11 founders & investors share their perspective on ~ post-pandemic SF ~
Unpacking the "SF is back!" meme
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I shared my pre-pandemic reflections on SF yesterday. Today, in this special weekend issue, I’m sharing a roundup of perspectives from people living and working in SF.
You’ll hear from:
Sar: What about SF is appealing to you these days?
Sean Garrett: San Francisco is always reinventing itself. The flush of people leaving and the lack of a quick buck to be made means new things will pop up in their place, and we'll probably be surprised by what they are. People who stick around have a more long-term mentality and will be willing to dig into the local government and community’s hard work. There's a greater awareness of how the city works (or not) and what can be done to change it. This is a big positive change from just five years ago.
Lee Edwards: The pandemic amplified the biggest problems in the city and our city government. You saw this in the results of the very popular recalls of the School Board and District Attorney Chesa Boudin. It accelerated backlash and turned out voters who are now paying closer attention than ever. As a lifelong Democrat, I’m excited that this left-moderate backlash is happening. It’s long overdue.
Neal Khosla: There’s a lot less cruft in SF now. Post-downturn, people who are here want to be here and are focused on substance. That’s always energizing. There are a lot of efforts that I’m optimistic about, like Grow SF to improve the state of governance. Having engaged people who care about SF will improve the community. Most people still in SF have some loyalty to it, so there’s a lot less of a transactional feel in the tech community right now. It also means less negativity and constantly griping about how “SF is the worst.” That conversation was a tiresome one. People here seem to know it has its issues but also its assets. With the markets removing cruft, it’s a much more exciting, less hype/grift-focused, and positive environment.
Lisha Li: Not different from pre-pandemic. A large part of my coming back to the SF Bay Area, where I have lived since 2011, is because most of my ML and AI network is still here or is coming back here.
Kevin Gibbon: If you are building a tech company, you can't beat SFs concentration of builders and investors. There is now a new renaissance of builders to replace the people who left.
Apoorva Govind: The most exciting thing for me was that I could walk in random parks or restaurants and hear so much tech everywhere. I’d meet people who’d instantly understand tech topics without having to provide a lot of context. For instance, casually riding the Muni, you can overhear a spirited debate about the drawbacks of using the Amazon S3 ecosystem vs. GCP. I love being immersed in tech.
Zak Kukoff: SF was bloated socially and intellectually before the pandemic. Whereas historically, the magic of SF was attracting the deeply nerdy (with whom I identify), as SF became more attractive, it was increasingly dominated by tourists. Today, SF is leaner: the nerds are back and out in full force. And while part of this is prompted by the industry du jour (generative AI), there's a real sense that the pandemic created a moment in time when young people could afford to move here and where social networks were reset. Here's a good test: how often do people at parties say SF is boring? Before the pandemic, I heard this constantly. Today, it's rare.
Sar: What are the most reasonable critiques of SF?
Sean Garrett: “Pardon my French, but downtown San Francisco, especially in the seamy streets of the Tenderloin and around Hallidie Plaza, has turned into le grand pissoir... Part of the problem, of course, is the paucity of public restrooms, which the authorities are against as cesspools of human behavior, quote a police official. Ergo, as your nose informs you with noisome precision, the downtown streets, doorways, phone booths, and even the rear sections of Muni buses have become cesspools. It's a fact of life that nobody wants to address, but something has to be done if we don't want to acquire the title of Latrine-by-the-Bay." The legendary San Francisco columnist Herb Caen wrote the above in July 1985. And you can find similar things written about current-day problems from many decades ago.
What many critics get right about today's issues have been issues for years. They treat them like new things with the current cast of characters to blame, and new incidents are fed into the outrage machine. Rinse and repeat. Those who want to improve San Francisco need to dig into the deep-seated machine-like elements that dictate the education system, housing policy, public transportation, policing, and social services. It's not as flashy, but there are far bigger issues than $1.7 million toilets that have been systematized through decades of cronyism at best and plenty of graft at worst. Follow the money and the incentives through the city government. And, get past labeling what's wrong as progressivism -- that's what those in power want you to call it. It's the same as calling Trump's actions conservative. Both are simply self-interested power grabbing.
Lee Edwards: Right now, most of the city government is in denial about the obvious problems to every outside observer. This prevents them from even beginning to work on the problems. There are many problems in SF, but the three that affect businesses the most are crime, housing, and a hostile local business regime - both for tech companies and SMBs.
When electeds do come around to recognizing these problems, unfortunately, most of them are constitutionally ill-equipped to address them. They reject the power of market-based solutions, forgoing what works everywhere else. Mostly concerned with their re-election prospects and upward mobility into larger positions, they choose populist platforms that work against the best interest of the city - vilifying individuals and businesses in their largest economic driver, the tech industry, creating more new taxes and regulations both for businesses and housing, all the while failing to intelligently spend the enormous budget per capita they do have as a result of the most onerous tax regime in the country. The evidence for this is clear, as major companies flee the city and local businesses shut down; all the while, the government spends $1.7M on a toilet, begging the question if a tax regime that punishes businesses this badly is providing any public benefit. The silver lining is that 2022 has been a landmark year for reversing this clown car. Moderates are winning elections, extremists are being recalled, and common-sense ballot measures to address issues like housing are finally passing. Hopefully, November will continue this trend.
Amanda Robson: Homelessness, public drug use, and crime (though other major cities also struggle with these)
Lisha Li: The government and policies are by far the worst part of SF and the Bay Area at large. There is no law enforcement. Ideologue politicians use the city to run political and social experiments with extreme liberal policies that bear no results. SF has the highest budget per capital (thanks to tech tax income) and has nothing to show for it.
Kevin Gibbon: It's still very dirty, and the crime is higher than pre-pandemic.
Neal Khosla: SF still struggles with crime/safety and cleanliness and has a tremendous problem with governmental competency. Housing and housing policy remain an issue. The homogeneity of tech workers and political views lack intellectual diversity. Having just spent a few months in NYC, I enjoyed meeting people from other spaces, though it meant less thinking/talking/learning about areas of tech. SF is not NYC. If that's what you want from a place to live, NYC is way better. While the Bay Area has great weather, SF is still gray most of the time. If you want constant sunshine, it seems like LA or Miami is a better place.
Apoorva Govind: SF is not a safe city anymore. There is rampant drug use and crime. The politics in the city is entirely rotten. It’s full of corrupt politicians who engage in performative signaling instead of working on making the city safe. Parts of SF are filthier than any slum in India. Slum dwellers in India are at least trying to get out of the squalor. In SF, people are reveling in it. The expensive housing & lack of community in SF have shaped it into a transitionary city. When people are young, they move here for their jobs. They are forced to move out of the city when they start building families. There are not enough future generations being raised in SF. Since most people can’t afford to own houses in SF, and those who can don’t feel safe, people leave this city in droves. This leads to a renter mindset. There is no sense of belonging or inherent motivation to contribute to the city. Without the community mindset, cities are just places with buildings. I know many of my friends who are moving away, for this reason, making it hard for folks to commit to the city long-term.
Celine Halioua: Dangerous, dirty, ridiculous politics, expensive.
Cristina Cordova: A reasonable critique is that we continue to have a drug and fentanyl crisis leading to significant homelessness and property crime. Anyone who takes a tour through the Tenderloin can see how real this problem is. We have yet to come up with a way to solve it. Several major cities (NYC, LA) are facing the same issues, and I don't think SF has made enough progress toward a solution here.
Sar: What about the narrative around SF in the post-pandemic, remote-friendly world is overblown?
Sean Garrett: That San Francisco is "over.” San Francisco is changed. Just like it was in 2002 after the dot com bust. But, the city has experienced far bigger crises and evolved. The gold rush eventually faded, and people from all over the world to profit off it left in droves. There were horrible race riots in 1877 in a time of economic depression. The 1906 earthquake practically burned down most of the city. Massive worker strikes during the 1930s included the "Bloody Thursday" battle between union workers and police. Thousands of San Franciscans of Japanese heritage were forced into internment camps during WWII. And in the 1980s, SF faced the AIDS crisis. If San Francisco can manage all of this, it can deal with today's problems.
Kevin Gibbon: That it's dangerous. There are areas to avoid, but there are some of the most beautiful and safe areas in the country to live or work around.
Neal Khosla: That remote-friendly means there aren’t advantages to being in person. The world’s largest concentration of technical talent is still in SF, despite the haranguing from other folks that this is no longer the case. Many people have left, but there is still a tremendous density of talented people in SF. Even as the CEO of a distributed company, the plurality of our talent is still in the Bay Area, which is probably the easiest place to hire great talent. SF has come back to life and is slowly moving on from being the ghost town it was during the pandemic. It’s not back yet, but it’s returned to a more normal city.
Celine Halioua: That no one is here anymore, completely miserable to live in, etc.
Julianna Lamb: That no one is here! People are here and going into the office, it might not be at the pre-pandemic rate, but FiDi is busy during the week; people are out and about, and you can feel the energy.
Sar: How would you persuade young college grads wanting to work in tech to move to SF instead of NYC, Austin, or Miami?
Sean Garrett: For all the same reason, young college grads have moved to the Bay Area for many decades. Great weather, access to some of the most beautiful places in the world, diverse culture, highly educated and interesting people, great food, and so on. I would also not treat it like a competition. You can get lots of great experiences and perspectives from many places worldwide. What's awesome about the Bay Area is that those who make this place their home have a bigger worldview and aren't provincial or think nothing exists outside its borders.
Lee Edwards: This is still the place with the deepest bench of experienced founders, investors, and engineers. Emerging ecosystems are great and exciting, but in an early career, do not underestimate the value of mentorship and learning from experience (and doing so in person.) If you can hitch your wagon to one of a handful of leaders who are in these other markets, go for it. But no matter what area of tech you’re in, most of the battle scars are still physically located in Silicon Valley. If you are optimizing for experience in technical skills, Seattle is number two before the others you mentioned.
Amanda Robson: It is still the world's tech center - the density of founders, potential founders, and investors is unmatched by other cities.
Lisha Li: I lived in Miami for eight months during the pandemic, and to a large extent, I loved my stay there. I lived in Brickell, which was relatively work-focused (rather than South Beach, where people party). The city was very walkable, vibrant, and diverse—all things my living in Soma in SF lacked pre-pandemic. However, the AI talent there is pretty much 0. That is fine if you are not someone who wants to work in AI. There are a lot of remote-friendly web3 teams, for instance, that are based there. However, if you want to work in AI, Miami, unfortunately, is not the place to be. And despite how well-run Miami is as a city over SF, I still came back and am happy I did. I know less about Austin. NYC also has less AI talent than SF, though far more than Miami.
Julianna Lamb: If you're interested in startups, there's no better place. The density of entrepreneurial talent is unmatched. Even if you go on to live somewhere else later, it's so easy to build a deep network in tech living in SF, and having that foundation can give you more optionality down the road.
Kevin Gibbon: SF has the highest density of talent and capital to build and scale a tech company. It has the best weather all year round and is not even close. SF is much more than the city; it's the bay area. You can live in the city or the east or south bay. It has something for everyone, which is especially powerful, only having to go into an office 2-3 times a week. Great dinners and most people are transplants, so it's easy to make friend groups.
Apoorva Govind: SF is still the center of everything tech. You’ll randomly run into tech legends & entrepreneurs at your neighborhood coffee shop without even trying, and as a young person starting in tech, being inspired IRL matters. It’s like living in Florence during the renaissance. If you believe the current age is a tech renaissance, you should do everything you can to be surrounded by others who are pursuing it.
Neal Khosla: I have spent almost no time in Austin or Miami, so I can’t speak to those cities, but I can say that the Bay Area, despite its challenges, remains one of the best places in the world to live from a lifestyle perspective: great weather, beautiful outdoor activities, and incredible economic opportunity. There’s also a lot discussed about how “there’s nothing to do in SF,” but I think that is overstated. SF has great museums, a robust broadway scene, comedy clubs, great outdoor access, and sports like surfing, golf, biking, etc. SF is materially more active and easy to get out into nature than NYC, for example (Austin seems different). SF is “sleepier” in that it’s not where you come to go out until 4 am at a club. In many cases, that can be a feature, not a bug, especially when starting a company. When you pair that with the density of talented individuals in the tech industry who still live here, and the number of experienced tech founders and investors in the area, it’s a no-brainer that living in SF has advantages. I still think SF is the place with the most opportunity to work in big tech OR to start a company, and that’s a pretty unique combination.
Celine Halioua: Understand the value of high-density talent in your building areas.
Cristina Cordova: SF has the highest density of young technical talent. If you want to be around others like you, where your industry is producing the most innovative new startups, and where you can learn enough to one day start a company yourself, SF is the place to be. You can live an incredibly full life here. We have wonderful weather and food and are a short distance from beaches, skiing, wine country, and much more.
Zak Kukoff: I don't think we have to :) — the brightest young college grads increasingly recognize the power of being in-person, surrounded by peers who are committing to focus on work. Sure, SF has less to do than Miami or NYC, but that's a feature, not a bug. If you're hungry, and what you care about is maximizing the slope of your career, even spending 4 years in SF surrounds you with a cohort of builders who will follow you through life. Particularly where I focus (prosumer/enterprise/~future of work~ etc.), founders choosing to build elsewhere do so at a cost.
Sar: What about SF do you believe is hard to replicate in short to medium term in other cities?
Sean Garrett: Austin would find it very hard to recreate the feeling of watching a finger of fog creep below the Golden Gate Bridge and extend to Alcatraz while you sat in a park looking at the hilltops that dot the Bay.
Lisha Li: The concentration of AI talent. Lots of ambitious founders.
Julianna Lamb: There's a flywheel effect of startups being created, people leaving those to start new companies, and so on. People have a different level of risk tolerance when it comes to startups here compared to other places, so as you're building a company, there are more people to recruit who already know they want to work at startups. For better or worse, because of how much share tech has in terms of what people do in SF, it's easy to immerse yourself in the ecosystem that helps fuel that flywheel.
Kevin Gibbon: The density of talented, helpful, and the most ambitious people on the planet.
Apoorva Govind: Short term, if you are a company growing quickly and want to find top-quality local talent, it’s going to be hard to find a city that’s better than SF. The top-notch universities here further contribute to the pipeline, which will be hard for cities like Miami or Austin to replicate even long term. So if SF fixes its current housing crisis a bit, it would be hard to justify moving to cities like Miami and Austin.
Celine Halioua: The nerd and ambition culture here.
Zak Kukoff: The power of SF is building a high-trust environment without what usually requires: a deep, shared history or community. The default for anyone smart, young, and hungry who moves to SF (particularly if they're technical!) is access. You can view this negatively (folks are afraid of missing the next Zuck or Patrick Collison), or you can view this positively — that this is a community built around renewal and providing access. While this process isn't perfect and certainly doesn't capture the diversity of great founders, I don't know another city that performs at the level of SF while being as open.
Sar: Where do you believe the long-term edge of SF as a tech hub comes from?
Sean Garrett: Stanford, the UC system, immigrant kids in Fremont who *believe* they can be successful engineers, and lots of investor money -- from angels to many decades-old venture firms.
Amanda Robson: Access to young talent - schools like Stanford, Berkeley, etc.
Lisha Li: Not sure there is one, unfortunately. Some companies are in person here, but a lot is still remote. This is because the city, and in general the Bay Area, still makes it difficult to live here (high cost of living, no rule of law). So if the city politics here continue down this path, it is not obvious SF will remain a long-term tech hub. However, its current advantage is sticky. I expect it to be here for the next five years.
Apoorva Govind: If you’re in tech and want to be surrounded by intelligent tech people, it has to be in SF. I’ve been to “networking events” in SF, NYC & Miami. Miami has the least amount of tech talent as of now IMO between the three cities. If you are building companies in person, Miami doesn’t have the talent readily available (Not saying that it will remain this way, but it’s just what it is today). NYC is pretty good for tech, but NYC is also way too much fun. I often joke that in NYC, people leave work to go to do fun stuff outside. In SF, we leave work to build fun stuff at home. The builder mindset is very different between the three cities. That kind of nerdy obsessive culture is a massive edge for innovation.
Neal Khosla: Assuming it figures out its shit: It’s still the highest-density tech ecosystem in the world with a robust funding environment. It has some of the most interesting research in the world, with places like Stanford, Berkeley, and ARC institute. I expect the density of AI researchers to be a massive advantage over the next ten years. Most great ML researchers in the US are at companies in the Bay Area, and it’s still the place to be to come and learn and grow in this area. Lastly, the Bay Area is still one of if not the best places to live in the US from a quality of life perspective, and if it can figure out the policy, there’s a reason it’s been such a desirable place for people to live.
Celine Halioua: University network - hard to build a tier 1 University.
Cristina Cordova: The incredible density of technical and executive talent that lives in the San Francisco Bay Area is incredibly hard to replicate. We have two world-class universities graduating classes with technical talent funneling into technology companies. Most importantly, we have people who are inherently risk-taking and willing to start companies here, which is not something you see in other cities. These founders have a community of other founders to lean on, capital from a significant number of top venture capital firms, and a density of technical talent available. There is a lower barrier to starting up in SF than anywhere else.
Sar: What type of startups does SF remain the best place to work on?
Sean Garrett: Startups with experienced founders.
Lee Edwards: Anything where the technical challenge is one of the primary risks of the startup. We have seen so much compression in the types of startups that dominate NYC (fashion, retail, eCommerce,) LA (creator economy,) and Miami (crypto.) One could imagine hardware startups finding cheaper space elsewhere. However, some of the greatest hardware technical talent in the world is still in the Peninsula, as Google/Meta join Apple as a serious player in hardware, and self-driving car companies are spinning out the world-class talent if not delivering the most ambitious parts of the mission. For hard software, where I focus, AI is being rapidly developed in academia but commercialized or attempting to be commercialized most heavily here. And the concentration of software developers here means it’s still the best place to be with your customers. Silicon Valley still exports developer culture like LA and NYC export entertainment and style culture.
Lisha Li: AI
Unsurprisingly, there are many common themes you can pull out in what they like, the changes they notice, and what they think the city can do better. Admittedly, these are biased people who still choose to live there! In the post-pandemic remote-friendly world! I was surprised by the consensus around the idea of the density of startup people and venture dollars. That was an undisputed fact in the pre-pandemic world, of course. Keep in mind all of them work with people remotely in some capacity! And yet they hold the belief that it is a sustainable edge.
I want to do similar roundups for LA, NYC, Miami, London, Paris, and Bangalore. If you are a longtime local or a recent migrant and a founder or an investor in any of those cities and would like to participate, please email me!
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