The untold story of the startup castle in Silicon Valley, and how lack of diversity in a coliving poisons culture
Let me tell you a true story.
Back in 2013, Startup Embassy had been open for over a year; and at the time, I naively thought it was time to expand by opening an additional space. My team and I searched for houses and eventually discovered this amazing property: the so-called “Buck Estate” in Woodside.
It was a freaking castle!
Looking backward, the rent wasn’t that high (I think they asked for $19K per month) considering the size of the property and how many entrepreneurs I could’ve fit inside. In fact, with the knowledge that I have today, it would have definitely worked.
But it was 2013, and I didn’t have much experience. Apart from the costs, my main concern was that the location was far from optimal, requiring guests to rent a car. We thought about starting a shuttle service, but that brought even more concerns. I wasn’t sure our brand was strong enough to garner attention from so many entrepreneurs. At the time, we just launched our marketing strategies, and I was hesitant to take that risk. So, we passed.
Almost two years later, on April 8th, 2015, I got an email from Nathon, a friend from my BlackBox Mansion days:
– “I am working on some plans that may relate to what you’re doing, and I am wondering if we can set a time to chat.”
We met at Coupa Café in Palo Alto, and he told me about this guy, John, who had rented out the castle and started a hacker house. They named it “Chateau Invictus.” Apparently, acquiring new guests was a steady issue for them. No wonder! “But hey, he sure has balls,” I thought.
After that talk, I wanted to meet this John guy. That castle was a dream for me. Ever since our first viewing, I couldn’t get it out of my head. With that in mind, it would be amazing to meet the guy who did have the courage to rent it. I wanted to see a hacker house being run in that castle, even if it wasn’t a Startup Embassy.
So, on April 29th, I set foot again in Chateau Invictus. It was magnificent. I must admit, I was jealous. That thing was awesome! I knocked on the door, and after some time, a guest opened it.
– “Hi, I’m looking for John. We have a meeting.”
– “Yes, uhm, sure… he’s in the kitchen,” the guest mumbled, pointing to the left with his finger.
There was something strange about that guy. He kept his gaze down at his feet and avoided meeting my eyes directly, giving off this weird energy. I can’t really explain it, but the interaction was just awkward.
I already knew where the kitchen was, so I thanked the guest and walked towards it with a large smile. and thought, “Oh boy, is this place exciting!”
It was a short distance from the front door to the kitchen, no more than thirty seconds, but something happened. I crossed paths with two more guests, and none of them returned my greetings; but what’s even worse, they didn’t even look at my face. All of their heads were down too, and they mumbled.
– “Weird!” I thought.
I entered the kitchen, and there they were: John and his girlfriend Katherine. It turned out that Katherine and I had exchanged some emails previously, but we never had the chance to meet in person. After the initial introductions, we sat at the table, and the conversation started. As they spoke, it became clear that a major problem was “finding good people for the house.” I listened carefully to the list of complaints. Some guests were too noisy, some dirty, and most of them ignored the rules.
– “Well, I see the problem. You have a lack of culture here.” I told them. See, I felt it the moment I met their guests. Nobody would engage with me…
I continued detailing my amazing community at Startup Embassy and how I believed the secret was that we filtered people that applied. “We only accept entrepreneurs,” I said. “You can’t just accept anyone. Guests must be part of the same tribe, whichever you decide. I want entrepreneurs at my coliving because that’s the tribe I feel comfortable with. It’s an extension of my own personality.”
“That requires the courage to decline people that don’t fit your culture—even if you aren’t reaching your financial goals. If you set the right culture from the beginning, word of mouth will spread, and people will appreciate your efforts. If you do it well, guests at your coliving will have things in common, and community will be that much easier to create. You’ll fill up the space quickly after this happens,” I added.
“Your problem is that you’re just looking at your numbers and are accepting anyone. Without the consideration, your guests have that much more of a barrier to build a community. This brings chaos, and therefore, you lack a strong identity for your culture. Guests won’t have a reason to stay, and they’ll leave. No one will talk about how awesome this castle is, so getting new leads will be that much harder.”
We continued to discuss this for a couple of hours. I also explained how important it was to set processes, but that is after you’ve built a strong, positive culture. They had to focus on filtering guests first. They offered me a position running their community, but I already had too much on my plate. After that, I left the castle, telling them that I would help as much as I could.
Two weeks passed, and then, shit hit the fan…
There is no such thing as bad publicity?
BOOM! It was all over the news. John had taken my advice very seriously and had posted a roommate wanted ad on Stanford’s classified ad site SUpost. On that ad, he listed a series of requirements to be part of his community. Those requirements were so bonkers that it caught the press attention—and they were not happy.
Some of the headlines were:
- “5 Reasons Silicon Valley’s Startup Castle Is Frightening and Not Just Funny”. Inc. magazine.
- “Silicon Valley’s ‘Startup Castle’ is looking for roommates, and the requirements are completely bonkers.” Splinter News.
- “Have You Heard About The Startup Castle In Woodside? Because It’s Ridiculous And Sexist”. SFist.
- “This “startup castle” doesn’t want you if you have a complex diet or own expensive clothes.” Business Insider.
- “Silicon Valley “Startup Castle” ad for roommates ready for the “geometric scaling of success” goes viral.” SmartCompany.
- “Meet ‘Startup Castle,’ the Roommate Wanted Ad from Hell.” Curbed
And then it got even worse:
- “Former residents of the ‘Startup Castle’ are sharing their horror stories online.” Splinter News.
- “Former Startup Castle Residents Speak, Say It’s ‘Like A Prison.’” SFist.
- “The ex-stripper and scientist behind ‘Startup Castle.’” CNN Business.
I found a picture of the Startup Castle founder pic.twitter.com/4j0jX5zkCh— Johnnemann 🌹 (@johnnemann) May 14, 2015
As it turned out, John had decided that his community had to be like him. And I mean exactly like him. The few hours I spent with him, he seemed like a nice guy. But after reading his requirements, I understood why people would at least raise an eyebrow. I definitely did…
Some of those requirements said that you wouldn’t be a good fit for Startup Castle if:
– Watch more than 4 hours of TV/movie/game entertainment per week
– Have more than one tattoo
– Have ever attended more than one protest
– Make more than three posts a week to social media
– Listen to a song with explicit lyrics more than once a day
– Wear make-up more than twice a week
– Own any clothing, shoes, watches, or handbags costing over $500
– Have bills that get paid by somebody else
– Drive a vehicle that was given to you by your parents
– Get regular spending money or gifts from your parents
– Have more than one internet app date per week
– Have a complex diet that requires lots of refrigerator space
– Drink alcohol more than three drinks per week
– Use marijuana more than twice a year
– Have been prescribed anything by a psychiatrist more than once
– Use any other drug more than twice in your entire life
When I read the news, my reaction was like, “what the fuuuuck!!! No, no, no!! That’s NOT what I meant!!” That’s when I realized that your coliving can become a cult.
I called John. He told me that he was okay and that all that news was good for his business, in line with “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” I did not share the same view. A few weeks later, I read this on hacker news: “Silicon Valley’s infamous ‘Startup Castle’ is getting evicted.”
In an interview, John declared that he just wanted to get away from people who were obsessed with themselves. He just went too far.
Mama Carlos says
I made a big mistake when I advised John. I took something for granted. Yes, you must filter your guests, but for goodness sake, your community must be diverse!! I thought it was common sense to understand that diversity is part of the equation, and as it turned out, you can’t expect people to have common sense.
You see, there’s something about Startup Embassy’s community. Our ambassadors are all entrepreneurs. But they are white, black, yellow, rich, poor, male, female, Asian, European, South American, religious, nonreligious, ex-convicts, have tattoos, some are homosexual, some aren’t… we don’t give a fuck!!
And in fact, we don’t even ask because we don’t care (it also wouldn’t be legal). As long as they are entrepreneurs, excited, and willing to live as part of an inclusive community, they’re in. I remember an entrepreneur I interviewed telling me, “thank you for accepting me despite my background” (He was an ex-convict and had been seven years in jail). I told him I accepted him because of his background. (Not that he had been convicted, but how he had dealt with his life afterward, by the way). Oh! And he made a cool music video:
John’s ad was exclusive. It was weird and wrong. If you lack the common sense to understand that a healthy community must be diverse and inclusive, you don’t deserve to have one. And you most probably will be unable to start one, as John found out.
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