Adam Singer on leaving SF for Austin
Adam Singer weighs in on his move from San Francisco to Austin, remote work, hard times for millennials, and more
I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam Singer recently. He’s a marketing executive who has worked for Google, LEX, Invitae, Think3, and more. He is active on Twitter and also has a Substack. I was eager to talk to him about his move from San Francisco to Austin, where he’s now a homeowner, as well as other things he’s discussed on his Twitter feed, such as remote work and how times have been hard for millennials. He has plenty of opinions and is one of the most interesting people that I follow on Twitter. A condensed transcript of my interview with him is below.
Bonnie: How long did you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and why did you move from San Francisco to Austin? You had mentioned on Twitter that you had a lot of financial stress in San Francisco, even though you were making a good salary at Google.
Adam: I was in San Francisco for about a decade, and I don’t know that I had financial stress, I don’t think that’s a fair thing to say. I was in a rent-controlled apartment, so I was very lucky to have that. Obviously, not everyone can find such a unit; they’re certainly in demand. So my finances were fine. The reason that I decided, approaching 40, you don’t want to be renting an apartment forever, and I got married, and I had a dog, so a lot more space necessary than just the city apartment which works fine for a single guy. So we looked at homes in all parts of the suburbs around San Francisco, East Bay, Berkeley, we looked in Sunnyvale. And basically what it came down to was you could pay at that time, it was like $1.5 to $2 million to live next to a dilapidated strip mall maybe only a couple of blocks from the 101, and in Austin, and not just Austin, in Ohio, in Minneapolis where I was living previously, even in South Florida, for the same amount, you basically can buy as much house as you want.
So the Bay Area has very much been a NIMBY DMA, and what I mean by that is not in my backyard. They have restricted new residential builds while allowing tens of thousands of new offices a year, so it’s a tax on young people to basically pay incumbents who architected a system that drove up prices due to an artificial scarcity situation. I went to some of the city council meetings, and you would hear these people, they were vehemently against things like tearing down a laundromat for a new three-story or God forbid five-story building. And then they would come out and use environmental impact reports or claim it was a historic laundromat or historic site. If you don’t believe me, there are tons of videos and stories and reporting on the types of tactics that people there did. So they wanted to stay a bedroom community.
Tech pre-pandemic had already been an optionality world from where you work perspective, so a lot of people have been remote work employees for a long time before the pandemic. Even my firm at the time didn’t really care where I worked from. As long as I shipped, they could care less where I physically was located. So I wouldn’t say it was just economic reasons. I waited until I was almost 40 to buy a home, which is typical of a millennial, and so at that point, I didn’t want a starter home that I would have gotten in my 20s, I had sacrificed and worked to be able to afford a house that someone in the middle class with reasonable expectations, they’d be able to afford at that age, and it just wasn’t available in NorCal.
There were other issues of course, like paying the highest rents in the country to basically be assaulted outside my own home by strung-out people who obviously needed help, and the city does just a very poor job of being stewards of that situation, both from a public safety perspective and from a rehabilitation perspective. Additionally, I have found that I have severe allergies, so the ongoing wildfires and smoke made it basically unlivable for me for longer periods of time. And also, I had been in the city for 10 years. I’ve lived in cities my whole adult life, South Florida, Minneapolis, San Francisco, I travel to New York, London, all these places a lot.
So it was more appealing for me to have a little bit more room, and all my trips to Austin were amazing. Austin, to me, the tech community here feels a lot more like San Francisco did when I first moved there in 2008, basically at the height of the financial crisis. The thing is, during the financial crisis, the people who are there in a boom-and-bust town like San Francisco are the people who really want to be there. They’re not there to take advantage of whatever excess capital is happening or whatever opportunities may exist because companies are trying to rush funding rounds and IPO, those are the people who really want to build. Austin very much feels like that, so the vibe is a lot more fun, there are people who like the later-stage stuff, and for me, I like the earlier-stage stuff where no one’s paying attention to a sector and we can just create things.
Bonnie: Do you think that metro areas with a lot of jobs, like the Bay Area, have an obligation to build more housing?
Adam: Yes, 100%... California is very much structured as a little bit of a modern feudal/dynasty state, because through Prop 13 where they basically lock in your property tax at the price where you purchased, it incentivizes everyone to not build because they want all of the pricing of all the houses to increase since their property taxes won’t go up… There’s a great Twitter feed called Nextdoor Silicon Valley, I think it’s just @NextdoorSV, they document all of the insanity of the people in the Bay Area who say things such as, “Oh, if you can’t afford to live here, you shouldn’t be here.” Or things like—it’s very, very narcissistic and selfish. Things like, oh, we don’t want a new apartment complex in our neighborhood because it’s five stories and might ruin the character of the neighborhood, even though it’s right next to the 101, not really in anyone’s view or anything. Someone once, I’ll find a link for you if you really want it, someone once didn’t want, this is emblematic, they didn’t even want their neighbor putting up a second story on their house because it created a slight shadow in their backyard.
It’s such a me, me, me, all about me, attitude for a lot of the Californians. I think that it’s somewhat generational. I’m not making broad generalizations about entire age cohorts, because that’s obviously not correct, but there are certainly many within the Baby Boomer cohort, especially a lot of ex-hippies who moved to California, they were super-liberal, they got there, as soon as property values started going up, as soon as industry started coming in, they basically did everything they could to extract value from that at the expense of doing anything that might benefit newcomers or that might benefit the community at large. And I went to City Council meetings, I’m probably one of the only people in tech who actually did, and the people who would come out and complain, they were frankly deranged.
It is a responsibility of a market to manage growth. So in normal markets, the suburbs take pressure off of the downtown. So you see that manifest in New York, for example. A lot of people live in New Jersey, and it’s not dirt cheap, but there is plenty of housing in a lot of the suburbs of New York and the boroughs and in Jersey, and so that does work to take the pressure off the city a little bit, and New York also has way more supply. Same thing in Minneapolis. I lived in downtown Minneapolis. It’s not that expensive, but if you want to live a little bit further out, you could pay less. In the Bay Area, that doesn’t happen, because all of the neighborhoods are sort of the same mindset of, Oh, go live somewhere else, oh, it’s not my problem. So a lot of the people not in San Francisco are like, Well, San Francisco needs to get their shit together about the homeless issue, about housing and whatnot, and then those same areas allow no new builds themselves. And so, I feel like there’s a disconnect there where a lot of the people in suburbia don’t see the city as part of their market, and in fact the city is inexorably tied to their market. If you were to plot new homes built and new resident influx vs. new offices created in the Bay Area, it would be a chart where you could smack your hand to your face and say how could they allow this to happen.
That’s why even beyond tech, there’s many stories of firefighters who were doing two-hour commutes to get to their station to work because they couldn’t live in their community. This is what you ultimately create. You can have a neighborhood like Atherton with all millionaires and billionaires, and then you have no servers for your restaurant, you don’t have baristas, you don’t have schoolteachers, you don’t have firefighters. It’s not in the interest of a community to create a single demographic, slice of wealth, because a functional community needs everyone. Frankly, I think that’s boring too. Then your whole neighborhood is lawyers, MDs, tech engineers, and I think healthy, worldly, intellectual adults aren’t just concerned with money and status and being around people who do as well as them financially. I think they want to connect with all walks of life, with all types of people. In a monoculture, you don’t get that. That also helps create bubbles and probably why a lot of libertarians love living there, they don’t want to fraternize with the hoi polloi…
One other comment, this happened two days ago, Marin had a vote for a thirty-unit new apartment complex in their neighborhood in Sausalito I think it was, and there was a group of 30 people who came out, all of the signs that say, Don’t San Francisco Our County, or something like that. Whatever percent of those homes were for affordable housing. So we wonder why there’s a homeless crisis in the Bay Area, you have half the community saying we don’t want the homeless to be housed here. It’s a crazy situation. And then they just want to push those people somewhere else, they don’t want to deal with them. I don’t know how we fix that. But that hopefully doesn’t happen in Austin or doesn’t happen in Miami or anywhere where there’s an influx of people, and I don’t think it will. I think that the Bay Area NIMBYs are nuclear most insane NIMBYs on crack of anywhere in America. You get some in New York, in the Hamptons or whatever. They’re the same people who have pride flags on their lawn and “Love everyone” and they’re liberal from a perspective of where it’s convenient and easy to be liberal, and then they’re not liberal in the sense of the really hard things that you might have to do to help the community. And we all know that the things that are important to do are hard to do.
Bonnie: A lot of people are prejudiced against Texas because they view it as backwards and right-wing. What would you say to them?
Adam: We all can’t stay in our coastal elite habitats and expect the middle of the country, where they have policies that are harmful for women, for example, to continue. So if some of us don’t go there and vote differently and connect with people and do education and run for office and join the business community, it’s not going to change. So yeah, you can stay in California, and things aren’t going to change there. But if people from these places try somewhere new, culture ends up meeting at this hopefully beautiful midpoint in terms of what everyone thinks. And another point on that is obviously demographics are destiny, all demographics throughout time have trended to be more progressive. That will not change with the next cohort here. All of the younger people I talk with in Texas are less religious than their parents, more open-minded on legal weed or women’s rights, of course there are some holdouts, but I happen to think that people who think another state is acting poorly, if you really wanted to help, you could vote with your feet and move there and be a part of it or you could scream from the sidelines, “How dare they,” as if that’s going to help.
Bonnie: Would you recommend more people to move to Texas?
Adam: I think Austin is a wonderful choice if you are in New York or California and you want somewhere with more breathing room, where you can maybe have a bigger living space, but you still want to be close to a world-class city. Austin is a world-class city. We have Google, Facebook, Amazon all have headquarters here. AMD has a huge facility here. Tesla is opening a big facility here. We have awesome local small businesses as well. There’s a booming economy. I think it’s a great, great place. In fact, two of my friends from New York who visited me are like, “Oh my God, I’m so jealous, I didn’t realize that as young people you could have this much space.” And I’m like, “You could.” So I think a lot of coastal people get trapped in their bubbles.
Bonnie: So you’ve been working remotely for a while. What’s your advice to people who want to work remotely for a certain company, but the job they want isn’t advertised as a remote job? Because when you worked at Invitae and LEX, those jobs weren’t necessarily advertised as remote.
Adam: Invitae was actually full remote. They were based in San Francisco, but on the business team, it could be full remote. If you’re in the lab, you obviously have to go into the lab, so those aren’t remote roles. It’s a great question. I have a lot of thoughts on this one. So obviously we’re in a pandemic. So every role right now in theory is a remote role for an office job, because their whole team is already probably remote. So you can at least start a discussion from that point and ask them if they’re expecting everyone to come back into the office later or if there’s going to be some optionality or what that looks like. I worked at LEX, which was based in New York, and I think if the pandemic didn’t happen, they would have been office-only. But I would fly there once every couple of months and see the team. Because it's a startup, it’s nice to be with them face-to-face in person, and I also love the org, so I was happy to do that. Remote work doesn’t mean you never see your team physically, I think that that’s probably a myth. At the very least, there should be QBRs [quarterly business reviews] where the team gets together for planning and brainstorming and results analysis of the previous quarter. So it’s team-building, so that part of work will continue to be in person.
But with that said, I think the pandemic has changed everything, and a lot of people just don’t understand what that means or how that is going to affect hiring. I think enough people who have worked remote realize that they enjoy the autonomy, they don’t have to deal with people coming into their office and interrupting them, they don’t want to sit in a commute for 2 hours plus in the Bay Area. So the quality of life is just better for them. If a company stipulated that it had to be in person, they’re in the middle of a pandemic, by the way, I would probably email them and be like, “Hey, I’m interested in this role. You know what, my work preference is remote. Once the pandemic is over, I’m happy to visit my team on whatever cadence in person.” If they’re unwilling to do that, there’s now enough companies that are full remote and that aren’t measuring people based on butts in chairs, they’re measuring people based on the results they produce and the work that they ship.
And so I personally wouldn’t work for a company that is biased to a Lumbergh-esque Office Space-style management, where the most important thing to them is they can see you, because what does that have to do with you being productive and shipping work? There’s no formal or scientific or logical reason that that should be the modus operandi for office work. It’s not like this is something that’s evolved over thousands of years. There’s no right or wrong way for any of this. So I think employees need to assert themselves and dictate the working situation and environment they want and they should raise their hand and ask for it. And if a company is unwilling to provide it, go work for somewhere else. This is definitely a buyer’s market with choosing where you work. I’ve been hiring positions for the last four companies I’ve worked for, it’s never been easy to find great talent, that’s always a hard thing. Great talent is hard to find. Make sure you can market yourself.
Most people who are talented and know that they are, and I think that’s a lot of people, especially knowledge workers work very hard. There’s a bad rap of people misunderstanding internet economy jobs. A lot of the startup jobs, people are working 10-12 hours a day and giving it everything they have, and working on really complex problems. So get value for it. And part of that getting value for it isn’t just compensation, it’s also the autonomy to ship. We’re all adults. So it seems really petty and somewhat patriarchal in the negative sense to dictate to your team how they need to work, and it’s emblematic of probably the culture of that company. So I just wouldn’t work there and I recommend no one else do the same, and eventually we can all force the hand of corporate America.
Bonnie: Do you think that more companies should move their headquarters from expensive coastal cities to more affordable places like Texas? And why do you think that so many companies stay in expensive coastal cities?
Adam: I mean, companies are doing that. Tesla moved to Texas, Palantir moved to Colorado. A lot of big companies are leaving San Francisco and California because of the tax rates, basically the anti-corporation bias, the residents who oppose new builds or oppose a lot of the pro-business policy that would help everyone there because it does help the residents too, a lot of them don’t quite get it. But even more so than Texas and Austin, I actually think right now the really more exciting opportunity would be for young entrepreneurs to go to a suburb of Ohio, or there’s an amazing startup community in Detroit right now, or go to Ann Arbor or go to one of these smaller areas, there’s plenty of smart people in all of these places. If you’re an entrepreneur, you might find it easier to hire people, and by the way, they’ll be happy, and they’ll work for less money because their cost of living is less there, so your business is going to be more profitable, and ultimately you can pay those people even more and help them do better. So I think the more we can blow up the notion of location, I think the better we’ll be.
And I think that was going to happen anyway because of the internet, and I think the pandemic sort of skipped that ahead like five years, just like it did for ecommerce revenue and just like it did for online collaboration tools and all of these things. These are real trends that are happening, and it’s net positive for America. Why do we want a not trivial portion of the GDP of America in a 50-square-mile peninsula in California, in NorCal, that doesn’t even want new people there? Right? They don’t want new people there. So how is that healthy? It’s so good for everyone. And shouldn’t they be happy, right? They want everyone to leave, they want their bedroom community back. So there’s no losers here.
Bonnie: One of the themes on your Twitter is how millennials don’t have it easy. Can you talk about the unique challenges that millennials have faced? And are younger generations going to have it even worse than millennials, as prices for housing, healthcare, and education keep going up?
Adam: You said it yourself. Housing, healthcare, education are all up orders of magnitude, whereas flat-screen TVs and cell phones and video games are all down 50 to like 70, sometimes 90 percent for some things. The reason is we’ve run the real capitalist playbook, the free-market playbook, on the things we don’t need, and then the things that we need, like housing, healthcare, and education, a lot of regulatory and institutional interference ensures that they just continue to cost more and more due to administrative overhead and due to pricing power and artificial scarcities and all these things, they all compound. Is it harder for young people now? If you were to look at purely economic charts on the cost of the things that we both mentioned, don’t look at anything else, just look at that, yes, it’s harder for them. Also plot income, and it’s not like income is helping. So looking at charts, it is harder. You can’t argue, the numbers are the numbers.
The ways it is easier is the fact that I do think the internet has done a lot to level the playing field for everyone. And so there are tons and tons of people, so many examples that it's just crazy, of people who were born into impoverished situations or perhaps just unlucky situations, and they had whatever trauma they had or they had no connections to wealth or to opportunity, and because of the internet, they were able to learn, connect with others, start to build those connections and have built wealth for themselves with tools that they previously wouldn’t have had access to. That is one thing that we have that they don’t. We also, unlike past generations, I do think millennials are probably better educated. I think that exposure to technology, but probably more than that, I think that the one good thing that the older generation, the Boomers, did for millennials is they did focus on education, they did tell young people, “You need to have a lifelong pursuit of learning and growing.” So when I talk to a lot of young people, especially people younger than me, I’m always so impressed by how worldly they are, by how articulate they are, and with that, higher empathy for their fellow human, for animals, for causes like climate change, and all of these good things. That’s net positive.
The other thing is the notion of having gone through hard times. Millennials have gone through, what is it, three financial crises now. 9/11, the trauma of that is pretty intense. Every generation has things like that, but I think that was acutely so. I am net optimistic that hard times create strong people. I think that if times are just easy forever, you get a situation like in the movie WALL-E, where everyone is overly fat and fed and everything catered to. So the optimist in me wants to say, this is certainly not true for all millennials, but the millennials who can’t afford a home or had all these hardships—I don’t come from money, my parents were poor growing up, I’ve worked every day since I was 15, and a lot of millennials had their college paid for and everything, so that sounds awesome. But I think all of the hard times that they’ve gone through, past is prelude, they’re going to prepare the millennial generation to be better leaders.
And the one thing millennials don’t realize is, the older millennials are almost 40, look, we’re running the world now. We don’t realize it. The millennials are in charge. Boomers aren’t in charge anymore, they’re on their way out. Gen X, do people mention Gen X? I’m just kidding, we love Gen X, I have tons of Gen X friends. But millennials don’t realize that actually they have all the power. Doesn’t matter that they don’t have financial power. They have social capital, they have aesthetic capital, they’re the decision-makers of tomorrow.
So I think that we can fix this, it’s not existential, we all still have it better than everyone hundreds of years ago. Right now you can tap a few buttons on your phone and have a salad brought to you. The richest person 100 years ago, that didn’t even exist. You could have been the richest king and you can’t tap two things and have literally any food brought to your door. I mean, that’s crazy, right? We are so lucky to be born now. We talked about comparison. If you’re going to compare yourself to anyone else, don’t compare yourself to the dude in the private jet, it’s probably not even a real private jet. Compare yourself to royalty from hundreds of years ago where you have access to delights, pleasures, travel, food, infrastructure that their wildest dreams couldn’t consider. So taking all of that together, fellow millennials, we’re all going to make it.