Lauren Geremia points to the ceiling, her shirt sleeve slipping to reveal a tattoo of a ruler on her right forearm, as she talks about the ping pong ball sculpture she is going to install above the rows of office desks and computers. “We’ll create clouds with hundreds of thousands of ping pong balls,” says the interior designer, in a calm, matter-of-fact manner. “It will help with sound diffusion.”
Ms Geremia is putting the finishing touches to her office design for Dropbox, one of the hot internet start-up companies based in San Francisco, which now features conference rooms decorated with celebrity portraits cut from old magazines, lead pencils hanging in hallways encouraging staff to write or draw their thoughts on the walls, and a kitchen with Chinese paper lanterns and a bronze counter. “It patinas as you touch it,” she says, as she presses the countertop, leaving a pink fingerprint. “It’s great for technology companies because the more you interact with it, the better it looks.”
At 29, Ms Geremia is the same age as most of the chief executives for whom she consults. She says this gives her an advantage over established architects in their 50s whose designs are too expensive for a start-up’s budget or stylistically out of touch with the generation in charge of the new companies. Her preference for salvaging vintage doors and tables from the dump and creating decorative flourishes out of wires, string and ping pong balls makes her a better match for the industrial aesthetic they tend to prefer.
“I’m on the same page with them,” she says. “They’re new to money, so I’m growing with them. We’re on the cusp of building our companies and we don’t know if it will last. It feels good to do that with people just out of college.”
An influx of venture capital from Silicon Valley has allowed a new crop of technology companies to flourish in the past year. As they race to claim the top spot in their niches, from mobile social networking to document management, the companies are growing quickly and competing to hire the best engineers but also to find offices that are big enough to accommodate ballooning staff numbers and cool enough to attract and retain them.
San Francisco is increasingly becoming the preferred destination for start-ups staffed by 20- and 30-somethings, over quieter Silicon Valley towns like Palo Alto and Mountain View. Commercial rental rates in the popular neighbourhoods near the train station have increased 50 per cent over the past year, and vacancy rates have halved to 14 per cent.
A small network of real estate brokers, designers, landlords and business consultants is forming around these start-ups to earn its own cut of the internet craze – Ms Geremia is part of one real estate trio.
Jenny Haeg, a commercial real estate broker, was well positioned to take on the latest generation of start-ups. Now 30, she began representing technology companies in San Francisco when she was 25. Her older counterparts were accustomed to dealing with law firms and financial companies that had set employee numbers and revenues. They didn’t trust the young founders’ promises of growth and success.
“Traditionally, I don’t think brokers really understand the internet or really get what these companies are doing,” she says. “I definitely think the age similarity helps.”
Ms Haeg loved working with her impassioned, idealistic peers. And she saw a unique business opportunity that her mentors did not – to start early with risk-taking companies and stick with them as they grew. So in 2006, when a tiny start-up with eight employees, called Twitter, asked for her help finding an office, she signed on. She has helped the company move three times in the past five years as the staff grew to number in the thousands.
“All my clients, it’s all repeat business,” she says. “You have to take care of them from when they’re two people and a dog to when they need 90,000 sq ft of space.”
Rounding out the trio is Chris Sherman, a project manager who works with Ms Geremia and Ms Haeg to co-ordinate the details of a start-up’s office move and facilitate the process. “I have to make sure they’re legal and that they don’t burn themselves up with 5m cords on the floor,” she says.
Ms Sherman is 66 years old – “I’m the senior citizen here,” she says with a laugh – and has a background in real estate and general contracting, which she began applying to her work with start-ups about 10 years ago. Now she prefers working with “the kiddies”, as she calls them, because she finds their ambition and idealism refreshing.
“In the old days, it was canned,” she says. Her corporate clients all wanted offices and cubicle partitions to hide from each other.
Now Ms Sherman is managing renovations for start-ups who all want brick and timber buildings with exposed beams and pipes in the ceiling and an open floor plan with shared tables so they can talk and collaborate.
All the start-ups want a large meeting area where companies can have staff meetings and host talks, and where they can serve the catered lunches and dinners that are becoming de rigueur among start-ups, she says. Today’s start-up companies truly see the office as second home – night lighting is important for working late or hosting parties on the weekend.
“They say, ‘I don’t want it to look corporate . . . I want it to be cool and I want a music room and I want a game room,’” she says. “That’s why they like Lauren. She has an edgy, organic style and it appeals to the young people today.”
Ms Geremia began sensing the market opening for her interior design before the current technology boom and began to position herself to be the go-to designer for the geeks. After graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2004, she moved to San Francisco and began designing bars and restaurants. She strategically took a job designing the Bloodhound, a San Francisco bar where start-up engineers go for happy hour after work.
Her real entrée into the start-ups came when the wife of a Facebook engineer saw a frozen yoghurt shop that Ms Geremia had designed, then hired her to decorate her house.
As former Facebook employees got funding to launch their own start-ups, Ms Geremia’s name got passed around as a hip designer who knew how to capture a company’s personality in its office space. “They all have a company culture, which I have to cultivate in the design,” she says.
Ms Geremia is delighted that there is a keen market for her style among office managers, but her broader ambition is to turn to the residential market, once her office clients cash in at their initial public offerings.
“I want to start designing all these peoples’ houses when they start buying them,” she says.