Imagine arriving at your office in the morning, mounting your bike on a hanging rack, petting the office dog and grabbing a snack from a fully-stocked pantry. At lunch you pour yourself a cold beer from the office kegerator. Your afternoon meeting is held in a conference room that, with a plush sofa and flat-screen television, looks more like the living room of a studio apartment.
It may sound like fantasy to those who don’t work in New York’s burgeoning tech sector, but on May 18, a group of about 1,800 people had an opportunity to see what it’s like to work in a space with those kinds of unconventional features. WalkaboutNYC is a one-day event that invites members of the public to attend open houses at 55 New York tech companies, including established companies like Tumblr and Gilt Groupe, “Draw Something” game design firm OMGPOP and the east coast office of Facebook.
WalkaboutNYC is the side project of Danny Wen and Shawn Liu, co-founders of Harvest, a company that helps workers track their time and create invoices. Before launching Harvest in 2006, the partners ran a web design studio. Their favorite part of the job was visiting their clients’ offices. “Seeing their workspaces helped us to determine how we wanted to set up our space. Space itself tells a big story about company culture,” said Wen.
WalkaboutNYC kicked off at Harvest’s offices on the sixth floor of 187 Lafayette Street in SoHo. Around one hundred participants arrived around noon, just minutes after the elevator in the building broke down — forcing participants to do a lot of walking up before walking about. The bowls of granola bars and a barista serving iced coffee at Harvest not only made up for the inconvenience but provided some extra energy.
Although WalkaboutNYC offered participants an opportunity to see cool office spaces and meet staff, the behind-the-scenes journey also revealed the facts on the ground about how New York’s tech economy is growing.
Lofts, Not Highrises
“In New York, one of the more interesting things is that tech companies tend to take over loft and industrial buildings that were historically for manufacturing,” said Wen. According to a recent Center for an Urban Future study, many tech companies rent space in what are known as Class B and C office buildings — “former industrial properties… which tend to command significantly lower rents than Class A office towers.”
But as tech companies grow, access to that space is increasingly harder to come by, especially in Manhattan, which lost nearly 50 percent of its Class B and C space between 1995 and 2009 as many of these spaces were converted to residential apartments. In that same time frame, the amount of Class A space remained nearly unchanged. The report concludes that the declining availability of inexpensive space in Manhattan could stunt growth.
What about moving to Brooklyn? According to the report, space in DUMBO, the home of many start-ups, is also limited. Additionally, office space in other nearby Brooklyn neighborhoods lack the broadband infrastructure to support tech companies.
Wen and Liu said they are close to moving Harvest to a new office space in the Flatiron district. The space is in a more modern office building, “with a real elevator,” Liu quipped.
Rubbing Shoulders in the Tech Scene
Mayor Michael Bloomberg has spoken frequently about New York’s edge over Silicon Valley: from media to finance to fashion, New York City has a little bit of everything. Jimmy Wohl is a former cruise ship music director who now freelances as a copywriter for an ad agency. The agency shares a building with Tumblr, whose offices he visited during WalkaboutNYC.
“If we lived in Silicon Valley, I’d never be able to come to something like this,” said Wohl, who is looking for full-time work. In California, he would have had to get into his car and drive several miles to get to each company’s office park. He said that visiting Tumblr allowed him to see what kinds of jobs are hiring and to expand his horizons.
Room to Meet and Play
Dan Porter, CEO of OMGPOP, didn’t so much greet the WalkaboutNYC visitors as much as ambush them. “If you all don’t start asking questions, I’m going to start calling on you,” he said. After fielding a few questions about the company, he told visitors that each of the conference rooms at OMGPOP are named after characters on the HBO crime drama “The Wire,” because “it’s a great show and the characters taught me about business.”
Porter hired a professional designer to create the current OMGPOP offices, where the company has been for just under a year, and wishes he had invested more money in office space early on. “Our office is a by-product of not doing things right previously. When we first started, we didn’t have enough room for staff meetings, which made it hard to build community,” Porter said.
To Porter, having a great office environment also helps to attract talented employees. “They have to imagine working in that space every day. It’s hard to imagine yourself going to the heinous cube with bad lighting and a dirty carpet every day,” he said.
As the tour of OMGPOP ended around 6 p.m., many of the computer screens switched from displaying lines of code to the interfaces of “Diablo III,” a role-playing video game, and several employees were tossing a tiny basketball into a net mounted on the wall.
On the way out the door, attendees passed the Avon conference room, named after Avon Barksdale, a Baltimore drug kingpin on “The Wire.” Underneath his name, the glass door is emblazoned with a quote: “The Game is the Game.”
Videos produced by Matthew Chao and Daniel T. Allen.
For more technology news, watch “MetroFocus: The Tech Economy,” airing on THIRTEEN on June 30 at 5 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. and July 12 at 8:30 p.m.; on WLIW at 5:30 a.m. on June 30; on NJTV on July 1 at 5:30 a.m. and July 2 at 4:30 a.m.