THE 2,700-SQUARE-FOOT RANCH HOUSE on a quiet, tree-lined street in Mountain View, Calif., would seem perfect for a family with small children: four bedrooms and two-and-a-half baths, with a lovely terra cotta roof, a tidy front yard, a two-car garage, and a swimming pool out back. The rent — about $6,200 a month — is reasonable for the area.
Tony Xiao ’12 found the place on Craigslist last summer. He signed a one-year lease Sept. 1 and moved in the next day with two other Princetonians, Arman Suleimenov *12 and Jordan Lee, a Ph.D. student studying Chinese politics. But the baby the three are nurturing right now is their business, a file-organizing application called Collections. Like generations of small-business owners before them, they work downstairs and sleep, as it were, above the store.
On a warm morning in October, Lee sits on a plastic chair in the front yard, soaking up the sun and taking a business call while trying to be heard over the trash collectors. Rahul Subramaniam ’11 stumbles downstairs in his pajamas and says good morning. He is working on his own education business and crashing at the house until he gets settled.
In addition to the leaf-covered and apparently little-used pool, the backyard features a trampoline (the occupants’) and a pair of old tricycles (the previous owner’s), but if the young entrepreneurs want to take up an indoor sport, they might consider floor hockey. There is plenty of space for it because there is hardly any furniture. The first floor contains exactly nine computer screens but one couch.
Xiao, who says he has been hacking — monkeying with computer programming, without the negative connotations the word sometimes implies — since he was 8 years old, sits in the dining room/workspace facing five screens: three computer monitors, a laptop, and a cellphone propped in a charger. He and Suleimenov are dressed in shorts, tech-themed T-shirts, and flip-flops, huddled around a large table made of doors balanced on sawhorses. Louvered shutters partially block the sunlight, which reflects off walls that are bare except for a code-scribbled whiteboard in the kitchen.
After an initial burst, progress on Collections has slowed. A release date has come and gone, but the app still is not quite ready. The entrepreneurs’ job, of course, is to find the bugs and fix them, and they can spend as much time on that as necessary. It’s not as though they have a long commute.
THE NEW YORK TIMES GENERATED A LOT OF BUZZ last summer with an article about “hacker hostels” in the Bay Area, tiny apartment-offices with short-term leases (fewer than 30 days) catering to young tech entrepreneurs who live, sleep, and work there while they dream of launching the next Facebook. Online real-estate agencies advertise these places, offering amenities such as complimentary linens, weekly boxes of organic fruits and veggies (because most don’t have kitchens), and a projector for practicing presentations. Rents can be as low as $40 a night.
All the publicity has gotten some of the hostels in trouble. The official in charge of code enforcement in Mountain View — home of Google, southeast of San Francisco — insisted to a local news website that the hostels really are hotels, which means they would be banned from residential neighborhoods and required to collect hotel taxes. He also took issue with one hostel’s willingness to shuttle guests to the airport or to grocery stores. That, he said, is the job of a taxicab — and a cab driver needs a permit.
The house in which Xiao, Lee, and Suleimenov live is not, technically speaking, a hostel — among other things, it has a long-term lease. But Mountain View is the heart of Silicon Valley, so call it a hacker something. Maybe a hacker home.
Xiao divides the project’s history into three phases. In Phase One, he and Lee, both members of the Princeton Entrepreneurship Club, met at a 2011 lecture at the University by Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal. Several months later they ran into each other when author Walter Isaacson came to discuss his biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. Suleimenov joined them for dinner afterward, where they discussed the release of Apple’s Mountain Lion operating system. Xiao, who had won the Princeton Pitch competition as a freshman with a proposal for an external airbag to protect cars from damage in a crash, already was working on an idea for file-organizing software. He began writing Collections code in earnest that winter, but progress was slow because the economics major also had to finish his senior thesis, which he blandly describes as “something I had to do in addition to this.”