The best of London now exists in San Francisco thanks to The Battery

Today I had a tour of The Battery, San Francisco’s newest private members club.

It’s the creation of husband and wife duo Michael and Xochi Birch who sold British social network Bebo for $850 million to AOL in 2008.

Reflecting the Valley’s meritocracy?

The club has courted much controversy as the founders say they want the club to reflect the meritocracy of Silicon Valley culture (minus the douchebags) , but critics complain the $2500 annual members fee and the need to be elected, makes exclusivity, insularity and elitism (and douchebags) a given.

Sceptics say it adds to the ongoing argument between the artists and hippies of San Francisco who complain the tech douchbags are slowly ruining their city one neighbourhood gentrification at a time.

Sceptics say it adds to the ongoing argument between the artists and hippies of San Francisco who complain the tech douchbags are slowly ruining their city one neighbourhood gentrification at a time

Whatever side you’re on, you have to get to know the founders of The Battery better; Michael and Xochi Birch.

They are not some rich trust fund babies who walk around all angsty in startup branded shirts, throwing around tech buzzwords and their latest funding round like it’s 1999.

They’re a sensitive self-made, family oriented couple who worked hard, got lucky and are now trying to reinvest their money in a creative way giving back to the community whilst also trying to make a business that works.

Keeping it real

Although we’re not besties, I have known the Birches for a number of years (pre-Bebo sale) and having met/interviewed many rags to riches entrepreneurs over the years can say, despite making millions, they remain unaffected affected by their wealth.

You are more likely to find Michael Birch drinking a pint in the same t-shirt he wore last year you saw him – cracking a fart joke- than beating his chest and bragging about his latest dinner with Marissa Mayer or Richard Branson.

Xochi is a charismatic women with a sparkle in her eye whose Mexican routes means there are always endless family members involved at her events where she is always found with a smile upon her face- her laugh is infectious.

Hermione Way says San Francisco needs its own Hospital Club

My first six months in San Francisco were hard, coming from London I felt the city was insular as the conversation was always around people pitching their startups.

I found it hard to find people I connected with who were on my wave-length.

I desperately wanted to be a part of a community and find friends I could call family, like I had felt when I became a member of The Hospital Club at 23-years-old when I started my first company in London.

As a young, naive graduate who had just started out in the world of business, The Hospital Club (founded by co-founder of Microsoft Paul G. Allen) gave me a safe, comfortable and inspiring environment to work from, access to meet like-minded people and a chance to build a network at interesting events and accelerate my journey into the media & internet worlds.

There’s no place quite like the Hospital Club

Most startup offices I had visited since living in SF were on the contrary to the warmth of The Hospital Club;  Exposed brick walls, stark lighting, Ikea desks and white walls, The Hospital Club was home in compassion.

Being a member of The Hospital Club was one of the best and most helpful parts of living and building my company in London, I felt a sense of belonging, part of a tribe.

In San Francisco I felt desperately lonely and longed for a club to be a part of, but the culture of members clubs just does not exist here.

And this is exactly what the Birches are trying to do with The Battery, in their own words “”We’re fans of the village pub, where everyone knows everyone,” Michael said during a hard-hat tour in August.

“A private club can be the city’s replacement for the village pub, where you do, over time, get to know everyone and have a sense of emotional belonging.”

San Francisco’s very own village pub

This is a mission statement that the Birches have the personal integrity to follow through on; despite having three kids to look after they were the first guests to arrive at my house-warming party in San Francisco and I’ve witnessed tireless work to help friends relocate from London to SF, not to mention their work with Charity:Water.

hermionewayThe Battery was an abandoned building they have invested millions of dollars into making into a stunning environment and home-away-from-home for the city’s young creatives.

Before you call out The Battery for being just another result of some ego-centric, tech person cashing in on their vacuous app, lets praise the Birches for creating a visual masterpiece from some abandoned bricks and be open to the Birches’ vision.

‘The problem is poor people are the most interesting and rich people are boring,’ said my friend on Facebook after posting this, ‘The most interesting people will not be able to afford it’  yes I said, ‘But the best people are the win-win combination, self-made and interesting, just like the Birches’.

Hermione Way has been writing about startups, founding startups and failing at startups since 2008. She is a Brit living in San Francisco. You can follow here here.

image credit: flickr/Robert Cutts