Entrepreneurial barracks: Part 1, the blithe present
Look – over in Silicon Valley. It’s a hotel! It’s a rooming house! It’s an apartment!
No, it’s … Superdorm?
Whatever this unusual living accommodation is, it’s serving a need and creating a business, as revealed in this gee-whiz article from the New York Times:
Crammed Into Cheap Bunks, Dreaming of Future Digital Glory
San Francisco — From the outside it’s just a beige three-story building in a quiet residential neighborhood. But inside, in a third-floor apartment, there are enough Ikea bunk beds to sleep 10 people, crammed into two bedrooms.
Who knows what evil lurks behind these modest windows? The New York Times knows.
At its simplest form, housing is where jobs go to sleep at night, and for those whose life consists of nothing but work-eat-sleep, and as little of the latter two as possible, the housing can be taken to its most minimal form: the smallest possible space at the lowest nominal cost, and devil take the hindmost.
Legal if a college does it? Dormitory layout
The living room is bare except for a futon, a tiny desk and laptop power cables strewed across the hardwood floor like a nest of snakes.
Such living arrangements are, of course, safety hazards, though as we will see both tenants and landlords treat the law with blithe disregard, as perhaps befits their situation.
The tenants, mostly men in their 20s, sleep next to heaps of dirty laundry.
Young men will live in squalor if they can pursue what they care about, and they will pay money to have someone else manage their squalor.
New guests get a pillow, comforter, sheets and a towel. The captains occasionally cook meals for everyone, like a pancake brunch with mimosas.
It’s just a cleaner, sprightlier version of the doss-house, or a homeless shelter you pay for.
Just a different kind of living, that’s all
There is no television set; the men watch online video, on laptops with headphones.
We are far from coming to terms with the implications of essentially infinite bandwidth at essential zero cost, though it’s instructive to see how consolidation into one handheld device (the laptop) consumes the need for specialized fixed-installation devices (televisions).
On a recent afternoon, 23-year-old Steve El-Hage, who came here from Toronto in May, ate slices of ham straight out of the package: “As you can see, I was going to make a sandwich, but I didn’t get there.”
If food is nothing more to you than fuel, why not?
This is not some kind of dorm, but a “hacker hostel.”
When you’re young and Stoned, you’ll sleep anywhere
Neither the occupants nor the providers care, but others will, especially now that the Times has highlighted the phenomenon.
It’s one of several in the Bay Area that offer short- or long-term stays for aspiring tech entrepreneurs on the bottom rung of the Silicon Valley ladder. These establishments put a twist on the long tradition of communal housing for tech types by turning it into a commercial enterprise.
In effect, they package housing as a service, and deliver it at the lowest price point they can, by squeezing more people into a fixed floor plan.
The San Francisco hostel is part of a mini-chain of three bunk-bed-stuffed residences under the same management, all places where young programmers, designers and scientists can work, eat and sleep.
It’s market innovation, and I’m all for it – with a few questions.
More space than Chez JJ, but less technology
It differs from prior-era flophouses only in money (rents and income levels of the residents) and maybe in motivation: the founders are peers of their residents, and may be doing this partly for good, not just profit, though of course it’s early days in the business.
But many tenants are here not so much for the cheap rent — $40 a night —
That doesn’t seem cheap to me; instead it (and Zipcar like it) relies on our basic innumeracy or laziness when it comes to higher mathematics like multiplication. Thirty days at $40 a night is $1,200 a month, which when multiplied times (say) five people per room is $6,000 a month, about double or triple what a regular apartment would cost.
Squeeze down the space per person, presto, more money!
Scarcity born of supply throttling will do that to you – thanks, San Francisco rent control.
— as for the camaraderie and idea-swapping.
Privation is more easily borne when shared with others of like spirit.
Potential tenants are screened to make sure they will contribute to the mix.
Screening and compatibility are features of successful boarding houses, if only because close quarters make mammals skittish and quarrelsome.
I want what I want, and I’ll get it however I can
Lowering the emotional threat level at move-in is landlord self-defense.
Justin Carden, a 29-year-old software engineer who is staying in another hostel, in Menlo Park, while working on a biotech start-up, talks about the place as if it were Stanford.
“The intellectual stimulation you get from being here is unparalleled,” Mr. Carden said. “If you’re wanting to do something to change the world and make it a fundamentally better place, you need to be around the right people.”
Absolutely. As John Cleese pointed out, some types of brainstorming work much better when multiple people are involved and ideas can be batted back and forth.
How many bloggers does it take to change a lightbulb?
When we were brainstorming Future Boston, a shared universe covering a century-plus of Boston’s history (from 1990-2100), we got together in a big roundtable format, with a set of agreed rules to maximize idea generation, including an emphasis on speed and liveliness and play. Anything is possible if you’re thinking openly, and playing with ideas and concepts, and that’s much more possible in close quarters with like-minded people who also get caught up in the game.
Hackers — the Mark Zuckerberg variety, not the identity thieves — have long crammed into odd or tiny spaces and worked together to solve problems.
In the 1960s, researchers at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory slept in the attic and, while waiting for their turn on the shared mainframe computer, sweated in the basement sauna.
That’s an interesting balance between intensive right-brain work and accelerated brain rest. The brain is a muscle, you can flex it and then let it recover, by propitiating the physical god.
When told about the hacker hostels, Ethan Mollick, an assistant professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who studies entrepreneurship, said they reminded him of his days in the last decade studying at MIT, where graduate students would have bunk beds inside their small offices.
Not a violation if you don’t make a habit of it
If you live to work, then you spend as little time, and as little money, on your living environment as possible.
It all sounds delightfully Pelagian, but the Augustinians must have their say too.
[Continued tomorrow in Part 2.]