What We Learned in San Francisco about Billion Dollar Startups

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Natalie Grasso Cockrell
Natalie Grasso Cockrell
Natalie is a Workplace Consultant at Herman Miller and the former Editor of Work Design Magazine. She’s currently based in Pittsburgh.

Quite a lot, as predicted. Scroll for photos and highlights from last week’s event.

The view from the 15th floor of 600 Cal. Photo by Jeff Rumans.

Last Tuesday night in San Francisco we gathered on the expansive, as yet unleased 15th floor of 600 California Street to discuss the workplaces of billion dollar startups with a panel that impressively, thoughtfully, prolifically walks the talk. The lineup: Denise Cherry, director of design at Studio O+A, whose client list includes Uber, Facebook, and Yelp; Chris Coleman, the former director of design for Google and Dropbox; Everett Katigbak, former brand manager for Pinterest and environmental design manager for Facebook; and Paul Singh, investor, entrepreneur, and former managing director of 1776.

The panelists, from left to right: Chris Coleman, Denise Cherry, Everett Katigbak, and Paul Singh. Photo by Jeff Rumans.

Conversation flowed from prompts around what types of space best support innovation in a climate of unprecedented growth and change in the tech community.

“I think architects and designers have more visibility into what start out as startups and then become unicorns,” said Singh. “These companies are switching out so fast, growing so fast, [and] you have to come back so often.”

He added that “if we think that things have changed a lot in the last five years, they’re going to change even more in the next two-and-a-half. The pace of change is only increasing. And this is interesting to me because you guys” — Bay Area designers and architects — “get it.”

Scroll for photos and to read more!

Space talks, investors listen. And so will your next most talented recruit.

“An on-site visit is usually very important to us,” said Singh. “Let’s say you walk into their shared office space at WeWork, or you go to visit them in the living room that they’re working out of, you learn a lot about interpersonal dynamics that you just can’t learn in a pitch deck. So from an investment standpoint, it’s a filtering mechanism.”

Singh said space becomes even more important at later stages as a tool to attract and retain employees, especially in the Bay Area’s competitive talent pool.

“Say you’re trying to attract a VP of sales or a VP of marketing, and these are people that are coming from a larger company like Google or Salesforce and, frankly, they have certain expectations. One part of it is the comp — How much money am I going to make? — but another big part is the space,” he said.

As the company gets bigger, its space gets more and more important.

“The point is, as the company gets bigger, its space gets more and more important,” said Singh. “And once they get past some point — let’s just call it thirty employees — the spaces have to become much more curated, much more aspirational, much more inspirational, heavily influenced by the founders, and it’s a necessary expense.”

Cherry added that “the beauty of space and the beauty of what we do is that every culture is different, and you can say that to some one who is interviewing, but it’s so much more powerful for [the recruit] to see it.”

Gesturing toward the slides (see the images below), she added, “It’s very clear in those two photos how different Google’s culture is from Dropbox’s culture. Now you could use words and you could try to sell that to a possible recruit, but for them to walk through the space and experience it first hand, it’s so much more powerful.”

Culture and values always precede real estate.

“We’re most interested in creating spaces that are built around the culture of the company themselves,” said Cherry. “Some companies are much more focused on concentrative work, and some are more about that quick ideation, or in the case of Facebook, more about hacking and prototyping.”

Designing their spaces, she said, is about supporting a culture that’s already baked into the DNA of the company.

Take, for example, Coleman’s story about one of Google’s first “Googley” spaces, as we now know them, in Zurich:

The eggs and gondolas in question. Images of Google’s Zurich office courtesy of Chris Coleman.

“Zurich was designed in 2004, completed in 2005,” said Coleman, who started with the company in 2003. Most of the space is stark — lots of desks. However, for a collection of small phone booths, the architects proposed a grouping of three giant eggs.

Initially, Coleman — a former set designer at CNN — put his foot down, on account of knowing “how much it’d cost to build an egg”. Taking it in stride, and inspired by their location, the team settled upon gondolas, and eventually did iterate the eggs to a point that they’d also fit within the budget.

The story drew laughs, but there’s a real takeaway there, too: the ideas for the gondolas and eggs arose naturally, if cheekily, from the Zurich-based team, and supported both the company’s idiosyncratic personality, and the way those employees knew they’d use the rooms. It would have been a different story if Coleman had slapped the gondolas and eggs onto a company that didn’t want them — Dropbox, for example.

Dropbox’s HQ. Image courtesy of Chris Coleman.

“Dropbox did not want anything to do with this [stuff],” he said. They were focused on building spaces that were sophisticated, refined — something that conferred a “sense of elegance and purpose” on employees and visitors, he said. “It comes from their culture.”

According to Cherry, Uber and Yelp’s cultures, too, set the tone for the design process.

Images of Yelp's HQ courtesy of Denise Cherry.
Images of Yelp’s HQ courtesy of Denise Cherry.

“At Yelp, their culture is all about self-expression,” she said. “It’s very much about being able to control the patina of their office, and to personalize it as they see fit. Our job was to honor the history of the Art Deco building, and create a palette and a space which was warm, comfortable, and made them feel that they had the freedom to be able to personalize the space.”

Images of Uber's HQ courtesy of Denise Cherry.
Images of Uber’s HQ courtesy of Denise Cherry.

Uber, on the other hand, is “a culture of intense concentration – a founder with a very specific vision,” she said. “So [for them], it was about translating that vision.”

“If you built a space that was based on [an] imaginary version of ‘collaboration’, it would never be used,” she added. “It just wouldn’t be authentic to the way that company works.”

Technology? Meh. Even Pinterest still pins up.

When we posed a question about technology at work, it was met with a totally refreshing ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ from the panelists.

“At least in the places I’ve worked, it was more about just getting people together physically in the space so that they can talk,” said Katigbak. “It’s not necessarily a technology that’s facilitating some type of rapid prototyping or ideation. It’s just having real estate for me and five other people to sit and hash out some problems.”

“Even our teams at Pinterest heavily used a lot of analog tools,” he added. “Our product design team would print every single thing up and did it really old school. At Facebook, too, we whiteboarded everything.”

Cherry nodded in agreement: “You can spend all this money on fancy video walls or smart whiteboards, but at the end of the day, people write on the whiteboard and take a picture of it with their phone.”

That said, virtual tools can be used to a workplace’s advantage.

Here the conversation took a turn to virtual space and branding — not necessarily using technology at work, but using technology to brand and spread the word about interacting with physical space.

Singh said that he’s seen many of his portfolio companies use the Facebook check-in feature on Meraki’s wireless access points to great effect.

“[They’re] interesting because they don’t cost any more than a normal access point, but they have this little feature called Facebook check-in,” he said. “And what that does” — when you’re logging in online at, say, Starbucks or Peets — “is it moves all of that scary legal text way down that page, and instead the first thing your visitor sees is ‘check-in to this space online’. So if this was Uber’s office, you would walk in, and to get on the Internet, you’d get on the Uber guest network, and the next thing it would ask you to do is check-in to Uber.”

“What I hear when I hear a lot of architects and designers speak is you’re talking about the interaction with the space by the humans that are actually in the room physically,” said Singh. “But I think one of the lowest hanging fruits that people forget is that when somebody’s interacting with your space they could passively tell their entire friend network where they’re at. If you’ve checked-in to a place on Facebook, you know that all of the other photos from that space then show up on their feed, as well.”

Most importantly, the workplace should be a platform where interesting things happen.

During Katigbak’s time at Facebook, he and a colleague started the Analog Research Lab, a basement screen-printing studio where “the subject matter was the company and the values and the mantras and culture — we tried to give it physical form and install these things in the office,” he said. “It was pretty ground-up. No one was asking us to do this stuff and no one was telling us to stop, and it became the epicenter of the culture.”

Katigbak (seated) in Facebook's Analog Research Lab. Image courtesy of Everett Katigbak.
Katigbak (seated) in Facebook’s Analog Research Lab. Image courtesy of Everett Katigbak.

The same ethos that allowed the lab to sprout and blossom was present when Facebook acquired the building that they worked with Cherry and O+A to design.

“It wasn’t about, What can we design in the space?,” said Katigbak. “It was, What can we strip away in order to get to work the fastest? It was a very deconstructivist approach. We were trying to create the conditions for interesting things to happen.”

“If you can create a space where people can come in and they’re comfortable enough to want to make it their own and for them to immediately feel ownership, that’s what we’re supposed to be doing,” said Cherry. “For some companies, that is the ability to hack and wheat paste on walls, or thrash furniture. And for some people it’s the complete opposite of that. You have to create a space where you can feel ownership and feel pride in it, [regardless of which] side of the spectrum it’s on.”

Thank you again to everyone who joined us last week in San Francisco, and special thank you to our event sponsors: AgilQuest, Humanscale, Knoll, Condeco, MEPT, Turner Construction, and IIDA!

Natalie Grasso Cockrell
Natalie Grasso Cockrell
Natalie is a Workplace Consultant at Herman Miller and the former Editor of Work Design Magazine. She’s currently based in Pittsburgh.
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