Field Report from San Francisco.
At the start of 2014, I set about planning a number of goals for myself for the year – one of those was to travel to a number of cities in the US where the tech scene was both vibrant and emerging. The first city that I selected to visit was San Francisco – a true hub of technology innovation. My original plan was to relocate myself here for 6 weeks and operate from here. This was then reduced down to a 9 days trip, into which I crammed:
- Company visits – Dandelion (small batch chocolate company)
- Stanford University
- Berkeley University
- Mission District – an emerging tech community
- Live Your Legend
- Meet up with some key people who inspire me with their outlook on life and energy for life
- And … some general walkabout of the city to take in how it operates
Here are my observations and what I have learned from the trip (I travelled to SF between June 27th through July 6th, 2014.
The airport set the scene and the experience was positive. I took an Uber XL (SF company) “taxi” into the city. First impressions of the city were that it is a very diverse city (posh, run down, rent controlled areas and everything in between), very busy and certainly alive with people. By sheer coincidence, I picked the weekend of the Gay Pride Parade – that brought a huge crowd into town and a great party atmosphere.
The town itself has many districts, from the Castro, to the Mission to Chinatown and Tenderloin and many more – these are all fantastic in their own ways, but also incredibly diverse in their population, architecture, shops, and restaurants.
Diversity is a positive force and one to be embraced fully.
As well as a reputation for tech, I was surprised when I went for a short walk from my hotel on the first evening and found many galleries and theatres – there is a very vibrant community of artists in the city, ranging from the gallery artists along Geary Street to the street artists on Clarion Avenue in the Mission district. Another surprise was how quickly the temperature dropped in the evening – even though we had heard that great Mark Twain quotes of – “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” – we had arrived into a warm San Francisco, yet the temperature dropped very rapidly in the evening.
Always expect the unexpected and be prepared.
One of my favourite ways of getting to know a city is by walking it. On the first full day in San Francisco, I set out on a walk taking in Union Square, Market Street, The Embarcadero, The Bay Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf and Chinatown. I set out at 6am and was met by lots and lots of people out for their morning exercise. People, both young and older, were undertaking all forms of exercise ranging from running, biking, skateboarding, walking, gym workout (in particular Cross-fit), spinning classes, to yoga and similar exercise. They were working out on the Pier, in Gyms, on basketball court and in parks – there was a real energy about the city at this early hour.
Exercise is an energy giver – make sure you find a form that suits you best and make it a daily practice.
On a slightly sadder note, there are a lot of homeless people in San Francisco – you see them sleeping on the streets, in shop doorways and under bridges. This community of people seem to be a little forgotten and in need of a helping hand – it touched me in a couple of ways – it reminded me how fortunate I am and it also reminded me that I need to help those who are not as fortunate as I am.
Gratitude for what you have and for those who make up your like makes you a better, more complete person.
Don’t forget those who are currently riding a bad streak – help them break that bad streak.
Berkeley is a town that I had a number of pre-conceived ideas about. I was aware of the University and it’s worldwide reputation as a top ranking academic institution. I was also aware of Berkeley’s hippie roots. However, when I arrived in Berkeley, I was somewhat surprised at the very hippy feel to the town.
One of the stop offs that I had planned here was to take in a Vegan restaurant of note – Cafe Gratitude – this is a restaurant which has built a somewhat cult following and I wanted to get a sense of the place and see why? What do they do to develop this and what could I learn from that? The food and experience were good and from the lunch, my main observation was that as a cafe, they focus on the simple things of preparing great food, serving it with care and making you feel like a welcome guest.
Building a reputation is all about living your values through every interaction you have with your clients.
The town is pretty full of cafes – a theme that I will touch on later. I made my way up to the campus and was surprised by the number of young kids there on summer camps – 14-16 year olds getting the opportunity to experience all that Berkeley has to offer – what a great way to introduce young people to the opportunities of top universities.
Invest in the youngest members of society as they hold the keys to the long term success.
From here I went on up to the Haas School of Business – on the outside, it does not look particularly special, but once you get inside, you can see the impact that alumni are having:
- Scott Adams, founder of Dilbert.
- Donald Fisher, founder of Gap.
- Barbara J. Desoer is COO for Citibank.
- Arun Sarin, CEO of Vodafone.
- Timothy Campos, CIO of Facebook.
I took time out to visit two companies that I admire immensely and was very surprised by the modesty of the building from the outside. Dropbox is in Berry Street, close to the Giants baseball stadium and Twitter is on Market Street, a pretty edgy area that the city is seeking to develop. I am still deliberating what I observed and the lessons I can take from this, but for sure, the most obvious one is to focus on what is most important to your business – big signs, trendy locations, corporate headquarters that resemble some five-star hotels are not necessary – great people, a true purpose and a focus on execution do.
Identify and focus on what is most important to you.
Stanford & Palo Alto
Stanford is a university that is world renowned and is immersed in the heart of Silicon Valley, with strong faculties for medicine, mathematics, computer sciences and many others. What might surprise you is the number of students – there are only circa 6,600 under graduate students and approximately 9,000 post-graduate students. The campus is set on over 8,300 acres of prime real estate and the academic and research facilities, history, culture and sporting facilities are second to none.
The campus was very busy and there are a large number of small cafes and meeting areas scattered throughout the campus – this promotes collaboration and people meeting up to work together (as well as the normal social interactions) – the theme of meetups in cafes was a constant thread from SF – Samovar tea lounge, Berkeley campus, the Mission district and on and on. Creating an environment which promotes meeting up, promotes more human interactions which in turn leads to more innovation.
Google are located only a short distance from Palo Alto and I am sure that they draw significant inspiration from the Stanford ethos that is gained through their recruitment of a significant number of Stanford graduates. Google are a highly innovative company and one worth studying in terms of their environment and execution models.
Environment is everything – create one that promotes interactions
Cafes and Meeting Points
What stood out for me in the greater Bay Area was the amount of cafes, the people in them and the breadth of activities being undertaken in them. They are an integral way of working, collaborating and meeting up. People meet up for a discussion on topics, or take some downtime, or find a quiet refuge to work or study – they are an integral part of the working and living environment and like the people, come in many different shapes and sizes, from the ubiquitous Starbucks, to Peets, to the zen like Samovar Tea Lounge – an environment for every need. I love it. Some people work/study in cafes out of necessity because student accommodation is modest and perhaps not ideal for a focused session – or perhaps they need to do a group project.
Creating a multi-dimensional environment for working and living is key to innovation – both the working and living environment
Samovar is a “trendy” tea lounge that I first heard of from a website that I subscribe to – Habits of Entrepreneurs. The lounge is an area where you step into a parallel universe and switch off all technology and immerse yourself in the enjoyment of four things:
- The Tea – their tea is very special and its preparation is somewhat of a ceremony – a blend of good ingredient, hot water and time – all served in a beautiful pot and the appropriate cup.
- The Food – they had beautifully prepared food that you will not find anywhere else.
- Your Company – there are no distraction here. You spend your time enjoying the company you keep – even if you are on your own, it might be a book, some music, the environment – there are no distractions here.
- The Environment – I went to the Yerba Beuna Garden lounge.
Don’t forget to spend time with and on the things most important to you.
Don’t forget to unplug from the internet – it rekindles the thinking process.
The Mission District
The Mission District is a new technology center in SF, but it is also the heart of the old city and has had a large hispanic/mexican community. The district has a real juxtaposition between the edgy Clarion Avenue, Balmy Street and older District, and the new condos, Samovar Tea bar, Dandelion chocolate factory. Just take a look at some of the social comment:
Embrace the new, but don’t forget to retain the best of your history.
A special mention goes out to Dandelion – a small batch chocolate company, which was started by an ex-technology entrepreneur, Todd Masonis. A most improbable company – produce chocolate, in small batches and sell at a premium price – $10 for a 100g bar. You have to immerse yourself in the way of operating to understand that the story here is about delivering the best quality products possible, in a sustainable and a philosophy which is very pragmatic and refreshing – having fun is part of the equation.
Whatever you do, do it with style.
In summary, I had a great time, packed a lot in and learned a lot. On Thursday, I am going to share with you how I intend taking the experiences and lessons learned described above, and modifying how I execute projects and operate my company. I hope you will join me then. In the meantime, live a little, laugh a little, try something new and above all have fun and spend time with people who help you grow.