A mildly dystopian tale of two cities: Startup stories from San Francisco, diary entry three


Security Colony was one of six cybersecurity companies selected by Austrade & AustCyber to take part in the Federal Government’s Landing Pad program in San Francisco. In this exclusive series for Dynamic Business, Nick Ellsmore, co-founder of Security Colony shares his journey as he builds his second business (the first sold to BAE Systems) and introduces an Australian-built cybersecurity solution into the global market against the backdrop of the Californian startup and investment scene.

Diary Entry Three

My first weekend in San Francisco was spent wandering the streets, trying to understand this puzzling town.  From where I’m currently living, in the slightly dodgy part of the Mission District, at 24th Street and East of Mission, where in my first 10 days I’ve seen the Police cordon off part of the street twice, I walked through to the glamorous corridor of Valencia Street, then back through the Mission lower down at about 18th, past a car accident and pedestrian lying broken in the middle of the road at 16th, and on into SOMA.  It was during this walk that I finally put my finger on what was so strange, yet so familiar, about this place.

East of Mission Street, the Mission seems best summed up by my two experiences in corner stores, each of which attempted to rip me off for a single dollar through sleights of hand that would make grifters in any third world country proud. A paying customer, sober, in the mid-afternoon, and yet clearly the feeling was that the greatest “return on investment” that could be had from my custom, was to sneak away a dollar of change.  Was it a function of the fact the guy behind the counter is paid minimum wage and needs to feed his family?  Was it that I clearly didn’t look like I belonged in the neighbourhood so my “customer lifetime value” seemed likely limited to that one single transaction? I don’t know, but it baffled me. That it happened a second time – at a different store – later that same week, turned what was otherwise one bad egg into a systemic cultural phenomenon.  Every man for themselves and short-termism.

Our office is based in the Financial District, on Montgomery Street. I needed a monitor, and asked the concierge of our Co-working facility where the closest Target, Best Buy, or whatever-shop-sold-monitors, was. After a puzzled look, and conversing with her co-workers, the answer was simple, and in hindsight, predictable.  Nobody buys monitors like that. Use Amazon. It has a better range, it will get here really fast, and if you actually walked the few blocks to buy a monitor somewhere, and then tried to walk back, there was a reasonable chance you would be mugged and it would be stolen.  I’m not exaggerating that: that was the actual advice and reasoning given.  As a result, society is almost entirely intermediated. Even in Australia we’ve all experienced it at some level – sitting in an Uber, trying to change destination and being told to enter the updated address into the App, so that the App can talk to the Server, the Server can talk to the Driver’s App and then the Driver will be able to help you get to that location. You can’t just tell the Driver; it doesn’t work that way.

Before coming to San Francisco I was told that in this city, more than any other, walk two blocks and the city can completely change.  I heard those words, but didn’t quite appreciate it until walking the two blocks from Mission Street to Valencia Street. Where East of Mission is grungy Taquerias, broken laundromats, hipster bookshops with acid jazz recitals, apparent crime and homelessness, Valencia Street is high-end restaurants, art galleries, and well-dressed white people walking their well dressed white dogs.  It was on Valencia Street that I had my epiphany.  It was brought on by seeing an immaculately dressed young lady with a coffee in one hand and mobile phone in the other, riding a Segway One down the sidewalk.  For those who haven’t seen one – and I certainly hadn’t – the Segway One is basically an electric self-balancing unicycle. The rider stands with one foot on either side of the wheel and through leaning can start, stop, and steer.

It was straight out of Blade Runner, and that was when I understood where I was, and why it felt so oddly familiar.  This was the future.  The mildly dystopian future that so many movies from my youth predicted, where massive inequality moves in lockstep with technological advances, ultimately splitting the world into the dirty, petty crime-ridden East of Mission and the glamorous, Segway riding, Freemason-meeting hosting Valencia Streets of the world.

Related: Startup stories from San Fran: diary entry one and Startup stories from San Fran: diary entry two – shifting from very interesting to very useful


About the author

Nick Ellsmore is the co-founder of free-to-join cybersecurity resource Security Colony. He is also the co-founder of cybersecurity consulting firm Hivint, the winner of the 2017 Telstra Business Award “Business of the Year” in Victoria.