Artificial intelligence enthusiasts — mostly young startup founders — have arrived in San Francisco over the past year, reveling in the abundance of money, information, and connections. And, they find work — lots of it.
“San Francisco can feel overwhelming at times,” said Briar Smith, 27. Since moving back to San Francisco from Waterloo, Canada, in February, he has been a founding engineer at three AI startups. “You’re in a bit of a pressure cooker, in the sense that everyone is working so much that you feel like, when you’re relaxing, you’re not really fully relaxing.”
“That is kind of what the culture perpetuates … it’s all about moving fast and having momentum,” he said. “You have competitors, and you have investors you’re trying to impress, and you’re trying to hit certain targets so that you can raise your next round. And if you don’t hit targets, it’s going to be harder to raise your next round.”
When under the pressure of deadlines, Smith worked 60 hours a week for months — a pace he knows puts him behind others, because he watches their tweets. “A lot of my friends that are founders, they work 24/7 and have to set boundaries,” said Smith, who tries to escape to hike in Sonoma or Yosemite.
Though, he said, “I think the best founders actually have a good work-life balance … because it keeps them in touch with the rest of themselves and the world, because founding is like a self-growth opportunity in many areas.”
Smith is far from the only AI enthusiast who works hard but doesn’t get to play hard.
On a grant from the Singaporean government, SzeYing Teo, 33, visited San Francisco to test a business model to connect Singapore tech talent to U.S. startups. During her two-month stay in town, she moved from the Financial District to a hacker house in Hayes Valley, attended some five AI social events every week and even organized some.
Dos Bahá, 29, a serial entrepreneur who moved here in August from Asia and a brief stint in New York City, works 60 to 70 hours per week. Two-thirds of his time is spent reading academic papers and building his interactive storytelling AI platform, GOAT.AI. The rest is spent meeting investors, interviewing new talent and networking — including winning second place in a popular hackathon.
He indulges in his company’s two small hacker houses in SoMa, and another between the Mission and Dogpatch, which he rented at a good price. Consequently, Bahá’s time with his wife and two-year-old daughter is limited. He feels it will all be worth it, even if the AI boom fizzles in the coming years. “Worst case,” he says, “we’ll be able to create another company.”
Jeff Wang, a founder in his 40s who moved to San Francisco in June, now spends most of his time in a WeWork near Chinatown, perfecting his AI learning system, ClassGaga. He makes no apologies, saying, he “came here, really, for work.”
Wang sent Mission Local a picture he took when he first moved here of the Mercury Café in Hayes Valley: Everyone in the photo was focused on their laptops. “It was very representative of the booming industry here,” he said.
Jake McLain, 25, models himself on Steve Jobs, as does Wang. McLain, who moved here in June, just submitted the official filing for his AI art startup, Musai, earlier in October and spends almost all of his time coding. For him, the way to ride with the AI boom is all about striking a balance — but getting the balance right isn’t easy.
Just as many of the founders who have their ideas figured out, McLain has stopped going to social events — he doesn’t have time. “It’s a weird balance between that kind of spontaneous networking and actually developing. You can’t do both at the same time,” he said. He uses the AI events as a tool to measure progress, networking when he needs feedback from other founders and engineers on what he’s built.
McLain cautions against getting too caught up in the technology, which, he says, makes engineers “start building things just for technology’s sake.”
“You hear the phrase, ‘technology in search of a problem,’ and I think that’s definitely happening a lot in AI,” he said.
Well-established companies like Midjourney and OpenAI made great strides in technological development — but without existing applications; they have attempted to wrap a user interface layer on top of their research models and deliver that to consumers. Nascent companies tend to follow that path, too, scrambling to find real-world use-cases for the AI models.
This has been the consensus among the newcomers and people talk about it outright when calling themselves “opportunists.”
“I think it’s a new era, a new stage, a new way of getting rich,” said Tong Yu, founder of AI companionship app DirtyCat, who was delighted to find out that OpenAI CEO Sam Altman lives in her neighborhood. “People can get rich really quickly, and in chaos. We’re in chaos right now.”