Inside the offices of New York’s biggest startups

As you step out of the elevator on the fourth floor of an otherwise ordinary looking industrial office building in Manhattan’s tony Chelsea neighborhood, you may think you’ve stumbled across a secret Starbucks location known only to the cool kids.

Dozens of young faces are lit up by laptops, sitting in small clusters around cafe tables. In the background, an inspirational banner reads, “Can I kick it? Yes you can.” A barista in the corner mans the coffee machines. Bloody Mary drinks are lined up in rows further down the counter, waiting for the Friday morning rush.

Welcome to the New York headquarters for WeWork, a startup that has rocketed to a reported $16 billion valuation by designing fun and flexible coworking spaces for other startups. WeWork has emerged as the Willy Wonka for crafting modern startup office spaces — and this building is its chocolate factory.

The company’s bearded cofounder Miguel McKelvey lumbers through the halls, towering above all at 6’8’’, pointing out WeWork’s latest design experiments, any of which may one day find their way into other offices around the world.

WeWork’s cafe provides employees with breakfasts and brewed coffee on a daily basis

Here, he explains, is a conference room with a triangular table for more of a “classroom-style arrangement” during meetings. There is a modified stairwell with multiple landing areas furnished with plush couches and plants designed to eliminate the cultural divisions between floors.

And look, the pièce de résistance: a “quiet room” with walls painted like a lush forest and finished off with actual hammocks for taking breaks.

“One of the things that we’ve evolved the most is the variety of options,” McKelvey says, sitting on a leather couch in a carpeted music room that looks like every college student’s dream setup for playing Rock Band.

“There are a lot of different seating styles, different occupancies in nooks and phone booths. People really want different things depending on who they are,” he says, before boasting: “We know the number of conference rooms and phone booths that make a building successful.”

WeWork’s approach to office design and perks, while more ambitious by virtue of its tremendous size and business focus, is emblematic of the New York startup scene overall. It’s the hideaways and little details that count most here.

WeWork’s stairwell is set up for chance meetings.

“San Francisco is a boring fucking city. In New York, you don’t have to entertain people because the city entertains people.”

In Silicon Valley, many workers have been spoiled by sprawling campuses, free company buses, fun slides and scooters, in-house chefs and laundry services offered by prominent businesses like Google and Facebook. In New York, startup employees are accustomed to working more with less.

“Expectations, in some ways, are higher for the people in San Francisco,” McKelvey says. “In New York, you have thousands of buildings that have never been renovated, that have horrible designs, that are really cramped and terrible. Lots of people are coming out of those buildings and coming into our buildings and saying, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before.’”

Sure enough, in tours of five prominent New York startup offices, that theme emerged again and again. Startups operating in the Big Apple don’t feel the need to dazzle staff quite as much — and particularly at a time when the startup market is more volatile — though they still go above and beyond the old-fashioned office.

“San Francisco is a boring fucking city. In New York, you don’t have to entertain people because the city entertains people,” says Mario Schlosser, CEO of Oscar, a healthcare startup valued at nearly $3 billion and headquartered in the very entertaining SoHo neighborhood.

A library inside Spotify’s New York office offers a quiet refuge for work.

Uplifting mantras, like this one at Poppin, are popular on the walls of New York startup offices.

The startup offices we visited mostly embraced similar themes: Inspirational quotes (“Do what you love!” and “Work happy!”); lively colors, graffiti or QR codes on the walls; topped off with million-dollar views of the city and the occasional pet dog roaming free.

But the most important feature is having an open office layout to encourage collaboration, very much en vogue in Silicon Valley, combined with more varied hideaways — vestibules, phone booth replicas, quiet rooms, game rooms, scattered couches — to let employees get the hell away from people when needed.

An unassuming door at Oscar’s office leads to a crucial perk for new parents.

The two sweetest words at WeWork: quiet room

Another quiet space to work heads down inside Spotify.

“The team wanted a lot of practical things,” says Will Freund, COO of Harry’s, a popular shaving supply startup, which graduated from a cramped office near Union Square in Manhattan to more spacious (at least by Manhattan standards) digs downtown. “A lot of it was, ‘Give us more space to work collaboratively and give us some quiet conference rooms to drown out background noise.’”

To ensure the startup makes the most of what precious space it has and strikes the right balance with employees, Harry’s has taken the unusual step of installing heat-mapping cameras. This tracks the amount of activity in different parts of the office so Harry’s can adjust the layout accordingly.

“This concept of test, measure, learn from it, rinse and repeat, it’s present in all parts of our business, [office] space included,” Freund says. “We probably try something new here at least every month.”

A heat-mapping camera tracks the flow of employee foot traffic at Harry’s.

A hideaway spot inside Harry’s.

While the famed office perks of Silicon Valley are harder to come by in New York, many startups here do dole out benefits that would be lavish by almost any other standard.

WeWork provides complimentary yoga and exercise classes once a week, free massages once a month and breakfasts (fruit and cereal), beer and brewed coffee on a daily basis. “I love what I do,” says Stamatios Manes, the barista whose actual title is HQ Pantry Manager, in charge of the small team that tends to WeWork’s kitchen.

Spotify caters in lunches from restaurants, makes tech supplies readily available through vending machines (no need to harangue the IT team) and sprinkles foosball tables, ping pong tables and musical instruments throughout the office.

Oscar has “tons of happy hours,” according to its CEO, and the occasional weekend camping retreat — or “glamping,” as he jokingly refers to it — to mingle and talk strategy.

And, of course, there are the snacks.

What better way to unwind at work than with this Metallica pinball machine at Spotify?

The obligatory startup ping pong table, seen here at Poppin’s office.

“With any startup you’ve got to have that fully stocked kitchen,” says Erica Stokes, HR director at Poppin, a startup in the Flatiron District that makes modern office supplies and has raised more than $30 million in funding. At Poppin, those snacks include an unlimited supply of coffee and tea, fresh fruits and plenty of Field Trip Jerky.

To do otherwise would buck the customs of Startupland, and risk making the company a little less competitive for talent in what is still a hyper-competitive hiring market.Enter your paragraph 2 here

The drink selection at WeWork.

“To be totally honest with you, we don’t use these amenities as much as you would think.”

For all the attention paid to perks as a tool to hire and retain staff, some employees and executives we spoke with shrugged off their value.

“To be totally honest with you, we don’t use these amenities as much as you would think,” says Miles Lennon, product manager at Spotify, after showing off the company’s rooftop, games, performance area for bands and an artsy library.

“A lot of the pleasure of having them is knowing they are there if you need them,” Lennon said. “It’s great to know if I do need to blow off some steam, there’s a ping pong table, but most of the time it’s pretty dormant.”

Schlosser, the Oscar CEO, is even more blunt about his decision not to overdo it with office perks: “None of us ever had the urge to try to attract people who want a game room, or to try to compete on that level.”

Cups at Oscar’s headquarters sum up the startup’s no frills philosophy.

Oscar’s crowded office has practical perks, like a dedicated room for new mothers, while forfeiting what Schlosser sees as more frivolous distractions. A lone exception: a small set of German engineering toys that Schlosser likes to tinker with from time to time.

“We all raised large amounts of money that people with fiduciary responsibilities trusted to startups to spend on the business, and yes, attracting talent,” he says. “But I think over-indexing on perks may breed a situation where the culture becomes loose, and where the people are with you because you have perks and for no other reason. That’s a dangerous place to be.”

As the stock market remains volatile, and more startups struggle to raise money or go public, that message of restraint for office perks and design may resonate more and more.

After all, the best perk of any job in this startup market is simply stability.

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