exposed to the new hotness — but I’ve found them to be pretty lame to meet new people. Every time you meet someone you get the feeling that you’re walking through the professional steps: 1) name, 2) company, 3) technologies used 4) uh, okay, have a good one. These are the single-serving friends that Fight Club warned you about. It’s fine if you want to pass the time, but if you want to have meaningful conversations, debates, general fisticuffs about scalability of languages, you’ll need to go drink some alcohol. Preferably: lots.

San Francisco is a great bar town. It’s tiny geographically, so there’s a good chance you can get a drunk cab home for $15 bucks or less from anywhere in the city. Perhaps it’s because of that, perhaps it’s because everyone’s stressed out, but startup workers love to get their drink on. And it’s great. You can be talking about some software project and a random stranger will overhear you and jump into it (because they, inevitably, are also in the tech industry). These are the meaningful relationships you’ll build as you live and work here. Make sure you follow them on Twitter while you’re at it, too- it’s surprising how much of a bond you can make over tweets after you’ve initially had a few beers.

It’s important to cultivate these deeper relationships, because:

San Francisco is fuckin’ small

I mentioned it’s small geographically, but the actual tech community is really startlingly small. You’ll be surprised at how many of your groups of friends know each other. And everyone is hiring. San Francisco must not give five fucks about the national economy, because it’s some bizarro world where no one can ever find anyone to hire. If you’re looking for a job, virtually everyone is either hiring at their own company or can immediately name five friends at other companies that are hiring. The importance of knowing people is, well, important.

It’s not just for hiring, either: it’s marketing, it’s funding, it’s technology resources. These are the people that will tweet and blog about you when you launch. They’ll forward your name on to their VC friends. They’ll help you out and suggest projects and technologies to look at. For as much cutthroat competition there is in the Valley, it’s an incredibly networked and positive-thinking community. Everyone tends to lend a helping hand.

San Francisco rockstars

One last thing I’ve noticed: the “rockstar” programmer. There’s a lot of hero worship in the Bay Area, for good reason: the meetup you’ll go to will probably have the authors of your favorite language, framework, or company there.

It’s amazing, when you think about it. Imagine you’re an actor: you’re not going to be able to pound tequila shots with Will Smith or Natalie Portman very easily. Imagine you’re a dentist: you’re not going to be able to do a keg stand with the inventor of that new bicuspid treatment, because no one knows who the fuck did that.

That said, I love a good stereotype, and the stereotype for nerds is that they’re typically pretty nice people. I’ve found that to be completely accurate for these “rockstar” developers. Ask them questions, buy them a beer, get them to buy you a beer. It’s cliché, but they’re not any different than you or me. Most of them are shy anyway. I just always cringe when I see someone completely flipping out after seeing this person across the room that they know only through their online reputation. And it does happen frequently. Don’t be that jive turkey.

Startup cultures

I’m not saying that there aren’t legitimately great startup cultures rising up around the globe; there are. And there are great companies and great products being built everywhere. But I am saying that the Bay Area is the major league and will be for quite some time. You should drop by.

It’s a good place to be. Hopefully this’ll help out if you ever find yourself in San Francisco, and if it doesn’t, let’s throw down into fisticuffs at the bar while we talk about that new bicuspid treatment. I hear it’s pretty rad.