WHERE NEO-NOMADS’ IDEAS PERCOLATE / New ‘bedouins’ transform a laptop, cell phone and coffeehouse into their office: San Francisco Chronicle,

A new breed of worker, fueled by caffeine and using the tools of modern technology, is flourishing in the coffeehouses of San Francisco. Roaming from cafe to cafe and borrowing a name from the nomadic Arabs who wandered freely in the desert, they’ve come to be known as “bedouins.”

San Francisco’s modern-day bedouins are typically armed with laptops and cell phones, paying for their office space and Internet access by buying coffee and muffins.

“In ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ the bedouins always felt like they were on the warpath. They had greater cause,” said Niall Kennedy, a 27-year-old San Franciscan who quit his day job at Microsoft Corp. to run his own Web company, Hat Trick Media, out of cafes and a rented desk. “At a startup, you’re always on the go, plowing ahead, with some higher cause driving you.”

San Francisco’s bedouins see themselves changing the nature of the workplace, if not the world at large. They see large companies like General Motors laying off workers, contributing to insecurity. And at the same time, they see the Internet providing the tools to start companies on the cheap. In the Bedouin lifestyle, they are free to make their own rules.

“The San Francisco coffeehouse is the new Palo Alto garage,” declares Kevin Burton, 30, who runs his Internet startup Tailrank without renting offices. “It’s where all the innovation is happening.”

Burton and Kennedy are among those popularizing the bedouin name, separating the movement from traditional freelancing by stressing the workers’ involvement in technology, in general, and Web 2.0 ideology in particular. While the movement is at its apex in San Francisco, where young urban independents can easily find a coffeehouse with the right vibe for them, it’s also happening across the more suburban reaches of the Bay Area, and across the country as a whole.

The move toward mobile self employment is also part of what author Daniel Pink identified when he wrote “Free Agent Nation” in 2001.

“A whole infrastructure has emerged to help people work in this way,” Pink said. “Part of it includes places like Kinkos, Office Depot and Staples.” It also includes places like Starbucks and independent coffee shops, where Wi-Fi — wireless Internet access for laptops and other devices — is available.

“The infrastructure makes it possible for people to work where they want, when they want, how they want,” said Pink, who is based in Washington, D.C. Pink said numbers are hard to pin down, as the Census Bureau does not count independent workers. Using available census data and private surveys, Pink estimates that one-fifth of the workforce, or 30 million out of 150 million people, are working on their own.

In February 2005, the census identified 10.3 million independent contractors, 2.5 million on-call workers, 1.2 million temporary help agency workers, and 813,000 workers with contract firms. The independent workforce is hard to track, as the workers are neither employee nor employer — and yet, in what Pink termed a “Zen turn,” they are both employee and employer.

“It’s been a slow steady trajectory over the last 15 or 20 years for a whole host of reasons. One of them, obviously, is there’s no lifetime job security any more. I’m going to be more secure working for myself.”

Pink calls it “Karl Marx’s revenge, where individuals own the means of production. And they can take the means of production and hop from coffee shop to coffee shop.”

Funny he should mention Marx. Soviet iconography is popping up all over the Bay Area’s bedouin landscape, from the coffee cup and star on the red background of Ritual Roasters’ logo, to the cell phone and mouse that look suspiciously like a hammer and sickle on the logo of Web Worker Daily, a blog that covers the bedouin phenomenon.

Web Worker Daily is published by GigaOm, a media company that practices what it preaches. Om Malik, 40, a technology journalist who lives in San Francisco’s Financial District, started blogging five years ago and last year quit his day job, taking an undisclosed amount of venture capital to launch GigaOm as a business. He now has a full-time staff of five and a team of freelancers, all scattered about, contributing to different online journals. One is in Oakland, one in San Mateo, two in San Francisco and one at Lake Tahoe, he said. The freelancers are in Utah, Denver, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and spread around the world.

“There is nothing more free than being a Web worker,” Malik says. “There is no boss. You work for yourself. This is the new Wild West. The individual is more important. That’s the American way. It’s about doing things your own way. Web workers represent that. … It’s the future, my friend.”

There is a downside, Malik readily admits. “I can put in an 18-hour day,” he said. “You don’t know when to stop.”

The Starbucks model

If you could split the Web workers into two main camps, you could say that one camp plugs in at Starbucks, while the other chooses independent neighborhood cafes. The two have vastly different ethics.

Starbucks offers a more corporate culture, and is a popular place for business meetings. Executives who travel a lot often prefer Starbucks, knowing they can find many branches in whatever city they go to. They also pay for the Wi-Fi, through Starbucks’ partnership with T-Mobile.

Malik, for instance, swears by his Starbucks. (He doesn’t want to say where it is, for fear that publicists from the companies he covers will stake him out there and ruin the experience.) “The biggest day of my own little boy life was when my own local Starbucks made me ‘customer of the week,’ ” Malik said. “That’s a Web worker gold medal.”

Yet many of the scrappier startups, particularly those who have not taken funding from venture capitalists, prefer the ethos of the independent cafes, where the music is a little louder and the Wi-Fi is free.

Ritual: the scene

Ritual Roasters in San Francisco’s Mission District is in many ways the epicenter of the bedouin movement. Ritual, on Valencia Street near 21st Street, is almost always packed with people working on laptops.

Every bedouin seems to have a Ritual story. There’s the time someone buzzed through the cafe on a Segway scooter. Rubyred Labs, a hip Web design shop in South Park, had its launch party there. Teams from established Web companies such as Google Inc. and Flickr, a photo sharing site that’s now owned by Yahoo, meet there. “You’d never know these guys were millionaires,” said Ritual co-owner Jeremy Tooker.

The founders of Web video startup Dovetail Television were meeting there one day, griping as usual about how hard it was to find talented programmers.

“I’m looking around and there’s gotta be 50 people with laptops,” said Brett Levine, 31, a co-founder and the company’s lead programmer. “I got on a chair and yelled, ‘Hey, are there any ActionScript programmers in the room?’ People at the counter looked at me glaringly, but a couple of people looked around and raised their hand.”

They lined up for interviews. None were actually hired, but it cemented in Levine’s mind the notion of where the talent pool lies.

Kennedy, the self-professed bedouin who has worked at blog aggregator Technorati and at tech giant Microsoft but who is now working on his own idea of developing a new more personal way to search the Internet, is a regular at Ritual and blogs about it often. Kennedy tries to earn his spot in the cafe. “They’ll come up to me and say, ‘Did you notice that the Wi-Fi is down?’ I can troubleshoot that kind of thing. Or when they were talking about redesigning their Web site, I was able to give advice.”

Kennedy, the self-professed bedouin who has worked at blog aggregator Technorati and at tech giant Microsoft but who is now working on his own idea of developing a new more personal way to search the Internet, is a regular at Ritual and blogs about it often. Kennedy tries to earn his spot in the cafe. “They’ll come up to me and say, ‘Did you notice that the Wi-Fi is down?’ I can troubleshoot that kind of thing. Or when they were talking about redesigning their Web site, I was able to give advice.”

“In the old days, people used to yell, ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’ ” Kennedy said. “In cafes now, it’s, ‘Is there a Wi-Fi technician in the house?’ ”

On one recent weekday, software engineer Chase Tingley, 29, worked at one table, where he telecommutes for Idiom, a Massachusetts software company. Tingley moved to San Francisco when his wife took a job at a law firm. At the next table, three friends worked on their own projects: system administrator Sean Kelly, 36, wrote database reporting scripts, while Kaytea Petro, 28, worked at her job in publishing, and Robert Boyle, 37, hacked out code for the company he’s co-founded, Podaddies.com, which he said will “monetize user-generated video.”

As for why they’re there, Kelly said, “I’m visiting with my friends instead of being locked up in a big building in the South Bay.”

And he added, cheekily, “If you bring a flask, you can tip it into your coffee and your boss isn’t watching you.”

Tingley, at the next table, turned around and asked, “Can we be in separate articles?”

Coffee to the people

Kevin Burton, an expert in blogs and RSS feeds who runs a Web startup called Tailrank.com that claims to “track the hottest news in the blogosphere,” spends about 10 percent of his time at Ritual, but the crowds have driven him elsewhere. His favorite at the moment is Coffee to the People on Masonic Avenue.

When you enter, you have no doubt you’re in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. The coffee drinks have names like Flower Power, the menu includes a vegan blueberry cornbread. At one table, a woman with an open laptop talks on her cell phone, while the man reading a paperback next to her keeps a hand over his ear. (Most bedouins say cell phones need to go outside the cafe.) Nearby, Kiff Gallagher, 37, pursues his passion, making music, while trading stocks online.

“I have a home office, but I just get cooped up,” he said.

Burton arrives at 11 a.m., and his lead engineer, Jonathan Moore, 30, arrives a few minutes later. Burton has a double latte and a cupcake, and starts explaining how his site uses “wisdom of the crowds” algorithms to scrape the hottest news from the blogosphere and upend the mainstream media.

As he talks, Gallagher joins in, and advises, “Lower your voice. I already know the ins and outs of your business plan from the last time I was here.”

That is an occupational hazard in the bedouin workforce. Kennedy rented a desk at San Francisco’s Obvious Corp., a Web company in South Park, so he could have confidential meetings. Kennedy also said he has equipped his laptop with a firewall that’s always on and e-mail and instant messaging encryption. He said it’s fairly easy to sit in a cafe and start “sniffing the network, see what sites people are accessing, get an idea of a site that hasn’t launched yet, see people’s e-mail logins and passwords.”

Bedouin history

Using a cafe to run a business is nothing particularly new. Venerable insurance firm Lloyd’s of London was actually started in a coffee house, Kennedy points out. According to the Lloyd’s of London Web site, “Edward Lloyd opened a coffee house in 1688, encouraging a clientele of ships’ captains, merchants and ship owners — earning him a reputation for trustworthy shipping news. This ensured that Lloyd’s coffee house became recognized as the place for obtaining marine insurance.”

Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote some of their best work in Parisian cafes. And in San Francisco, writers and poets of the Beat generation, such as Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, wrote in the cafes of North Beach.

Caffe Trieste was among the most popular North Beach hangouts. “To have a cappuccino, you come to North Beach, to Caffe Trieste,” says Giovanni “Papa Gianni” Giotta, the founder.

Now Caffe Trieste has joined the ranks of Wi-Fi cafes. It would figure that the one laptop in action on a recent afternoon belonged to an art dealer. “A cappuccino for overhead isn’t bad,” said David Salow, 33. He struck out on his own three months ago, and has yet to open a gallery. “Sixty to 70 percent of what I do can be done with the standard tools available to everyone — a phone, a computer and a laptop connection.” So, how much coffee do you need to buy?

The proliferation of Wi-Fi cafes brings with it a moral dilemma: If you’re one of these people sitting around and working on your laptop in a cafe, how much coffee do you need to buy?

Every cafe owner has wrestled with the flip side of that question: How much do I need to sell to make it worth letting someone take up space in my cafe?

Roger Soudah, owner of Cafe Reverie on Cole Street, was persuaded in 2004 to add Wi-Fi by one of his steady customers, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. But Soudah got fed up with the Wi-Fi squatters by the next year.

“I got fed up and pulled it out of the wall, and my employees cheered,” he said. “My space is really small. We count on turnover for that reason.”

He tells of one woman who designs places with feng shui principles. “She comes in with all these humongous blueprints and a laptop, taking up four tables, then has the nerve to say, ‘Can you turn the music down?’ ” he said. “I feng shui’d her out of here.”

Newmark says he won’t be deterred. “My evil plans include using a cellular data connection,” he said. “I plan to foil Roger again.”

Other cafe owners welcome the bedouin workforce and its laptops.

At Ritual Roasters in the Mission, co-owner Jeremy Tooker said the main downside is the cost of power, which he said runs $2,000 a month. (Some laptop workers in the cafe said that’s not so bad, calculating on the fly that that pencils out to about $64 a day, or $4 an hour.) Ritual covers up its outlets on weekends, and Tooker said it will likely eliminate many other outlets altogether, figuring that will increase turnover.

The hardcore customers shrug off the change. “I bought three batteries” for the laptop, said system administrator Sean Kelly. “It’s a little spendy, but it’s totally worth it.”

Cafe Lo Cubano in San Francisco’s Laurel Heights is contemplating a tiered system for access, according to floor manager Jeremiah Vernon. “People sit outside in their cars, stealing the Wi-Fi without buying anything,” Vernon said.

To solve the problem, the new system would give small purchases an hour of free Wi-Fi, modest purchases would get five hours, and $10 or more would buy a full day. That allows the morning business customers the chance to buy their cafe Cubano and check their e-mail, as they do now, without allowing others to clog up the space for hours. One regular buys a cup in the morning, and returns with the cup hours later asking for a free refill, Vernon said.

One coffee shop, Coffee to the People in the Haight, even wrestled with the issue on its blog last year. “Here at CTTP, we need to bring in on average $100 PER HOUR simply to cover our costs,” co-owner Karin Tamerius wrote. “That means, if all of our customers were people who stayed for three hours and spent $1.50 for coffee, we would require 200 people in our shop every hour we were open, 7 days a week, just to stay in business.”

“Fortunately, not all of our patrons are quite so thrifty.”

Indeed, almost every mobile worker interviewed said they try to buy something at least every hour.

But not everyone.

Ryan Mickle, 26, moved to San Francisco last month to run a Web site he co-founded, DoTheRightThing.com, which lets users rate companies on their social value. But Mickle can’t always afford to do the right thing himself.

“We’re bootstrapping entrepreneurs. We don’t have any funds,” he said. His Web site is not yet bringing in any money. “I’m reluctant to pay $9 for the overpriced food that tends to be in the cafe,” he said. “It’s the Wi-Fi user’s dilemma. … It’s a mind game I play with myself: How many coffees is fair? I need to be sure to invest in them as a consumer or they’re not going to last very long.”

But Mickle vows that when he does incorporate, make money and issue stock, he will give shares to the cafes that he used as office space.

In a way, argues author Daniel Pink, the Wi-Fi cafe is bringing efficiency to the commercial real estate market.

Most offices sit vacant all night long, he said, creating an “incredible inefficiency.” Pink, the author of “Free Agent Nation” and “A Whole New Mind,” said people can rent interim offices from companies like Regus Corp., where the coffee is free, or do their work in a cafe. “This is just confirmation that Starbucks and its cousins are all really in the commercial real estate business,” he said. “They’re giving very cheap real estate for a very pricey cup of coffee.”

— Dan Fost Laboring by latte

A sampling of coffee shops favored by the bedouins by the Bay:

Grove Cafe: 2250 Chestnut St., San Francisco. Vibe — A Marina neighborhood joint popular with Marin businesspeople who need to zip across the Golden Gate Bridge for meetings in the city.

Ritual Roasters: 1026 Valencia St., San Francisco. Vibe — Mission hipster, and Web worker-friendly. It helps to have tattoos, and you have to like loud thumping music. The coffee gets rave reviews.

Coffee to the People: 1206 Masonic Ave., San Francisco. Vibe — Haight-Ashbury all the way, with Martin Luther King poster, music from the ’60s and ’70s, and walls of bumper stickers.

Cafe Lo Cubano: 3401 California St., San Francisco. Vibe — Laurel Village business casual. One man seen sleeping at his laptop; floor manager Jeremiah Vernon once saw a pro football scout and an agent talk to players for six hours.

Caffe Trieste: 601 Vallejo St., San Francisco. Vibe — Old school North Beach classic, with the aging photos of Ferlinghetti and Pavarotti on the walls, and special greetings from founder Papa Gianni.

Starbucks: 3595 California St., San Francisco. Vibe — According to district manager Ian Ippolito, “Our store in Laurel Village is a 24-hour location, so we attract a lot of business professionals working on projects after hours, students and night shift workers.”

Starbucks: 2727 Mariposa St., San Francisco. Vibe — In the dot-com days, this was Starbucks’ experimental Circadia cafe. Although the experiment went the way of the dot-coms, the cafe survives and still features a conference room customers can rent for $20 an hour. Call ahead, it books up.

Barefoot Coffee Roasters: 5237 Stevens Creek Blvd., Santa Clara. Vibe — Bedouin worker Niall Kennedy favors this spot when he’s in Silicon Valley, not only for the coffee, which the cafe takes very seriously, but for its attention to the technology, particularly the security. The cafe also provides WPA keys, among the latest in wireless protection, Kennedy says, “so your traffic is encrypted if people want to sniff your laptop.”

Nomad Cafe: 6500 Shattuck Ave., Oakland. Vibe — East Bay eco-hip, with local artists on the walls, organic food and drink, and bins for recycling and composting.

For a more complete list of San Francisco Wi-Fi cafes, check out:




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