The life of a successful tech founder can often feel luxurious—ritzy, even. But before the multimillion-dollar IPO payouts, the mega-yachts and the Silicon Valley mansions comes the startup grind. And the pods. Just ask Christian Lewis, a 26-year-old from the Chicago suburbs who recently came to San Francisco to chase the AI dragon.
Last week, Lewis posted on social media that he was “living in a $700/mo pod at Mint Plaza for the next 30 days.” For the uninitiated, the “pod” refers to a group house structured like a pod hotel, a Japanese invention of casket-size sleeping spaces designed to cater to travelers on a budget.
Lewis posted the pictures for his online friends, he said, but they went viral—extending far outside his immediate network and into the general network of X/Twitter users. Some expressed horror—“you are paying 700/mo to live in a crate like a dog,” one person opined—while others expressed approval (“california gold rush is a durable culture trait unique to san francisco. modern day 49ers. mad respect,” said another).
Lewis said he has already snagged some funding from Silicon Valley investors for his artificial intelligence programming startup, Spellcraft, but he wanted to be closer to where the action is; after all, Mayor London Breed has dubbed San Francisco the AI capital of the world—home to Anthropic, ScaleAI and, of course, ChatGPT maker OpenAI.
“The advantage of being here is too great,” he said.
“I decided to come out for a few weeks, and then when I got here,” he added. “I was like, ‘OK, I'm not gonna leave.’ So I am here until I run out of money.”
Already, Lewis said he has met “some of the smartest people I’d ever met in my life.”
The average rent for a one-bedroom San Francisco apartment is $3,040 a month, according to Zillow. Staying in a $700-per-month pod, therefore, is a way to live in San Francisco on the cheap, Lewis said, without being locked into a pricey yearlong lease. It’s also, he contends, better than an Airbnb—Lewis says he booked “a dump” of a short-term rental on the platform and found it uninhabitable. (He also would rather not live in a shared apartment with roommates.)
The Mint Plaza pod space evokes a co-op, or a much, much more cramped version of those micro-apartments that have popped up throughout the Bay Area. Comparisons to the Hong Kong-style “coffin homes” are not entirely inaccurate. But in Lewis’ words, it’s a form of “minimalist living” for young, unattached people coming in and out of San Francisco. And Wi-Fi and utilities are included.
“For $700, you have workspaces and an office and a place to sleep, so that’s pretty great,” he said. “It's downtown.”
Back to the pods: They’re each 4 feet high, 3½ feet wide, and long enough to fit a twin-size mattress. It’s comfortable enough for Lewis, who is 5 foot 9. (Lewis jokes that I should report that he’s an inch taller so that he can boast about it on the dating apps. I do not oblige.)
Lewis advises that I take my sneakers off before he takes me to observe the sleeping pods.
You don’t want to disturb anyone who could be asleep, he explains, as we inch toward the stacks of pods on Thursday afternoon. Each is sheathed with a black curtain as the main mode of privacy. There are about 20 of them, stacked in twos like bunks.
“It's not really that rough,” he says. “All they really did is shrink down the sleeping space instead of having 50 different rooms, right?”
The pods occupy the top floor of a three-story building that used to be a bank. The company responsible for the development, Brownstone Shared Housing, received international media attention for a similar project in Palo Alto. (One outlet, for example, called the pods “a pricey prison.”)
“I came here, and it's really way better than I was led to believe by those articles,” Lewis said.
About 20 people currently are staying in the pods, Lewis said, a mixture of founders and programmers looking to take advantage of San Francisco’s AI boom, post-graduate students, artists and folks who work in retail and service. One occupant said he holds down two jobs, including one at the nearby Carl’s Jr., and said he likes the place just fine.
Lewis guided me quickly through the common spaces. There were signs that people do live here: Backpacks sat on a couch, and empty cans were left on a coffee table in the main-floor lounge. String lights were hung on what looked like faux-brick walls; it was cozy, all things considered.
Signs of the pod housing’s past life—as an outpost of the San Francisco Fire Credit Union—are still very much present. Bank tellers’ desks have been converted to shared workspaces while a private workroom is shaped just like a manager’s small office. A lounge/storage space on the ground floor, painted white and lit with severe commercial bulbs, has the air of an empty break room; credit union workers probably reheated their lunches in the oven- and stove-less “kitchen” here.
(I was not allowed to take pictures, and some residents, apparently, already had grievances with a reporter visiting their common spaces entirely.)
Lewis plans on sticking around until his funds run out—he estimates he could be in the pod for about a year. Alternatively, if he and Spellcraft, his startup, make it big, he would consider moving out to an “overpriced apartment.” But a week in, he seemed content with his pod.
“I need quite a jump, really, in all honesty, in order to be able to afford the traditional apartment here.”
Joshua Bote can be reached at email@example.com