© The Financial Times Ltd 2015 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
Almost a year after Facebook’s underwhelming stock market debut, Silicon Valley remains enthralled by social media. Investors continue to pour millions of dollars into new apps such as Snapchat and NextDoor, while people in bars and restaurants are often more rapt by Twitter and Instagram on their smartphones than the real-life social networking going on around them.
But Michael and Xochi Birch, the couple who netted a fortune in 2008 from the sale of their social networking site Bebo, are nearing completion of a venture that will attempt to return San Franciscans to the offline world. The Battery, a London-style private members’ club in the city centre, has been nearly five years in development. Its mission: to help improve integration between Silicon Valley geeks and the rest of San Francisco.
Inspired by the new wave of London members’ clubs such as Soho House and The Hospital, the four-storey, 60,000 sq ft building on Battery Street on the edge of the financial district has been transformed into a playful space, including a small hotel, five bars, a restaurant and a spa. One bar has ping-pong tables and the glass lift’s frosted floor turns clear when descending.
“Anything childish is my idea,” says Mr Birch, touring the site. “One rule we set ourselves since selling [Bebo] is that we shouldn’t do anything in life that we didn’t think was going to be fun.”
But there is serious money behind the club – running into tens of millions of dollars – and serious intent. The Birches want to use The Battery to scale up real-world friendships in a way that echoes the web’s ability to build new connections online.
“Despite being an incredibly advanced city entrepreneurially and in every other way, San Francisco is quite behind socially,” Mr Birch says. The food and wine are great but the most interesting nightlife happens at domestic dinner parties, not bars and clubs. The many tech events tend to be dominated by men – and a single subject.
“It becomes very repetitive. By no means are we anti-tech,” Mr Birch says. “But what we do want to do is have a diversity – we want tech to be the minority not the majority. The normal topic of conversation should not start with your new app.”
To enforce this diversity, The Battery will impose a limit on geeks: at most, one-third of its members will come from the local tech community.
The physical space has been designed with mingling in mind. The upstairs Musto Bar – with a hidden poker room adjacent – will be members-only to ensure people run into the same folk more than once.
Mr Birch’s terminology resembles the way he might have pitched Bebo to investors: it “allows you to scale relationships”, he says, because unlike dinner parties or bars, chance encounters with other members are more likely to be repeated.
Mr Birch admits it might look “slightly illogical” that the founders of one of the original social networking websites is taking networking offline but he says that after 20 years in technology, he set out to do something different.
After the Birches left Bebo, it declined under AOL’s ownership as users fled to Facebook, and was sold two years later for a fraction of the $850m purchase price. But subsequent ventures have been more successful: Mr Birch was an early investor and adviser to Pinterest, the popular scrapbooking site, and has been heavily involved in Charity:Water, a fast-rising non-profit organisation.
The Battery is intended to be a profitable enterprise, but it also has a social purpose. “We want people to say they met at The Battery five years ago and then did this amazing project together,” he says.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.