#12 Launching City Campus

Hi! If you're getting this, you must have subscribed to my newsletter, where I talk about progress on the Neighborhood. We’re part of a movement that aims to recapture the magic of a university campus, but for all generations. We're composed of third spaces (community centers), coliving (8BR+ rented houses), cohousing (adjacent owned houses), villages (near-adjacent owned houses), and good vibes (I bump into friends once every 40 minutes). For past updates, and to subscribe, see jasonbenn.com.

One of the lessons of the last two years is that the ROI on The Commons (1) is nigh unbeatable. Consider the facts:

  1. The Commons was essentially started with $150K.
  2. Now, they're profitable.
  3. They'll pay back their philanthropic loan in 2.5 years.
  4. It's been sufficiently life-changing that dozens of their members have moved within 10 blocks (testimonials usually have the flavor "I finally found my people" or "it's the best thing about SF").
  5. There are more than 100x as many residents of the Neighborhood square mile as there are Commons members, so the TAM is large.

The obvious next move is to double down on what’s clearly working. So we're doing that! Patricia, Adi, myself, and Thomas Schulz (of Solaris Society) are joining forces to co-found City Campus.

➡️ We’re launching City Campus with a party on May 11 and you're welcome to come!

All of us have had the dream of "multigenerational campus" built into our respective organization's missions since we founded them 2-3 years ago, and we've all settled into complementary niches. So now we're sublimating the overlapping parts of our visions into a shared nonprofit. That's City Campus.

The idea is to repeatedly and sustainably catalyze third spaces (or equivalent community infrastructure). If each of them only cost $150K to kickstart and we can recoup those costs within 4 years, then it’d only take $1.5M of philanthropic capital to start a project on the level of The Commons every 6 months indefinitely.

We’ll focus on the square mile centering on Hayes / Alamo / Lower Haight / NoPa. If we can recapture the magic of a university campus here, for all generations, then we'll inspire others to adapt our model to their hometowns. We're looking to fund for-profit projects with evidence of community momentum and that are run by good-hearted founders.

Hat tip to our advisor Erik Torenberg for the idea last November. Since then, we've:

  • Hosted a brainstorm with 20 local community leaders
  • With the help of 50 volunteers, distributed 500 flyers in the area
  • Posted a lot of cryptic tweets to build buzz
  • Begun learning how to Talk to Media and have a non-disastrous first result with someone that clearly wanted to write the "techie" angle
  • Are planning outreach to local neighborhood associations and the SF government - surely there are folks with aligned missions?
  • Are planning the aforementioned launch party on May 11
  • Will commence fundraising after that!

The mission of City Campus is essentially identical to that of the Neighborhood. The main difference is governance. Instead of a solo founder that's spread a tad too thin, City Campus has four people on the board, and a governance structure that allows for smooth succession: we can unanimously vote anyone in or out.

In other news:

  • HammingBio kicked ass. HammingBio sucked up a full two months of my time and aged me by two years. I kept getting more ambitous about the features I'd build:
    • I built the app Idea Ranker (sign in with my email to check it out), as an attempt to collectively snapshot the frontier of biotech. Users submit 2+ Big Ideas in biology, collectively rank ideas via pairwise ranking and ELO scores, which produces a big ordered list of ideas, each with checkboxes, so you can indicate which ones you’re interested in. After the event the app put the group for each idea into their own email threads. The app was definitely cool, but the impact is middling, honestly — the email threads haven’t gotten much activity (my theory: unconferences are about intellectual fun and diverse ideas, not about doing work). I think I'll move this whole mechanism into the application process for the next event. I think I can use it to collectively generate an unconference agenda that’s full of thoughtful, highly-upvoted conversations. I’d like to try using the wisdom of the crowds to recruit ideal panelists for each discussion, too.
    • I built the app Announcer, a failed attempt to keep people on-time during the event by automating announcements about the agenda throughout the day (I'll try again with a visual component next time).
    • I productionized a third app, Meal Matchmaker, building on the highly successful experiment at Califlorence AGI last June I described in Update #10 (see "What was cool...").
    • We approved candidates with a college admissions-style "board" of volunteer domain experts (Noah MacCallum, Tina Jia, and Lan Dao).
    • We ran a sponsorship sales funnel for the first time (moderately successful!).
    • We organized 5 hours of lightning talks on Saturday, which was a surprisingly big effort.
    • We organized a prize competition: the Idea Ranker leaderboard winners won a genetically modified bacteria that cures you of cavities for the rest of your life. I got it too! It’s subtle, but I’m almost positive my mouth smells better in the morning.
    • Lots of other reflections and improvement ideas here.
  • HammingBio has spun out the seed of a potential all-women Bio Village. The experiment this time is whether they can find their own houses, like Treehouse eventually did, without my meeting with them every week for 5 months. They're enthusiastic but it's moving slowly - we shall see! For future unconferences, I think I'll facilitate 1:1 meetings between folks that are interested in coliving before the event, as they fill out applications. That way, there will be a cohesive community nucleus at the event, which I bet will be a huge upgrade to their momentum.
  • The unconferences have product-market fit; I'm thinking about ways to increase their cadence without sacrificing sustainability. I'm thinking about how to delegate most of what is stressful to coordination mechanisms that leverage the wisdom of the crowd. I think a (nearly) fully self-organizing unconference is possible and would be an awesome experience. I'd like to spend most of Q3 designing and building out these ideas. Next up is #5, Califlorence Education. I'm super excited about this.
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  • Cohousing is hard. In Update #11, I described what I learned from my September cohousing retreat and talked about pursuing cohousing in 2024. Well, it's been a primary focus in the 6 months since - I found a real estate cofounder in Brian Elbogen, we interviewed dozens of potential homebuyers, and we hosted a two large meetups where we gave 45+ minute talks about Brian's clever homebuying strategy. But unfortunately there are very few serious co-buyers, even among folks that are already close. I also realized that I'd much rather build a real estate referral business than be a realtor myself (Brian, too, is a real estate founder and not a salesperson). Lastly, the success of third spaces in creating unplanned encounters with people you love and respect (the key community KPI) means that maybe cohousing isn't even as crucial as I thought for raising families in community? Maybe living in a campus full of third spaces is sufficient, or maybe the 80/20 is to live on the same block as your friends and share amenities. Here's a vision of what that might look like.

Feedback is a gift - if you'd like to leave me some anonymously, here's a way to do that.

Cheers and thanks for reading :)

— Jason

  1. By the way, in case it's confusing: I'm not a cofounder of The Commons, I just helped them get started by helping out for 6 weeks in the beginning. Patricia and Adi deserve all the credit for their success since then.