Tech Startups Turn to Office Designs as Recruiting Tool
When Airbnb Inc., the vacation-rental startup, outfitted its new headquarters last year, it included some unusual features: a tree house, the side of a propeller plane's fuselage, and conference rooms that replicate actual apartments in New York, Hong Kong and Berlin.
While such lavish decor may look frothy, executives at Airbnb "realized it was a recruiting tool," said Kelly Robinson, who led the design of the 25,000-square-foot office in San Francisco.
As tech startups expand with new funding and rapid hiring, office designers are dreaming up creative spaces to contain them. The foosball tables that typified the last dot-com boom have been cast aside to make room for hand-crafted wood furniture and original art pieces geared toward attracting Silicon Valley's brightest engineers and giving them a comfortable home for late-night coding marathons.
"It's not just about buying a bunch of bean bags," said Robinson, who now works as an independent design consultant.
A mile down the street from Airbnb, online storage startup Dropbox Inc. recently remade its digs with surfaces covered in copper and a mural composed of 23,000 Ping-Pong balls in an effort to please its employees.
"These kids are working until really, really late at night," said Lauren Geremia, who designed Dropbox Inc.'s offices as well as those of Path and productivity software maker Asana Inc. "They sleep there, they hang out there, they drink there on Friday. They have a company culture forming there, so I think they really want to be comfortable for long periods of time."
Attractive offices also can help draw in remote workers who spend much of their time logging in from home or from a Starbucks Corp. cafe.
"It's not enough to have a great office to entice people for great hiring, you actually have to have a great office just to entice them to come into the office," said Jason Freedman, chief executive officer of commercial real estate website 42Floors Inc. "If they see no difference between working from the living room or working from the office, they'll just work from the living room and you'll lose some collaboration potential."
Planning for growth is also key, a lesson that Path Inc. learned the hard way. A year after the social networking startup had steel and black-composite desks built for its 30 employees, the company was already outgrowing the custom furnishings.
Path needed to add about 20 people to its San Francisco office, yet the furniture was taking up all the space. The solution: Chop each desk down to two-thirds of its size, move workers closer together and give them dividers for more privacy.
Modular desks made by Tayco Panelink Ltd. and Knoll Inc. (KNL) have become popular among tech startups because they can change shape from cubicles to more open work surfaces and be moved easily.
"It's like Tinker Toys," said Louis Schump, a vice president of architecture firm HOK in San Francisco, who recently helped Idle Games Inc. build an office where desks could be moved around as new teams formed. At Asana, such movement is almost unavoidable: Every desk is on wheels.
Of course, with more living-in comes more of a need to hide the messes of midnight programmers. Geremia often calls on custom furniture makers for help with cool-looking cabinets for office supplies and food.
"To make beef jerky look good takes a little bit of effort," she said.