I sat down for two drinks with San Francisco real estate agent Jenny Haeg — it’s the second in a new Re/code interview series called “Two Drinks With” (you can order kombucha, but I will judge you). Haeg talked about finding spaces for companies like Uber and Square, and the typical considerations for a startup space: Is it dog-friendly? Where will the hammocks go? Can we hang a swing there?
Subject: Jenny Haeg, founder of Custom Spaces
Drink: Chai latte, followed by chardonnay al fresco
Where: Caffe Centro, SoMa
Jenny Haeg, the longtime real estate agent for startups like Square, Airbnb and Uber, left her office one evening this week and immediately bumped into a friend.
She had just moved her firm, Custom Spaces, to an airy ground-floor space in South Park, the tiny, hallowed green space in the heart of San Francisco’s SoMa district where Jack Dorsey (one of her clients) originally thought of Twitter. Her friend — who on his collar wore a small camera called a Narrative that takes a photo every 30 seconds — approved of the move.
“You’re in the heart of the bubble here. The bubble of South Park in the bubble of SoMa in the bubble of the Bay Area in the bubble,” he said, tapping on his neck camera to make sure it took a picture of the moment before ducking out.
Haeg, in a blazer, ordered a chai latte at Caffe Centro, a neighborhood sandwich spot, and we headed out to find a picnic table in the two-block island, surrounded by Victorians and boutiques. I got a steamed almond milk because that’s how I roll.
The petite, vivacious Haeg is a bit of a throwback. The on-call real estate agent for companies like Uber, Twitter and Square, she rarely uses the Internet at all — the value of hiring her is what’s offline. Because most of the properties she traffics in never actually hit the market. Such is real estate in boom town San Francisco. Like an old fashioned matchmaker, Haeg just knows who’s looking, who’s growing and who’s shrinking. And she starts early. She’s helped Dropbox since it was just 10 people; Uber since it was two. She reserves a set of tiny live-work lofts for when Y Combinator entrepreneurs have just one employee.
“Seventy percent of our spaces are off-market,” Haeg said. “We know who’s getting funding, we know who’s been acquired, we know — ‘Yo, Instacart is moving out in September.'” She gestured to a building on the other side of the playground. “Airbnb was an off-market space. Square was off-market.”
Has she noticed any trends from the front lines?
“Everybody wants to have events, so they need space for that. You have to make sure they’re allowed bikes and dogs. And yoga rooms, meditation rooms,” Haeg said. “Something that’s really important, also, is people don’t sit at their desks all day. They want soft spaces — whether it’s a couch, a hammock or a swing.”
Of course we want swings in our offices now. Anything else?
“I’ve started to see fishtanks.”
Fishtanks! That’s a bad sign, right?
“It might be.”
We finished our teas, and went back to the same cafe; we sneaked our full glasses of 10 Span Vineyards chardonnay ($7 a glass) back out to the park.
“I don’t think we’ll get arrested,” she said.
After graduating with degrees in business and communications from USC, Haeg and her husband (an early Myspace employee now working on a stealth startup) moved to Presidio Heights, and she started doing commercial real estate for a large firm, CAC Group (now part of LBRE).
“Commercial brokerage is a suit-and-tie industry. When I started and said I wanted to do tech, they told me it was risky. They wanted me to be focusing on law firms. I just didn’t agree,” she said. “I had to get approval to wear jeans to work.”
“It took a couple meetings,” she said.
She scoured the tech press and, in 2006, noticed the names Jack Dorsey and Evan Williams. She emailed, asking if they needed help looking for office space. After meeting in the park, she found them their first space on Bryant Street. This launched her, she said. Her firm Custom Spaces, which she started in 2011, is soon doubling from six to 12 brokers, whom Haeg is hiring from startups rather than from real estate firms.
Today, she’s applying a residential real estate agent approach (a fun ground-floor office! listings in the window!) to the conservative and utilitarian game of commercial real estate — because startup founders care about their offices more than their apartments.
One of Haeg’s clients told her that she was the most “un-broker broker” he’d ever met, which she considers the greatest compliment.
“When you hear the word ‘broker,’ what do you think of? Wall Street? Car salesmen?” she said. “I like to think we’re playing a bigger part. If you’re working all the time and basically living in your office, it’s a big deal.”