san-francisco

Martin Veitch (US) - Next Wave of Californian Tech Dreamers Swerve Silicon Valley for San Francisco

 

It’s not long after 6am in the jetlagged coffee franchise of a Union Square hotel but already there’s a man with a computer logo-branded day-bag discussing via a video conference on his MacBook “pre-sales consultation … BI suite … cross-sell … integration with the back-end … seems they have some security issues that…”

It’s 9pm at the famous Café Vesuvio bar in North Beach and a tousle-haired hipster with bags that could carry a smartphone each under his eyes is talking about how he hasn’t slept for over 48 hours because of a coding deadline. He speaks hesitantly, with the characteristic seeking for linguistic precision of programmers. He says he has “kinda grown outta Ruby. It was good for a time but it’s time for something new.” But it’s the development language, not some gal, he is kicking into touch.

I'm writing this in Café Bean, a European-style place serving young intellectual-looking types Tweeting, listening to music through earphones and working on projects you'd like to sneak an eye over. A guy has a problem. He has Wi-Fi, power and the usual thousands of dollars of Apple kit but he's bemoaning the lack of an SD Card reader.

Under the near-permanently powder-blue skies of San Francisco you can never get away from tech, whether it’s the ubiquitous adverts for internet security, document collaboration, or secure communications that are everywhere, or the people who peer into devices even while paying for goods or conducting conversations, or just the background chat and buzz, you breathe in ones and zeroes with every step. It’s been that way for a long while now. Ever since the likes of Hewlett-Packard made land that was full of fruit orchards into Silicon Valley, this part of California has become vastly wealthy and fostered an organic, mutually reinforcing ecosystem of venture capitalists, universities, ambitious immigrants, specialist lawyers and others. Today of course, it’s a magnet for anybody with An Idea and the ability to make binary code, only now it’s the city that’s emerging as the new place to start a business rather than its neighbouring valley.

Why’s that? Well, first of all there was the money, although spiralling urban property costs that see young workers paying over $3,000 per month in rent for an apartment have changed the equation somewhat.

“Our original decision to establish Birst in San Francisco had more do with rent costs than anything else,” says Brad Peters, CEO of business intelligence company Birst. “In 2005 it was less expensive to lease space in the city than it was in the Valley. While rents have since climbed, our downtown location has proven to have been the right decision for reasons we didn’t fully anticipate at the time. Specifically, that is access to a young, well-educated talent pool that now wants to live and work in the city. As the peninsula and South Bay became in many cases just as expensive as living in the city, young developers coming to the Bay Area from all over the world increasingly opt for city life. It’s now a common sight to see Google, Facebook, and many of the large employers based in the Valley have their shuttle buses pick up employees from their homes in San Francisco each morning, take them south, and return them in the evening.”

Peters’ comments hint at another emerging feeling that while the Valley is a crucible of talent and opportunity where the brilliant converge to alchemise the next insanely great thing, it’s a little, well, dull.

The highway stretch down to the Valley is a strip bereft of much to look at other than starched-blue sky and low-rise office blocks. In many parts, such as Palo Alto, which HP and others call home, it’s hard even to get a coffee and a sandwich unless you know where to look. And anybody duped by Dionne Warwick’s ‘Do you know the way to San Jose?’ into thinking that some gorgeous treat awaits them in that town will soon by disappointed by dull, vacuous reality.

Little wonder that many firms see the famous bridges, ocean and hills of San Francisco and decide that even if (in the words of another great song, this time by Tony Bennett) they never actually left their hearts there, it’s a great place to build a tech company. At this time of disruption where some of the brightest minds creating smartphone apps, cloud services and new hardware formats are terrifyingly young, gregarious and demanding mental and sensory stimuli, San Francisco appeals. It has great bars, music, food, culture, arts, history and a liberal attitude that welcomes all-comers regardless of race, colour, creed, sexuality or gender. Heck, it’s even got great weather if you allow for the sudden, shrill evenings when the Pacific breezes and fog roll in to remind you that you should have worn layers.

Like so many aspects of modern IT, that drift back to urban living for tech people can in part be apportioned to Salesforce.com which resides in One Market in the heart of the city where founder and CEO Marc Benioff grew up. Technically headquartered in nearby San Rafael, Autodesk, the grey eminence of computer-aided design, has a large office, complete with fascinating gallery, in the same building and says that it is adding more San Francisco space to meet the fancy of employees who like the city buzz or else appreciate the ease of access by public transport, cycle and other modes of transit.

"Our CEO takes the BART train to the office," says Autodesk corporate communications manager Michael Oldenburg. "You have all the creative outlets, it's got a fast pace and a buzz that suits the startup scene and you can get a nice lunch. We're consistently adding space in San Francisco and when we're all done it will equal our presence in San Rafael."

Today there’s a wave of companies thinking the same way. Look at Square, Pulse, Twitter, Eventbrite, StumbleUpon, Zynga, Okta and Pinterest. Think of Gartner’s Nexus of Forces that describes the convergence of social, cloud, mobile and information that is today’s tech zeitgeist: that pretty well describes what’s occurring in the City by the Bay, although you could add terrific design talent into the mix. Of course, many of these companies will fall into other hands (another San Francisco scion, Yammer, is now owned by Microsoft) but new owners would be foolish to attempt to bring prized talent to another address far away from the SoMa district.

As hiring in the city has made more and more sense, there are signs that the Valley ecosystem may be shifting too.

“Investors are close by,” says Birst’s Peters. “While many are still based along the Sand Hill Road corridor, there are plenty located in San Francisco and when need be I can be on Sand Hill Road in less than 40 minutes.”

More and more, San Francisco is the meeting point for the evanescent web of on-going creativity.

Asked about the new influx to the city, my straight-talking driver looks askance at me like I had just arrived from the moon rather than the London Heathrow flight into SFO airport, and puts the case for San Francisco eloquently, “Where else you gonna go to chow down around here and meet your friends, have an event or whatever? It’s beautiful here and clean and you got all this nature. You can’t do that in San Mateo, Santa Clara or one of them towns. Nothing doing there.”

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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