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#9: Califlorence

This is cross-posted from my “monthly” newsletter that I update every quarter. I'm the founder of the Neighborhood, a multigenerational campus full of radical agency, inspiring people, and unplanned encounters with friends within a single square mile in central San Francisco. The scenius half of the vision consists of themed, differentiated, ambitious coliving houses, cafeteria-style lunches for residents and friends in a large shared coworking space, and abundant tinker-spaces. The community half of the vision is to 10x access to serendipity and to help friends, kids, and grandparents live down the block from each other. Check out past updates at jasonbenn.com.

Catching up

In my last post, I said I’d focus on the scenius-y half of the Neighborhood’s vision in 2023. Now that I’ve made some progress, it’s time for an update!

For context, coliving helped transform me from a self-motivated but fundamentally passive software engineer to a more confident, independent actor (1). So, in my infinite creativity, I’ve resolved to help build a bunch of coliving houses.

They’ll be diverse, ambitious, and sprinkled across the Neighborhood. I’m imagining a Climate House, across the street from an Aligned AGI House, down the road from a Healthtech House, and around the corner from Abundance/Metascience House and Education House (all names TBD, thankfully). Residents and friends will share cafeteria-style lunches at a central coworking space where they’ll have wide-ranging conversations at long lunch tables. Adult university, basically. We’ll go multigenerational once this feels like it’s working.

However, building a new coliving house is hard. Locations are rare. The financial hurdles are nothing to sneeze at: $30K+ in monthly liability, $30K+ in up-front deposits, and furnishing costs of $10-20K. Hardest of all is the coordination, especially if your group isn’t densely connected yet or is skeptical of coliving.

This post is about the progress I’ve made on all three obstacles.

For the financial obstacle: I’ve won a grant from the Schmidt Futures Innovation Fellows program! Tom Kalil, their Chief Innovation Officer, was already looking to invest in a “network of hacker homes” and instantly resonated with the possibility of instigating a scenius. The grant is non-dilutive, unrestricted, and lump sum, and means I’ll never have to take on venture backing or fall back on the doomed coliving operator business model.

I’m thrilled because with this grant also gives me the runway to explore mission-aligned business models, namely: property management, referrals to buyer’s agents, raising a small fund, organizing an equity sharing pool for venture-backed founders and taking a cut, the aforementioned lunch club, and sponsoring real estate syndicates. This was a close shave, honestly. I may or may not have maxed out a credit card at one point. But now it’s possible that my work on this project could be indefinitely sustainable.

Coordinating a great group

The next problem, recruiting and coordinating a great group, is the central challenge of this whole project. This is how I spend the vast majority of my time and effort.

My strategy is to host unconferences and retreats designed to build community among folks that share a passion about an industry important to the next era of progress. They’d be designed to encourage authenticity and give everyone a chance to shine, with the hope that folks would feel fond and chummy afterwards. We’d select for people that are diverse, accomplished, and where everyone was at least curious about the Neighborhood vision.

So I did that. The event was called Califlorence Climate, it was climate change themed, it was March 9th-12th. Most importantly, our curation strategy worked great.

The idea was inspired by Helena Merk. I told her about the conference, she got excited, and she went through her message history and recommended 25 of her favorite people in climate. That was when I realized we’d be able to curate the entire event by chains of warm introductions.

The other piece of this strategy was to enumerate our recruiting goals and share them before meetings. They were complex: we were curating people that pass the high bar of “I want to be more like this person in some way”, most of whom are plausibly open to coliving in the Bay Area, and who complement the demographic, technical, and “idea machine” diversity of the group. To track progress towards these diversity goals, I included live-updating dashboards that predict the expected number of attendees for each of these categories, given our funnel status and conversion metrics. Lo and behold, this dashboard improved the quality of people’s introductions dramatically. Recommendations even became self-correcting: when we dipped too low on any category, folks would start recommending 75%+ people in that category.

Over a period of about two months, a snowballing group of 40+ enthusiastic climate builders collectively submitted 300+ individual recommendations. Of those, my EA researched 206 and we invited 152. 92 of them expressed interest in attending, and 61 ultimately attended.

We aimed for 50% nonwhite and hit 50.8%, and for 50% nonmale and hit 37.7% (we’ll do better next time by splitting out per-group response rates, which varied dramatically). For “idea machine” diversity, we aimed for 75% operators, 10% funders, and 15% “scene builders”, and hit 76.4%, 13.9%, and 23.6%, respectively. We were looking for folks with 19 different types of deep technical skillsets relevant to climate and got people with 18 of them. Despite us not explicitly seeking them, 54.1% of the attendees were venture-backed founders. Lastly, 71 of the 152 folks invited were open-minded to coliving in the Bay Area, producing an expected value of 39 housemates.

“I was just really shocked by the quality of the people. Uh, in a good way, obviously.” — Jamie Wong, sharing their group’s reflections on the conference at Sunday’s brunch

This is all the more magical to me because I wasn’t even well-connected in this industry — I only had half a dozen friends in climate a few months ago. But I already knew or was quickly introduced to superconnectors like Helena Merk, Westley Dang, Eugene Kirpichov, Jason Yosinski, Paul Reginato, Tom O’Keefe, and Candice Ammori, and that made all the difference.

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The event itself was a success. For reflections, takeaways, and photos from Califlorence Climate, check out this twin post. tldr: the unconference format is nice because it gives everyone a chance to shine, is playful, and equalizes status, even if one of your venues unexpectedly looks like My Little Pony.
40 of 61 attendees hosted or co-hosted sessions — we had to add a third track to Saturday.
40 of 61 attendees hosted or co-hosted sessions — we had to add a third track to Saturday.

Tree House is targeting a move-in of June 1st!

So that’s good progress on the financial and coordination hurdles to starting a great coliving house. The last obstacle is finding large, vacant housing options within the single square mile of the Neighborhood. Mysteriously, this hasn’t really been a problem yet. I’ve secured access to two 13BRs, both delivered vacant this summer.

More details on the relationship between these houses and the Neighborhood.

I’ve avoided taking on long-term lease liability by fronting the security deposit in exchange for taking these houses off the market for a month or two while I coordinate leaseholders. Those leaseholders will then curate the rest of their community.

Crucially, these community houses will be fully independent and autonomous: in control of their own governance, culture, and recruiting. The landlord will hire me as a property manager to refill houses in the case of dissolution, but residents will still have control of their own cash flow, be on the leases, and pay and communicate with the landlord directly. I’m hoping they’ll partner with me on important community infrastructure, and partnership will come with benefits including the coworking space and shared lunch plan, but it’s by no means obligatory.

I like it this way for a bunch of reasons. If a house gets into a high-churn death spiral and becomes insolvent, it can dissolve peacefully without their financial stress spilling over and affecting other houses in the Neighborhood network. I wanted lease liability to stay with the people making recruiting decisions, which balances the tension between cash flow and holding out for the most values-aligned housemates. This is what doomed the coliving operator industry.

This strategy should produce a huge diversity of cultures and vibes for Neighbors to choose from, which is why Burning Man feels so fractally interesting and soulful. Most importantly, communities feel healthy to the degree that ownership is evenly distributed. The Neighborhood will be a part of the founding story of these communities, but my expectation is that each house unfolds into its own unique identity.

Climate Tree House is coming together now, and it seems to be going well! I underestimated the rate of interest from folks that were older and more established in their career - I’ll do the statistics on that after we complete this phase in a few months. We’re targeting a move-in date of June 1st. I’ll be heavily involved throughout the start-up process: helping set up best practices and systems, opening up my people database, extending low-interest lines of credit for up-front costs from my Schmidt grant, coordinating a workshop on consent and safety (more on that soon), and whatever else is helpful until they’ve stabilized.

Next up: Aligned AGI House

Which brings us to the next unconference and the next house. It’ll be themed around Aligned AGI. The tentative goals are to increase the ratio of AI safety to capabilities research and to ready society for the dizzying decline in the marginal cost of intelligence. That means curating a group of AI researchers and builders in both alignment and capabilities, of course. It also means bringing in policy wonks, China experts, red teamers, chipmakers, economists, philosophers, designers, neurotech builders and more; I’ll collaborate with experts over the next month to refine the types of diversity that will be meaningful to AGI progress over the next 5-10 years. As before, I see my job as mainly curating an interesting group. Once the container is assembled, values-aligned communities and friend groups should emerge organically, and these will be the seeds of a new coliving house.

The Califlorence Aligned AGI retreat will still be June 15th-18th in Yosemite. I’ve booked a 21 acre retreat venue, a live band, farm-to-table chefs for every meal, hot tub, morning yoga and meditations, hiking, and lots more. I chose this venue because it kind of simulates the Neighborhood: the 21 acres has a variety of housing and entertainment options strewn around its “campus”. It can accommodate 50-65ish people, which is about the right size for a weekend retreat if the goal is for everyone to get to sorta know everyone else.

Aligned AGI House may also be opening as early as July 1st or even June 1st. I’m working it out with the landlord right now. These opportunities are rare and we probably ought to sieze them when they open up, even if the timing is a few months ahead of what you had hoped. This is what happened with The Commons, too, and that worked out great.

If you know want to recommend someone for this event or the house, and they pass the rule of thumb “I would like to be more like them in some way”, then feel free to DM or email me their names. You can submit your own name too, of course. We won’t contact any of them without your permission.

Here’s how the funnel works: we’ll collaborate with experts to iron out the mix of people we want to assemble while simultaneously collecting recommendations. Then, after we get a chance to do some research, we’ll send you individualized, forwardable emails. Once they fill out the attached interest form, then we start coordinating with them directly.

Looking forward to hearing from you, and thanks for reading 🙂

Warmly — Jason

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More photos from Califlorence Climate

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Footnotes

  1. I realized that my housemates, whom I otherwise might have pedestalized, were ordinary people. I learned that discovering purpose can take 6-18 months of following your curiosity and that emotional regulation is critical. And I know I’m not the only housemate who considers the generative and supportive environment of the Archive pivotal. Now, in a world with a rapidly shifting jobs landscape, I think these environments will be more helpful than ever.