San Francisco = Changes
San Francisco is supposed to change people. I’ve never been to another city in the world that compares.
The last time I was in San Francisco, I made one of the most important decisions of my life, to become Orthodox. I came with my family after a visit to Gardnerville, Nevada, the town just outside of Lake Tahoe where I was born. It was the first time I had been back to the area since we left when I was four. I visited a Cathedral on Geary street that houses the relics of an American Saint, John of San Francisco. I walked in, and when I walked out 2 hours later my perspective had changed.
I’ve been trying to write this blog post for about a week, and I’m not sure what the holdup is, but the words didn’t start to spill out until I realized that too much of what happens when I go to San Francisco I can’t immediately put into words. For example, within a few hours of landing I was on a rooftop in SOMA with 120+ Burners crowding around a handful of fire-spinners. That doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world, so it’s hard to describe it. I guess you simply have to experience it to understand it.
This time, I was coming to spend a week with Ben Metcalfe, Co-Founder of WP Engine, to talk strategy, and meet a few PR and Industry contacts.
Ben picked me up from the airport in his Audi TT and we listened to Dubstep and talked about the startups who are advertising on billboards on the highway back from SFO. It hadn’t ever occurred to me that tech startups would get an ROI out of such an analog format. Admittedly, I like going analog whenever I can, so I was in favor of the idea of buying traditional ad space.
To prepare for the trip, I spent the weekend writing notes about my last 5 months at WP Engine and setting goals for my week, and for the next 5 months. One my goals was having a strategic conversation with Ben about where we were headed as a company, and a big part of that conversation was also a personal one. I also wanted to review the work that I had done so far, and then set some goals for growth and progress for the next 3-6 months.
The prep work paid off. Without revealing content, we got to discuss the company’s growth, and how marketing would be driving the growth of WP Engine.
Our normal routine all week was to wake up, find some breakfast for me, and start drinking espresso. Ben’s got an espresso machine, and I think he probably has about 10 a day. The absurd caffeine levels are why his hair changes color so much.
“Reality Shows.” 4th of July at The Villa
Of course, the week I was in San Francisco was also the 4th of July. Ben is British, and when we were planning the trip, he apologetically asked if I wanted to take off work on the 4th. I can’t remember the last time I had observed a holiday by not working, so I didn’t care. His line was, “well, I refuse to celebrate the independence of your country from my great nation.” I just laughed and told him I’d bring the muskets.
I spent the morning of writing. When I came back, Ben had an enormous Union Jack on a plastic broomstick that he was waving around the house and singing British football anthems. I took lots of damning photos
Flag in hand, we went to the 4th of July party where Ben’s friends were filming the Bravo reality show, “Silicon Valley.” The show follows a group of Entrepreneurs, who are mostly British or Australian, are part of a reality show about their startups and living in Silicon Valley. I signed a waver telling them that “hell yes, they could put my face on reality TV.” You know that I was way too excited to possibly be on the show.
For lunch, the cast served “Texas” Barbecue to the guests. Now, Texas Barbecue in California is bad enough, but it wasn’t even made by an American, much less a True Texas. It was made by an entrepreneur from Australia. To be fair, he did a pretty decent job for his first brisket. The flavor was great, but the meat ended up a bit dry. Nothing a good bit of sauce couldn’t solve. As the only Texas in residence I ended up helping him cut the meat.
Aside from the cameras that were constantly around us (look for me talking to a tall brunette with heels in the background), I felt like I was around my people. It was a new feeling. In my head, I’ve imagined parties like that, but that afternoon I watched fantasy meet reality right in front of me. My dreams for my career and my life became reality that afternoon, and I got to watch it happen That’s an amazing feeling, to have your life unfold the way you’ve pictured it. Those are the moments that we work hard to achieve as entrepreneurs. There is something about startup culture that I believe I belong to, and that afternoon, on the set of a reality show, with people who had never met me before, I had a very clear sense of arriving exactly where I was supposed to be.
I also revisited the Orthodox Cathedral, Our Lady Virgin, Joy of All Who Sorrow, where I made my decision to become Orthodox. I was revisiting the place of a religious conversion at a very different point in my life, so my perspective had changed quite a bit. I actually had a bad experience in the service when the priest turned me away from a blessing. He didn’t have a reason to do that, but he did. I walked out the door so angry I couldn’t speak. The contrast between my first visit and my second was too great.
Walking out the door and back onto Geary Street was the lowest point of the week. A place that held immense religious and spiritual value to me had changed for the worse. I’m still not sure how to think about the rejection I felt.
San Francisco is a city of extremes.
Can you Rally?
From the Cathedral, I went to the IdeaMensch event. IdeaMensch will visit every single of the 48 continental states this year, hosting entrepreneurial talks. They’ll be in Austin at Capital Factory in October.
At the event, something else came full circle. The event was held at the RallyPad, where Rally, formerly Piryx, and a company that I got to work with at Tech Ranch Austin now lives. Their COO, Jonas Lamis, was a founder of Tech Ranch, and an early model of entrepreneurship for me before I had the first clue what a “startup” really was. Jonas was one of the first people I met when I started my little journey of tech startups soon after graduating from college with my rhetoric degree. I think if you’d told either one of us 3 years ago that I would be traveling on business with an amazing startup to San Francisco, neither one of us would have believed it. But there I was in his office space. The last time Jonas and I talked, he was giving me career advice the day before moving his family to San Francisco with Rally in order to make a go of it. And boy are they.
Come Full Circle 3 Times
If I’m being self-reflective, which I am at all times, I’m grateful for the time spent with one of the founders of my company. As hopeful entrepreneurs, folks like you and me grow each time we are around the men and women who have gone before us. After the week I spent with Ben, I noticed how differently I felt. I arrived back in Austin with a sense of confidence and place in the company that hadn’t existed before.
That week, my life came full circle three times. The first time was when my dreams met my real life a The Villa. The second was re-experiencing the place where I chose my faith several years ago. The third was stumbling upon one of my very first teachers of tech entrepreneurship. Any one of those would have been huge by themselves.
This post took a very long time to write, and after cranking all of this out, I understand why. It took a while for me to process it all.
In the space of a few days, Jeremiah Owyang asked me for writing samples. Internet Sabrina and I got to chat about community management. Ben took me to the place where Jack Dorsey built the initial prototype of Twitter. I saw fires pinners on a rooftop. I felt like myself the entire time. The emotions I felt the most were belonging and aspiration. I feel like I belong in the city that changes lives.
San Francisco is a city that wants to change your life. Don’t go there unless you want to turn things on their head.
Hope this helps.
Austin W. Gunter