I’ve written before about San Francisco, and how it is different from Austin in terms of startup community and culture, and the way those differences create different results for the people and companies who live in both places. In that post, I talked about how laid back Austin is, and when coupled with a Texas bootstrap your company mentality, we see startups that raise less money, move at a slower pace, and drive a different sort of growth (slower, often) than the all or nothing San Francisco Unicorn or Unicorpse club.
I tried to be very balanced in my treatment, acknowledging how Austin strives for a more balanced quality of life than San Francisco. Frankly, it’s easier to have a laid back quality of life in Austin because the cost of living doesn’t touch San Francisco’s (but it is rising). But Austin also places a lot of value on free time for family and being outdoors and hobbies in a way that I have not experienced in San Francisco. The norm here is to either be working on the weekends, or day drinking, or driving to Napa, etc. Even when San Francisco relaxes it’s intense.
I’m sure the post was biased. One of the top influences in my life then was Ben Metcalfe, co-founder of the startup I was with, and a big reason I moved to SF in the first place. Ben loves this city and all the tech here, and his take on the world was a lens that I heavily relied on.
Next week will mark my 3 year anniversary living here.
When I arrived, it was Friday afternoon, and pouring down rain. I was incredibly wide-eyed and innocent. There were so many things about the world that I really didn’t understand, and learned only via some painful lessons or mistakes, or some things where I just look back and think how adorable I must have seemed. San Francisco is a city that has switched on the world’s “expert” setting, and the learning curve to survive here is steep.
I had zero clue what I was getting myself into in terms of startups, the culture, the cost of living, the real estate market, et al.
As I finish my 3rd year as a resident, there is a part of me that is weary of the San Francisco startup rat race and how the constant disruption removes any inefficiency from the city, squeezing the margins of life with constant waves of disruption.
One of the best things about living here is working with the best people in the world. One of the worst things about living here is working with the best in the world. Competition is fierce for everything, starting with your apartment, and ending with your job search.
The competition means you can raise your game faster than anywhere else in the world, and you better raise your game if you want to keep your job. The startup you work for probably just raised another big round, complete with a big revenue target to hit, there is very little room for dead weight on the rocket ship. Only unicorns survive.
I just started work with my 3rd startup, and I can tell you that the hiring process is much more advanced, more thorough, and more strenuous by orders of magnitude than when I started my career – a direct reflection of the level of execution and competition present.
The upside to this is that I can probably go most places outside of San Francisco and get a very good marketing job and run at half speed.
The bad news is that there is constantly a race on to grow fast enough, and it never lets up.
In San Francisco, you are a startup of one. You are either going to sink or swim based on your hustle. It can wear people down over time.
This is the price to play with the world class.
The drive of San Francisco hit me very hard in August as I arrived back from 2 weeks vacation in Sofia, Bulgaria and London. Sofia is one of my favorite cities, and I love Bulgaria for their incredibly rich culture and their people. London is much closer to America than Bulgaria, but definitely not American. I experienced a rhythm in both cities that was more at peace and holistic than I feel anywhere in the US.
One of my favorite Bulgarians likes to jokingly say, “The problem with you Americans is you don’t take your pleasures seriously enough.”
This must be the European of vibe that seems to innately understand life’s ebbs and flows and gives a wide berth for people to ease in and out of various stages of life. To enjoy a different level of balance and take a month off in the summer. There is very little balance in the hyper-competitive, capitalistic supernova San Francisco.
I say this about Europe even though my trip wasn’t a particularly easy one. For personal reasons, the trip was an emotional roller coaster, and I shed more tears than I have in a few years. And amidst the tears, I was still renewed by my time in both cities. My body felt more relaxed. I was able to sit at cafes and in parks and have a coffee and read for a few hours without hesitation. Sofia in particular does very good things for me.
I carried that European peace when I landed in San Francisco on my return flight. It was late Sunday evening as I gathered my suitcase and called an UberPool to take me back to my apartment in Nob Hill. The energy of San Francisco began hovering over me as I waited at SFO for the Prius to arrive.
I remember how the energy felt the summer before I moved to San Francisco. I spent a few weeks here apartment hunting, and I was falling in love with this place. It was intoxicating, and when I landed back in Austin, I felt almost nothing. No vibe of energy. I was bored. When I would return to SFO, the energy would cover me and I wanted to wrap myself in it.
Landing this time was different – heavy. I got into the backseat of the Uber, and there was another startup guy in the back with me. Super good energy from him, but we started talking about work immediately and I was a immersed in the startup echo chamber before the car had left the airport.
We talked about startup things and then I told him a bit about my trip. He had just been to Vegas, I think. He told me stories as we drove North on the 101. As we passed the long strip of the highway that runs alongside the bay for a few miles, I began to feel San Francisco’s energy welcome me back home. It felt like a meat grinder. My body grew tense. I knew that I was going back to the hustle first thing in the morning. Where Europe had felt rich and dynamic, warm and human, San Francisco suddenly felt one-dimensional to me.
I thought about some of the simple things that I wanted in my life. A family. A deeply rooted sense of community. A yard with a garden. It’s a challenge to have a family in San Francisco without pulling down around $250,000 each year. I’m gratefully well-paid for my work (otherwise San Francisco’s rent might be more of an issue), but not quite at that level.
As I write all this, I’m not interested in leaving San Francisco yet. I have a lot left to accomplish here, and in the few months since returning from Europe, I’ve begun to feel at home for the first time in my life. San Francisco has shaped me in some amazing ways, but in particular it has helped show me what is important and what isn’t. Finding the answers to what is important and not has meant I have a sense of purpose that is very new to me. That sense of purpose is the source of feeling at home. The city hasn’t become any more or less welcome to me, but I am more and more at peace than I have ever been. Even in a bit of a meat grinder sometimes.
Hope this helps.
Austin W. Gunter