5 Ways to Survive in San Francisco as a Broke Startup

November 13, 2014

11:00 am

Moving to and living in San Francisco is expensive – this is just a simple fact of life. I live in NYC, where I'm constantly broke, and I honestly cannot even imagine what my life would be like if I had to live in a city that's just slightly a little more expensive (more happy people around me maybe). Despite the high costs of living, people somehow still manage to survive. In a blog post written over a week ago, startup founder William Do shared the ways through which he and his startup, Nibbol, managed to survive in San Francisco.

For many startups, moving west to set up shop in the Bay area has in some ways become a new formulation of the American Dream. Whether it's Silicon Valley or San Francisco proper, the desire to startup within the ecosystem is insatiable – and for good reason. For one, in terms of capital, it's the crème de la crème – if you want your startup to get funding there's no better place. More significantly, though, the Bay area is renowned for an ethos of innovation and collaboration; just last week, Y Combinator president Sam Altman talked about the importance of this collaborative and supportive tech community in actually adding to a startup's ability to survive. But living in San Francisco and trying to support your startup at the same time is a daunting and expensive task – and it's this experience that Do has no issues with sharing to the community.

In the blog post, Do talks about what it was like for his three cofounders living in San Francisco, each of them earning  just $450 to $500 per month. Despite needing to spend this money on rent, utilities, food, travel, and other expenses, they managed to eat fairly good meals and survive.

“How was this possible? That I grew up in a working class, Asian American household (cheap), lived in an Asian American SF neighborhood (super cheap), and shopped at Asian supermarkets (super fucking cheap) played a big role,” writes Do.

According to Do, living in San Francisco can be affordable for a young startup – it's just a matter of making the right decisions. In the blog post, Do writes the 5 ways his company managed to survive in San Francisco as a broke startup. They're pretty straight-forward strategies, and these are all things that can actually be replicated in other similarly-expensive cities.

Here are William Do's 5 ways to survive in San Francisco as a broke startup:

1. Live with your coworkers.

The absolute best way to save money. Take it a step further and share a room. You’ll see your living costs plummet by half or even 75%. You’re going to live, breathe, eat and shit the startup anyway, so you might as well move in together. Call this living arrangement your office, too.

2. Snuggle in the Outer Sunset district.

Yes, the boondocks of San Francisco. Consider this district a quiet, safe, plenty-of-parking gem in the city. Sure, it’s 80% Chinese American, but rent for a four bedroom house here is equivalent to a two-bedroom condo in SOMA. Don’t try to compete with techies in the Mission or SOMA–they’ll outlive you there. The L-Taraval or N-Judah train offers a 20 – 30 min ride straight to the heart of the city (in case you get lonely). Bonus: Some of the best (and cheapest) Chinese restaurants are found here (see Irving, Taraval and Noriega). Double bonus: Ocean beach. Need I say more?

3. Lease an entire house.

Create a makeshift bedroom for you and your team in the dining room and sub-let the bedrooms on Craigslist and Livelovely. Work out of the living room. Your team’s total rent will cost less than your monthly student loan repayment.

4. Shop at Asian supermarkets.

Scout out Sunset Supermarket (on Vicente and Irving) or local Asian grocers for meats (like, $0.99/lb chicken drumsticks cheap) and produce (probably the most affordable fruit and veggies you’ll find anywhere in SF). If you get bored of Asian shopping, head over to either nearby Safeway or Trader Joes (next to Stonestown Mall).

5. Learn how to cook.

Cook and you’ll realize that restaurant food can be overrated and overpriced. Trust me, it’ll take no more than an hour of your day. Pick up a cleaver, debone that bird and spice massage the hell out of it. Simply Google recipes and pick the ones with the sexiest pictures and most reviews. The kitchen’s your oyster. Oh, and did I mention you’ll find yourself spending just $1.50 to $3 per meal?

While Do's startup, Nibbol, ultimately failed, he notes that he still uses these tactics to survive in San Francisco. Currently, Do is taking a small break from the startup world after having been involved in two startups over the last four years. He also emphasizes that while it's important to limit spending when trying to survive in San Francisco, all of that is null when startups don't have the right cofounders or the right team:

“Living frugally is obviously only one part of the startup equation. If anything, choose and know your cofounders well. Like fucking well.”

Parts of William Do's blog post “How to Survive in SF as a Broke Startup” was reposted with his permission. Read the full entry in its entirety. 

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Ronald Barba was the previous managing editor of Tech.Co. His primary story interests include industry trends, consumer-facing apps/products, the startup lifestyle, business ethics, diversity in tech, and what-is-this-bullsh*t things. Aside from writing about startups and entrepreneurship, Ronald is interested in 'Doctor Who', Murakami, 'The Mindy Project', and fried chicken. He is currently based in New York because he mistakenly studied philosophy in college and is now a "writer". Tweet @RonaldPBarba.