The San Francisco Safety Net

There's this story, it's of a young entrepreneur-developer who, rather than accept the traditional road in front of them, takes glorious personal risk to build a business of great importance in their newly adopted city of San Francisco.

It's a great story, I enjoy it every time I hear it, but it's absolute horseshit.

If you're a developer in San Francisco the last thing you're ever in is a position of great personal risk. For you, this is the safest place in the world.

San Francisco is a bleeding city. It may be the worst run city government in America despite its massive budget. The rent prices are increasingly unaffordablefor most of the city's residents and the murder rates in some popular neighborhoods make Oakland start to sound safe. Despite all this San Francisco offers a rare luxury in today's economy to a portion of its residents: near guaranteed employment at a prevailing wage.

When your friends from Austin or Portland or Boston start telling you about how their city is "the next Silicon Valley" (which they think means San Francisco) the polite thing to do is shake your head, congratulate them, and completely disregard their claim. You do this because you don't want to be a dick, they have a nice city -- it smells far less of urine than San Francisco -- it's great that they love it so much, but you know it will never be the next San Francisco.

Startups spread through San Francisco faster than hepatitis in the Tenderloin. Once you spend a month in one company you can, if you like, send a few emails and be making more money in a matter of days. This web of small companies, however temporary their existence might be, form a social safety net for the privileged class of developers who make the city their home.

This helps mitigate the risk of joining a company that might fail, as most startups do. None of the developers will be out of work more than a few weeks full of interviews surviving on their "bonus" of all the vacation time nobody ever takes. This means companies can take bigger risks, that the culture doesn't bat an eye at spending a few million doing something crazy, cause after it all falls apart everyone is going to land on their feet and have another year of cutting edge work stacked onto their resume.

The riskiest thing to do here is take a job at a big boring company that's been around a decade or so. How many opportunities will there be to learn something new, to become one of a dozen new world experts, at an IBM or a Microsoft? There's opportunity to learn new things at companies big and small but a startup's risky nature also affects their technology choices and you'll easily find yourself using libraries that are today "unproven" and tomorrow will drive all the job postings for "ninjas" and "rockstars."

This safety net is what keeps me here. It's not that San Francisco is more creative than Portland or its culture more exciting than New York or its cocktails better than Boston. I'm here because I was already a crazy person with very little aversion to risk who is bad at saving money. I could live almost anywhere but I'd eventually put myself into a bad situation where I'd have to take a job I didn't like or suffer through a prolonged period of unemployment finding the right place.

I'm not alone. Many of my friends are similarly crazy and poor at financial planning. This is how the startup ecosystem feeds itself and grows faster than other cities. Startups need talent and San Francisco offers a reduction in risk and a culture for that talent to thrive in. The more startups born that call San Francisco their home the greater the safety net.

The longer you live here the harder it is to imagine living anywhere else.