The Secret of San Francisco’s Entrepreneurial Success

I’ve been reading and re-reading an awesome article about San Francisco’s entrepreneurial culture, by Nathan Heller in the New Yorker magazine.* Heller spent some time shadowing Johnny Hwin, an entrepreneur and musician who he calls “one of the best-connected kids in San Francisco.” Heller’s article is driven by a puzzle he can’t figure out:

Hwin is “a collective kid who, for reasons I still didn’t understand, seemed to have mastered everything about the new Bay Area and how it worked….I didn’t understand how people like Hwin appeared to float above the exigencies of career….If I hoped to understand the first thing about American culture in this decade, I realized, I’d need to figure out exactly what was going on in San Francisco.”

Heller’s article is long and brilliantly written. To really get the full sense of what he learned, you really need to read the full article. But here I’ve excerpted some highlights:

The art and technology collective called the Sub…is part of a network of places where the new mode of American success is being borne out…..a blend of business and small-scale creative art.

Hwin has been working as a musician, a tech entrepreneur, and an investor in other people’s startups. His two-person band, Cathedrals, just released a debut single and is producing an album. He and a friend are managing investments of up to two hundred and fifty thousand dollars in private companies.

People who are young and urban and professionally diffuse [the three business card life] tend to regard success in terms of autonomy–designing your life as you want–rather than Napoleonic domination.

San Francisco’s young entrepreneurs appear less concerned about flaunting their earnings than about showing that they can act imaginatively, with conspicuously noble ethics. Hwin is into “creative, mindful living” in part because it helped his business interests.

In the second half of the article, Heller picks up on this theme of “business interests” blending with creative and mindful living, and begins to delve down into the underlying core of the culture:

In 1966, Hendrik Hertsberg wrote about San Francisco’s “new bohemianism” of the Hippies and the Beats. The youth, the upward dreams, the emphasis on lifestyle over other status markers, the disdain for industrial hierarchy, the social benefits of good deeds and warm thoughts–only proper nouns distinguish this description from a portrait of the startup culture in the Bay Area. It is startling to realize that urban tech life is the closest heir to the spirit of the sixties, and its creative efflorescence, that the country has so far produced.

But Heller’s article ends on a critical note:

The result is a rising metropolitan generation that is creative, thoughtful, culturally charismatic, swollen with youthful generosity and dreams–and fundamentally invested in the sovereignty of private enterprise…. I just sat there, wondering whether this was it, the kingdom of which we so wildly, and so effortlessly, dreamed.

I am not sure I agree with Heller’s critical tone. I know many of these people, and they believe there is no contradiction in doing good and doing well. I myself am a former hippie, Grateful Deadhead, Rainbow-gathering attendee, and now I’m advising corporations on innovation, and creating a university program in educational entrepreneurship…and I don’t see any contradiction. It’s not like the Yuppies of the 1980s, who were former hippies who worried they were selling out by wearing suits and selling junk bonds. Hwin doesn’t worry about selling out, because he is pure; it’s never crossed his mind. Heller’s article, although wonderful, seems like an early thought piece…like Heller is still mulling it over, still not sure what to make of this new cultural moment. Maybe none of us really are. There are strong parallels with David Brooks’ 2001 book Bobos in Paradise, referring to the “bohemian bourgeois,” the former hippies who became affluent and yet retained the same values. Heller certainly made me see things, and wonder about things, I hadn’t before. I hope Heller continues and turns this into a series of extended articles about entrepreneurship and modern America.

*Nathan Heller (2013, October 14). “Bay Watched.” The New Yorker Magazine, pp. 68-79.

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