The Tech Hitchhiker's Guide to Working in SoMa, SF

First things first, for this guide to be helpful, you need to find yourself without a place to work and be in the South of Market (SoMa) area of San Francisco. You could be in between jobs, simply passing through, have a flexible work arrangement, or be fresh off the boat and looking to start something new. I found myself officeless a couple months back when the VC-backed company I worked for ceased to exist.

I wouldn’t recommend this route, as to me it felt like the first couple episodes of Battlestar Galactica, but I guess sometimes you don’t really have a choice.
Battlestar Galactica

In the weeks that followed, I talk to a bunch of friends, great folks, recruiters and finally put together a small team and decided to go the entrepreneur route and work full time on Market Meme — The Community Powered Database for Technical Marketers. It immediately became clear that I would need to find places that would let me work, eat and take meetings as quickly as possible while wasting as little time as possible.

In the months that followed, I built a team and we accomplished (and sometimes failed at) more things than I thought we could do in a year: we established a company, created multiple products, and built a consulting business—all while working from random places around the city.

While doing all that “work,” I learned to survive on the mean streets of SoMa: the land of $13 dollar drip coffees, $15 sandwiches, all the craft beer you can drink (or afford), surprisingly spotty Wi-Fi and a complete desert in terms of power outlets.

Before I share with you all of the little productivity tools I have learned and point out the local restaurants and coffees worth a damn, a short history lesson is in order.

A Brief History of SoMa

Before SoMa became a tech startup hub, it had been a lower-middle-class neighborhood for roughly a century. The 1906 earthquake more or less destroyed the neighborhood completely, and it was rebuilt to accommodate light industry, warehouses, and car shops. Drawing European immigrants, transients, sailors, and others, the neighborhood developed a reputation as being a sort of skid row by the 1940s and 1950s.

By the 1970s and 1980s, the neighborhood was populated with artists and empty warehouses. The construction of the Moscone Center convention and expo complex, which displaced a significant number of low-income residents, helped catalyze a transformation of the neighborhood. Named after George Moscone, the assassinated San Francisco mayor, the Moscone Center helped lay the groundwork for gentrification of the neighborhood, eventually helping attract tech and software firms to the area in the Dot-com boom.

Now, the SoMa neighborhood is so popular with tech startups that office space is limited there, leading to the uneasy gentrification in the neighboring Tenderloin. The city of San Francisco is playing an active role in the trend, luring tech firms like Spotify, Twitter, Zendesk and Uber to the Mid-Market neighborhood and hoping to shed its associations with drugs, homeless, prostitution, and crime.

The tech transformation and gentrification of San Francisco, while not without resistance, continue to happen at a dizzying pace. And with recent additions like a 61-story Salesforce skyscraper being built at 415 Mission Street, SoMa is the new epicenter of the tech industry these days.

A How-To Guide for Getting Stuff Done in SoMa

Fail gif I hope this guide will provide a small amount of help and guidance to the poor souls that I see coming into the area for VC meetings: the hopeful 20-somethings with absolutely no idea how cold it is in the middle of a SF summer, or the girls and guys here for interviews, hoping for a change of scenery. Basically, this is for the people here to work and get shit done. Many of the veterans will probably be able to point out things I missed, and if that’s the case, add a comment or give me a shout on Twitter.

What to Wear

The first we'll look at also happens to be the up the first question of the day: what to wear? The above image from HBO's Silicon valley pretty much gets the style guide for guys spot and I’m not going to go into too many specifics here, but at the very least you need to always be thinking layers. SF is cold (I grew up in Minnesota). I’ve been known to overdo it on the layering, but I always have a jacket or vest, a sweater of some sort...ok it is a hoodie, and another layer below that. I know, right? But SF is always cold and then suddenly it’s not, so you peel off layers and it’s all okay.

Comfortable shoes are a must, it isn't crazy NYC style walking, but there is going to be a lot walking around because SoMa isn’t very dense. I would say I average about 10,000 steps a day during the week, so comfy shoes are key. It isn’t quite such a marathon that you need running shoes, unless you're down with that, but getting well-constructed shoes really helps, just ask OM. Some shades are good on the rare occasions the sun decides to make an appearance as well.

Other than that, you see it all here—including a lot of Crocs and plenty of grown adults riding scooters. Any way SF, is pretty diverse, so, you do you:
you do you

Just think about the image that you want to project, because Silicon Valley may claim not to judge a book by its cover but Yeah, good luck finding your black turtleneck.

The Right Gear

Next up, you are going to make sure you have the right gear. If you are wandering around the city all day, you’ll need things that are light, durable and leave you prepared for almost anything.

This is my setup:

  • Backpack: I’ve had more than a couple backpacks over the years and there are some solid contenders out there. However, I got a Black Ember pack on their first Kickstarter campaign and haven’t looked back, or even thought about getting another one, since. They get bonus points for having a great team — when I lost a strap, they shipped me a new one just a couple days later (for free). Depending on your personal style preference, please note that while wearing it, I’ve been asked if I’m preparing for a zombie invasion. It has a kind military feel to it, and why yes, now that you mention it, I am prepared for combat with the living dead.

  • Computer: I am a fan of my 15-inch MacBook Pro. Nothing else to say here, it is the best you can get and the extra weight is not an issue, regardless of what the Verge says.

  • Water Bottle: I don’t go too big here and prefer the pint size over the 32-oz. you normally see people lugging around. What would you rather have, more water or more computer? Yeah, that’s what I thought. Plus, even with the drought plaguing California, most coffee shops will fill it for you as often as you’d like.
  • Phone: I recommend the iPhone (of course) and the Plus variety is the bee’s knees. I actually wrote most of this post on it, and I read voraciously on it. I even lost it once and tried to get the smaller 6, but returned it the next day. The big screen really makes the difference in the ability to be productive. And yeah, it does feel big and awkward at first, but you’ll get used to it and fall in love.
  • Wireless Hotspot: One of the few reasons I really hate ATT and their no-tethering policy. I’ve been using the Karma WiFi hot spot, which is works well, even in SF with its notoriously horrible coverage.They also offer Pay-as-you-go data that never expires. You also can add your company name to the free signal for some branding and wait for it... good karma!
  • Portable Phone Charger: I use the Anker one. Works well and charges my phone as fast as an outlet. It does take forever to recharge, so I try and save it for emergencies. Although when is being stuck with a dead phone not an emergency?
  • Headphones: There are reviews about these everywhere so I think it is really budget, style and preference. I used to bring both over-ear and in-ear, but I just couldn’t justify lugging around the over-ear ones.
  • Notebook and Writing Tools: I like the Molesskin type with the grid design. They are super helpful for diagramming. It is surprising how often people ask for something to draw a diagram with when you are talking to them. And if you completely run out of power, you still have something to do(odle) <---(If you haven't noticed yet I obviously had some help writing this ^_^).
  • Miscellaneous: I recommend making sure you bring whatever keeps you up and running, whether it is Advil, chapstick, etc. Headaches happen and you don’t want to have to drop everything and hunt for relief, only to make the problem worse.
  • Pocket Knife: Always comes in handy and sometimes competition for outlets at coffee shops becomes fierce. Best be prepared :)
  • A Shot Bottle of Jameson: Just in case everything goes to hell and you need a shot—which will definitely happen at least a couple times.

Bad day

Getting Here and Where to Go

Alright, your next most important decision is finding where to set up. My favorite spots are in range of the Montgomery Street BART station. That’s my jumping off point mainly because I take the BART in and that area is where I have always worked. We’re all creatures of habit, right?

It is easy to get around with Uber as well. I won’t go into any detail here, but if you are coming to SF, you should drop everything you are doing and go download a ridesharing app. I use Uber Pool because it is reliable and cheap. BART and Muni are perfectly serviceable, depending on your time-to-money ratio.

So, next question: what do you want to do? There are good places for meetings, good places for calls, and good places to sit and eat, but these categories do not often overlap.

If we start of at Montgomery, the next main choice is north or south. North you have the Financial District, where you'll see a lot more suits and it really kinda feels like a different world. I normally head south into SoMa, and the first deadline on my mind is breakfast. I’m personally an eggs kinda guy and one of the best ways to get them is on bread—in a sandwich. So here is a list of my favorite in no particular order:

Please note all "place" links below are to foursquare: I hate Yelp. I recommend foursquare for your place finding needs currently, but I've been watching spot some more info closely and hope that they can fix some of foursquare's short comings

  • The American Grilled Cheese Kitchen: They’ve got it all here, solid oatmeal, biscuits and gravy, and of course, the crispy, gooey cheese and egg breakfast sandwich. Start off your day right, and make sure to plan on a salad for lunch.
  • Super Duper: Not surprisingly, one of SF’s best burger chains whips together a solid breakfast sandwich. Nothing fancy, just egg, bacon and cheese on great bread with cheap coffee to boot.
  • The Creamery: If you are coming in from the Caltrain this is a good choice and their coffee game is A+ as well.
  • Proper Foods: I'm not really sold on their lunch fair, but the breakfast is great. Sunny side up egg, just runny enough, cradled in one of the best croissants in SF. Add a few pieces of crispy bacon to what has to be Proper Food’s most affordable menu item, and you are good to go all the way to lunchtime.
  • Caramba: You could go to Uno Dos Tacos who have on ok breakfast burrito and appreciate the ambience, or you could head to this hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant across the street. They aren’t friendly and they really aren’t that fast either, but, man, will that chorizo breakfast burrito get you through your Thirsty Thursday hangover with ease.

Next up is the morning work spot.

I tend to try and work in the morning and take meetings in the evening, so I'm not as worried about noise in the morning, just good coffee, Internet and power. Also, I might already be thinking about where I'm going to be headed for lunch—a man has to eat :)

So here is a list of the best places:

  • Red Door Coffee at 111 Minna: Best brewed coffee (they serve fourbarrel) in SoMa and they don’t even try to overcharge you (too much ^_^) for it. This is one of the quintessential meeting spots in SoMa, so you should know about it so you don’t look clueless when a prospect or VC proposes meeting there. They keep the door open so it can get a bit drafty (layers, remember!), but overall a great place to both work and take meetings. Plus bonus points if you make it to happy hour and switch from coffee to beer.
  • Red Door @ howard: Opened by the folks at 111, they have good coffee, plenty of outlets and more comfortable seating than 111 Minna. (if someone say let's meet at red door, ask which one but it is probably the better known 111 Minna location.
  • Philz: There is one if you come in on bart and one if you take caltrain. A large mint iced coffee, medium cream, light sweet, will always mean San Francisco to me. Philz is SF’s homegrown coffee shop, started by a hippie in the Mission and now a chain of god knows how many stores. They’ve always got Internet, though seating can be limited at certain locations, and their coffee has enough half-and-half in it that you won’t even need breakfast after you’ve had a cup. Galvanize: Part co-working part part coffee shop. If i’m looking for something a bit more quiet, this is the place.
  • Samovar Tea Lounge: Quiet, refined and on the rare sunny days you can even sit outside. Samovar is a great place for meetings (just make them pay), as it is centrally located right behind Moscone Center and has enough tea options to impress anyone you are meeting with. Starbucks/Peets: Yeah, yeah, yeah... I can already hear all the complaints from SF hipsters rolling in now. But they are always an option because they normally have power available. And those useful rings for charging your phone wirelessly. And bathrooms. And unless you look homeless, they really aren’t going to bug you about buying anything either.

Lunch time!!

lunch_time After that hard work it is time to find some lunch. There are a lot of great lunch place in SOMA and I could go on forever here, as I've working in the area from an actual office for a good long time. I call 2nd street Media Alley because it's home to the offices of a lot of SF’s publishers, and that was always my line of work. (Note: I’m skipping the salad places. If that is what you want, they are everywhere and mostly pretty good). Here is a far from complete list of restaurants that will get you through a typical week, with a smiley face:

  • Deli Board: Don’t ask questions. Just do it. Tip get something with the brisket or pastrami.
  • Garaje: Love the chicken sandwiches here. No I really love them. They also have a pretty good selection of beers if you get thirsty. It is cash only so be prepared.
  • Darwin Cafe: Damn. Good. Sandwiches. The menu changes weekly and you'll have to choose from whatever deliciousness they cook-up, but I've never been disappointed. It is very San Francisco.
  • Oasis: While I wish there was a place in SF to get "real" Gyro, there just isn’t (try to prove me wrong: I dare you". These guys serve up a close approximation, which is damn good and will leave you happy.
  • Señor Sisig: I love this place... My wife gets jealous of my love for it. Everyone’s favorite Filipino burrito food truck, Señor Sisig moves around so you should check out twitter to see where they are. Be prepared to wait though: it’s not uncommon to see a line for the truck stretching halfway down the block where the truck is parked. Anyway it is lunch time and I'm headed there now.
  • Super Duper: Yeah, I had this place already in the guide. But it makes sense to visit Super Duper for what they are famous for and that is burgers.
  • Mexico au Parc: If you want great burritos, you should go to the Mission district of SF. That said this place is great. Nutritious, cheap and huge, the holy trinity for anyone trying to eat well on a lean wallet. You can depend on a long line and maybe the best guacamole in the city.

The Afternoon and Beyond

You survived your first morning in SoMa! What does the afternoon hold? I plan on posting part two of this sometime soon, and promise to include all the places to go, some quiet areas to take meetings and just chill out, and, of course, dinner and drinks.

Thanks for reading and let me know if you have any additions. If you are interested in learning more about my new project here are some links to stay up-to-date: