A Few SF Tips for New Arrivals

This post was originally an email written to the StartMate 2015 companies soon to be arriving in San Francisco to pitch investors and raise their seed rounds. Hopefully this information will remain useful for other folks following in their footsteps and coming to this great but confusing city as wide-eyed entrepreneurs for the first time.


So you’ll be making your way to SF soon – congratulations. If previous years have been anything to go by, you’re about to take the rate of learning and iteration up an order of magnitude – and I’m not kidding. So get some sleep on the flight (ask your doctor for Murelax) and don’t drink too much free AirNZ wine.

Here’s a few unsolicited tips that aren’t about fundraising and convertible notes and getting in TechCrunch. Those things are important too, but Hackernews has heaps of coverage and we’ll be able to give you specific advice. This is more general human stuff to help you acclimatize for your stay (which can be very open ended – there are many StartMate companies that never really left); I’m sure other mentors can chime in with more.

  1. Never call this city “San Fran” or “Frisco”. You’ll be politely chastised at best. It is SF (pronounced “ess-eff”) or “San Francisco”.
  2. The local Basketball team are the Golden State Warriors. They’ve just had a record season of regular play (4 more games to go in next 9 days of regular season) so they’re looking good for a deep playoff run; the city will lose its mind. The Giants are the baseball team who won the World Series last year and they’re just starting their season at the moment. The 49ers have Jarred Hayne from the NRL this year, but won’t start until September so nothing to see or learn about there.
  3. The city is a grid (like Melbourne or NYC) cause it burned to the ground after an earthquake in 1906 so they got to re-do it right in most places. Don’t think about earthquakes though when you’re here – they’re out of your control so just make sure you sleep with some clothes on. The grid is weird though cause there are massive mountains here they built the city on & the blocks do their best to follow the shape of the land and shoreline while staying straight. The equivalent of George St Sydney is Market St San Francisco. To the north of Market St the city blocks are orthogonal (still perpendicular blocks, but angled at 60/30 degrees as they intersect Market St). The south of Market St is a regular grid parallel to Market, starting with 1st St in the east and continuing on. It stops being quite so regular after 10th St; the grid follows Mission St (which until this point is parallel to Market St) as it bends away from Market to the South. This is what allows a low street number like 3rd to end up running perpendicular to the “bent” streets of 16th further along Mission St. Sounds confusing, but ain’t so bad when you just remember that the point of reference for numbered streets is always Mission St – it is the backbone and the numbered streets are the ribs.
  4. This place is the homeless capital of America. There are like 20K homeless people here. Sydney has 346. Prepared to be confronted. Many have mental illnesses and SF is a draw across the US because it has (comparatively) great social services and the climate and the police are both mild enough that if you’re homeless you won’t die here. As a general rule, the homeless are also non-threatening (either because they’re genuinely lovely people chewed up and spat out by America and its wars, or because they know the generousity of this city of 800K keeps them fed – more money is spent by City Hall on homeless services than road maintenance). As a 6 foot man I’m never worried about them, but I know dudes 6 inches shorter who cop abuse and I wouldn’t be a woman walking around in SOMA or the Tenderloin after dark alone.
  5. SOMA, or “South of Market (St)”, the home of startups in the city, is also the home of the homeless. It is gritty and grimy, a place of recently converted factories, car workshops and sex on premise venues for that special kind of man. If you see poop on the streets of SOMA, you can be 90% sure it is human, not animal. None of that is a joke.
  6. Uber and Lyft have taken over the place. Only chumps catch cabs.
  7. T-Mobile has the best pre-paid GSM mobile phone deals. There’s a store near the cable-care at Powell and Market. The people there are genuinely lovely. Go and see them and tell them you’re looking for that $50 prepaid plan for your own phone and they’ll hook you up.
  8. While chumps catch cabs, good startup rain men and rain women work out public transit – it is plentiful, cheap and frequent. It is also a bit byzantine.
    1. Bart is used for getting from the Airport to the City or the “East Bay” (the collective name for Oakland and Berkeley and a bunch of other suburbs/cities), and trips are priced by distance with tickets purchased before you board via either a stored value RFID-card called a Clipper or through a single use paper white ticket with black lines and a blue arrow.
    2. MUNI (which stands for Municipal Railway) has no trains – it is bus and some light rail. It runs all over the City of SF, but not (far) outside it. Trips are all a flat rate of $2.25 and you can change bus/light-rail as much as you like within a 2 hour window for the same $2.25 fee. This can also be funded through the pre-paid Clipper card which is a good idea because bus drivers can’t give you change (all money is locked away; see homeless above and crackheads below for the legit reason). Buses are slow but can get you anywhere. If there’s a few of you though you’re better off taking a Lyft (taxi driven by regular lovely people), Lyft Line (like Lyft, but you might have to share, but the price is fixed, max 2 people per request), an Uber (UberX is the regular person driven one) or UberPool (a ripoff of Lyft Line). However, there’s certain startup/hacker cred that goes with knowing the way to get from StartupHouse to the Golden Gate Bridge is via the 6 to the 47 and then along Van Ness to Chestnut where the 30 will talk you a few blocks to the 28. Don’t make a rookie mistake and use Golden Gate Transit or Samtrans.
  9. The city is a young person’s paradise – there’s literally something for everyone, and many things for people you didn’t think exist. A few tips on neighborhoods if you’re venturing out:
    1. SOMA. Startup central by day; Blue Bottle, Sightglass, Epicenter, The Grove and the Creamery are all coffee shops teeming with smart people on laptops or doing pitches. The energy is nuts and you’ll learn a lot by listening to the table next to you. By night, it is a place for dealers of narcotics, clubbers and the destitute.
    2. Union Square/Financial District. Active by day with shopping and office-working folks (they have a special punitive tax for companies in the financial district, and people are dressed very well), but by night no-one is here save the tourists still waiting for a cable car or a seat the the Cheesecake Factory. Don’t do it.
    3. Tenderloin is like Redfern but 10x worse. Crack heads everywhere. Like walking through a zombie apocolypse film. Don’t go there at night. Is north of Market between 5th and 10th St, and very close to Union Square – tourists often take a single wrong turn out of their 5 star hotel and end up in Skid Row. Don’t do it.
    4. The Mission. Great spot running the length of Mission St from 13th to 26th St (roughly) and 3-4 blocks either side. Popular with artists. Formerly the badlands of the city with big gang problems in the 90s, it is now either the first or second most bohemian part of the city. Still pretty gritty around the Bart stations of 16th and 24th streets, the place has a lot of dive bars (small bars, low standard, cheap booze, no pretentiousness) and great restaurants. It has the second worst guy to girl ratio in the city after the Castro however.
    5. The Castro. Slightly north-west of the the Mission, the Castro is an awesome place of friendly people and rainbows for dudes. The rainbow ladies are more centered around Bernal Heights, which is where you end up if you keep going down Mission to like 30th St equivalent. The bars in the Castro get very loose as you’d expect for a place that is basically the Sydney Mardi Gras every Saturday night. Welcoming and fun for everyone.
    6. The Haight. There’s actually two parts; Lower Haight (centered around Haight and Fillmore) and Upper Haight (Haight and Ashbury), which vies with the Mission to be #1 bohemian. The first part is a kinda gritty neighborhood with some good sports bars. The latter is the home of the 60’s flower-power free love movement and you’ll still get stoned walking down the street on a Tuesday morning if you breathe in deeply, however, it is so grimy and commercialized with Bob Marley t-shirt stores you’ll prob be a bit sad if you head to Haight Ashbury listening to the Mamas and the Papas on your headphones and seeing the reality of flower power free love’s 40 year hangover. Some decent cocktail bars like Alembic up there and a brewpub that makes their own beer called Magnolia.
    7. Polk St/Russian Hill/Nobb Hill, which are due north from Market and 9th St. Increasingly nice places to live, these places have a lot of great bars and competition. Nothing to see during the day. The #19 bus will get you along the length of Polk to the San Francisco Bay.
    8. Fisherman’s Wharf. Northern side of the city on the bay. Tourist trap. Avoid is except for going to Alcatraz, which is highly recommended. Get your tickets ahead of time from www.alcatrazcruises.com though cause it sells out well in advance.
    9. North Beach & Telegraph Hill. North of Market and 3rd st, not as far north as Fisherman’s Wharf, this place is like SF’s Leichhardt. Italian food, lots of bars with different things going on and not too pricey (except for the strippers on Broadway, which is like Sydney’s Kings Cross). Nothing to see in the day.
    10. Marina. Is on the northern side of the city right on the bay. Like SF’s Bondi – more girls than guys live here which is one of the only places in the city where that is true. Two streets, Chestnut and Union, run parallel and have prob a dozen or more bars each and a bunch of great restaurants. 99% chance you’ll end up at the Tipsy Pig on Chestnut St (between Piece and Scott) while you’re here. Has best access to Golden Gate Bridge and incredible waterfront parks (Marina Green and Crissy Field).
    11. Hayes Valley. Carved out of the space left behind by the 101 collapsing in the 1989 earthquake, this neighborhood still has a lot going on but is more for couples who are sick of the craziness of Polk/Marina and want somewhere nice and central (it is super close to all the transit running under/along Market St). A great outdoor beer garden and some innovation with shipping containers to overcome the moribund failure of town planning of which won’t let anything happen anywhere, ever – the containers aren’t “permanent” so they can be awesome without the city.
    12. Noe Valley, Cole Valley, Hayes Valley, Western Portal, The Richmond, The Sunset; these are all great neighborhoods but very residential and quite family focused so not somewhere you’ll prob find yourself unless you’re bringing out the family and looking for a 3/4 bedroom family home. One exception is around UCSF just beyond the Upper Haight – the restaurants and bars are clustered around 9th Avenue and Irving. Oh, yeah, the numbered “streets” are close to the Bay, the numbered “avenues” are closer to the ocean on the western side of the city.
  10. Silicon Valley“, which includes Menlo Park, Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale is a pretty boring spot from a visit perspective – imagine North Ryde that runs for 50kms down a highway called the 101. Travel time from SF to Palo Alto varies from 40 mins to 140 mins depending on traffic. Public transport is almost non-existent. Transport options include CalTrain (runs between hourly and two hourly), getting a Zipcar account (pay by the hour car hire), hiring a car (Avis etc) or bumming a lift (easier than you’d think for things like the demo day down at 500 Startups if that happens again). A bunch of investors are down there – you’ll get a feel for your need to head down there pretty quickly (many VCs have moved operations to the city cause that’s where the cool companies are).
  11. On a weekend you should totally hire a bike from North Beach/Fisherman’s Wharf and ride west along the waterfront past the Marina and then up and over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. You can then catch a ferry back (Blue and Gold Lines, buy tickets on board for $12 or something) to Fisherman’s Wharf past Alcatraz on what has to be the world’s best antidote to the stress and fear of building a startup. I’m not kidding or getting zen about it – this ride in the clear crisp air of the north west Pacific over probably the world’s most beautiful bridge and then back across the Bay to a late afternoon/sunset cruise for less than A$20 is pretty damn amazing. Don’t worry about getting lost – the bike hire guys have maps for you on the bikes and you can follow the herd to an extent.
  12. Speaking of the north west Pacific, it is cold here most of the time. The wind hasn’t hit anything since it left the Bearings Sea off Alaska where they shoot the Deadliest Catch. Always have a jacket – a hot steamer of a day will have you shivering by 5pm most of the time, especially if the fog rolls in (which it does with depressing reliability between June and August, ruining our summer). If you don’t have a jacket you like already, don’t worry – everything is cheap in America. The Burlington coat factory (5th and Howard, right near Startup House) will have your jaw drop when you see the selection and prices.

What tips did I miss? Feel free to add your own in the comments.

Saying Thanks

I’ve had a bunch of people email me and ask how they can say thanks for the advice. If you’d like to say thanks and you don’t already have an account with Uber or Lyft, feel free to say thanks by using my invite code (below) and you’ll be helping me out with extra credit and getting some credit to start with yourself too:

  • Uber: 9xybb
  • Lyft: GEOFF304

8 thoughts on “A Few SF Tips for New Arrivals

  1. Geoff, this is brilliant stuff.
    I’ve had a few visits to SF and it’s my favourite American City. you’ve summed it up brilliantly. All I need to do now is to come back this summer and follow your advice instead of make my own mistakes.

  2. 13. Bars aren’t like our Aussie Pubs. Think more like “Sports Bars” cross with cocktail bars, and you’re closer. If you want a more “Pub” feel, head to either a smaller Irish bar (a surprisingly lot of them), or a “dive bar” for that “sour around a high table and eat pub food” feel.

    14. The locals are friendly, and they love Aussies (even though we’re everywhere in SF) – don’t be afraid to ask for help / directions (except from the homeless or crack heads…)

    1. Or just “The City”. No one talks about Oakland / San Jose / Berkley like that, so no one will be confused.

    10. Palo Alto, Mountain View, and Sunnyvale all have really great “Down Town” areas (literally a single street along which all the restaurants, bars, and smaller shops cluster, in the town center); University Ave, Castro Street, and South Murphy Ave respectively, and in order of most to least awesome.

    11. Avoid the tourist hoards: go backwards! Catch the ferry from SF to Sausalito mid morning, have lunch / picnic / relax / markets there, then start to cycle back to SF around 2pm. This way, your skid the 50+min line to get onto a ferry leaving Sausalito from 2pm onwards.

    12. Layers! Always dress in layers that you can add/remove at will – you won’t regret it!

    ❤ SF – I really want to visit again!

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