For Real? Estate – Part 1: The “No Es Bueno” San Francisco Land Grab

It all started wwhitebagith a plastic bag last winter.

“I think you’ll REALLY like this place over the others we’ve looked at — it’s right in your price range and they’re even willing to wait 3 months for you to start the lease until your other lease is up!”

My commercial broker, Amy, was her usual perky, peppy self as she maneuvered her late model BWW X5 slowly the narrow alleyway that passed for a street near San Francisco’s courthouse / jail complex on .

As we slowly drifted past a motley assortment of buildings in the street, I kept sinking down further into my seat and even contemplated refusing to get out of the car when it stopped at our destination.

The back alley buildings themselves held the businesses one would expect in the neighborhood immediately surrounding the local pokey – bail bondsmen after bail bondsmen, followed by shingle after shingle advertising criminal defense attorneys (“Available 24/7!”). And let’s not forget the tasty side of other sketchy-looking services that cater to the patrons of the court system and jail. Bail_bonds

Amy squeezed her large SUV into a small, cracked driveway next to a pale pink rock-facade 1960s era apartment building; we slid out gingerly onto the broken pavement, looking furtively from side to side for I don’t know what.

Across the driveway, a lean, blonde, very-tanned man greeted us energetically – Charlie, the broker from the “other side”, i.e. the guy who represented the landlord in a commercial rental transaction.

As Charlie thrust a lean, tanned hand toward us, Amy stage-whispered to my partner and me, “It was so nice of him to come out to show this. Most brokers are already done for the week. But he and I go way back and so it’s a favor.”

It was only 10 am. On a Friday.

So it made sense that he would be done for the day….if his clients were vampires.

The property itself was one of the oddest office buildings I’d seen in San Francisco. Badly weathered aluminum siding covered on the upper part of the building above a layer of pastel faux-rocks. A large external cement staircase in the front led up to each of the 6 units, 2 per floor.  They all looked like apartments rather than offices, each featuring a very homey front door with a knocker and a large picture window next to it.

Charlie bounded up the stairs in front of us, casually announcing over his shoulder that all the other tenants were defense attorneys.

Naturally.

And then I saw it.  The bag.

As I lifted up my foot to take my first step onto the staircase, I noticed the small, white, lumpy bag on the ground at the base, with a neatly tied bow — it was a bag that looked grossly familiar to anyone who has ever owned a dog.

I froze, my stomach lurching ever so slightly, and quickly side-eyed my partner, seeking some reassurance that that bag was not what my stomach and nostrils were perceiving.

Without missing a step, he whispered as he passed me and stepped onto the staircase, “Yes, that is exactly what you think it is.”

Our tour of the apartment / office turned out to be just as disheartening as our trip up the staircase. Charlie pleasantly pointed out the features: 3 beige separate (bed)rooms, beige in-suite bathroom, beige kitchen, beige wall to wall carpet, beige linen closets, fire escape access in the back down to the garbage cans….yes, garbage cans. In the back, where garbage goes.

At this point, there was no shaking the apartment-complex feel to it, although when asked, both Charlie and Amy swore it had always been a commercial property. They both gamely attempted to sell the highlights of the space’s 3 bedroom floor plan — more privacy because of the separate rooms, all new kitchen appliances, a shower in the bathroom, large closets for coats….by the end, I wasn’t sure if we were supposed to work there or make a happy home.

But even if the doggie welcome bag hadn’t been there, the office space was simply not at all what we could move our tech product design firm into. As I’d emphasized to Amy many times, our must-have requirements, after price range and square footage, included an office with natural light, and parking, both for me and my staff and for our Silicon Valley clients, many of whom had to drive into San Francisco for business meetings. (But not typically criminal court dates.)

Needless to say, we said our goodbyes to Amy and her services later that day. While I certainly didn’t hold her responsible for the doo-doo bag, I did let her know that we had higher hopes for her meeting our office requirements. But given the commercial real estate market, perhaps I was overly harsh on her on even that front. After all, Amy was only able to show us inventory that was available. And the inventory pickens were indeed slim.

While it was to be the last, tDIAKADI_Fitness_Performance_Life_-_Google_Mapshis wasn’t our first disappointing office visit to San Francisco commercial space within our size and price range. The other visits, while not as notably colorful as the Bail Bondsmen Backalley, all seemed wrought with similarly fatal flaws — one building was a converted warehouse that had a single tiny bathroom per floor of 8 offices.

And then there was the Peruvian startup attempting to run an illegal  out of their offices. Although we were initially excited about their bright, IKEA-decorated sublet, the dreamy deal started falling apart when we started asking several tough, probing questions such as, “Has your landlord actually given you permission to sublet the space?” These were met with a lot of blank stares, and a few “Es bueno, es all bueno, no problem, no worries. Deal?”, which we met with a corresponding, “Nooooo, no es bueno. Noooooo deal.”

I could go on about ore dire properties we viewed, but it just takes me back to the sadder place to recount the weird, cavelike, or just downright depressing office spaces for rent.

Basically, though, I was starting to believe that we’d be better off pitching a tent in the SoMA Streat Food lot next to the food trucks and turning that into an office space with tasty snacks nearby.

Wondering what happened next? Check out more about my roller-coaster experiences in the San Francisco land grab in Part 2: Why can’t I just work in my car??

 

For Real? Estate – Part 2: Why can’t I just work in my car?

(To recap just how this all started with a plastic bag of poo, please see Part 1: The “No Es Bueno” San Francisco Land Grab )

The crazy commercial and residential land grab in San Francisco is not new news to anyone who lives in the Bay Area. It was just my personal first brush with how insane it’s all gotten in the run up of the past 6 years since we first took a commercial lease. Ah, those were the salad days of early 2008, where SF 

For those of you (well, okay, maybe it’s just me) who find the price-per-square-foot number a little inscrutable — it’s basically the annualized cost per square foot for a rental. So an office space of 10,000 square feet at $30 / square foot will cost your firm a nifty $300,000 to rent for the year.

How little I realized what a bargain those olden days were.

I learned quickly, for when our office lease was about 6 months away from expiring, we started conversation with our current building management team about the potential cost of renewing. I nearly fainted in my chair when I was told that current market for our building and spaces like it was running between 

Just based on the sheer 80-100% increase in rent alone, it was becoming clear for our bottom line that we’d need to look around for a new office space.At this point, in the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I’ve only helped create this quasi-dire office space situation by limiting my search area to the side of San Francisco that is absolutely the most competitive for commercial space currently, thanks to the tech boom. It’s the  combined with a few nearby streets in the Mission district.

While I’ve never been one to be driven by tech trendiness in making business decisions, there are truthfully some solid reasons why  (and it’s not because of the SF Giants home ballpark).

The major commuter train transportation hub, otherwise known as Caltrain, comes to rest in the heart of SoMA, which enables numerous non-SF dwellers to commute from as far as San Jose 45 miles away as it travels up through the Silicon Valley and Peninsula corridor. It’s also close-ish to the BART stations lining Market Street as well.  And it features a number of funky, trendy smaller office spaces in unique buildings with lots of light and architectural features, the kind of space that suits both unconventional start ups and also my firm, a design firm with Silicon Valley clients.

In short, for my business, SoMA was and still is best area of San Francisco for an office space.

And yet, despite having run my business successfully in San Francisco for over 9 years, it seems that we, too, were now being priced out of the market (or forced to downgrade significantly).

While I’ll refrain from making any poor-me comparisons to the, I have to admit that I can feel a few twinges of the frustration of having been based in a place as both a resident and a business owner (the latter activity which created jobs), of paying local taxes, and of generally contributing to the local economy by patronizing other local small businesses.

After contributing productively as such for 9 years, I suddenly found my ability to rent a suitable office in my home city becoming more and more difficult, priced out by small startups whose biggest contribution to the world so far, besides creating a mobile app that let’s them rent the air around their apartment, is that they believe they’re “disrupting disruption” and that they are proudly developing a corporate culture based on “awesome snacks.” (I am not making any of this up, although I may have combined a few startups.)

This whole experience has a distinct quality of what I imagine it would feel like to wake up one morning and find out every apartment in your building was rented at ridiculously high rents to spendthrift 13-year olds; these youngsters were given a wad of cash and no adult supervision. Sure, they might do *alright* for a while, until they spend all their cash on shiny new MacBooks and In-and-Out Burger and Twizzlers and can no longer afford the rent, at which point they flee and leave the mess for someone else to clean up. And your rent’s 45% higher than before and not going down.

But lest you worry – I’m far less likely to protest my commercial situation by , or by ; however, I haven’t ruled out asking those companies to let us sublet for a while…after all, they both have SOOOOO much more room, and we don’t need much space at all and will keep very quiet, I promise.

GoogleBusAnd more importantly, did we find a new space? More on that in another post, but I promise you, this story DOES have a happy ending…stay tuned for this to all be wrapped up neatly with a sparkly bow in Part 3: I do have a Real Estate Fairy Godmother After All…

NO Is The New YES

Living in Silicon Valley, we are ALL over committed. Whether it be our jobs, volunteer efforts, sports, kid activities, or our lively circle of friends, we are always on the go. But when you’ve been in this rat race for over twenty years, you start to wonder if these commitments are based on priorities or just trying to keep up. Should you cut back and simplify your life?

If you Google, “Simplify life,” you will find a myriad of and . There are even to simplify your life. You can get advice from many sources but when it comes down to it, you need to look at your priorities and starting saying NO.

I bet when most of you were just babes, learning to talk, your favorite word was NO.

NO, I don’t like Brussels sprouts.

NO, I don’t want to take a bath.

NO, I don’t want to go to school.

NO, I don’t want to clean my room.

Somewhere along our journey through life, we stopped using the word NO. And I’m not talking about those situations where “No” is appropriate. I’m talking about being a a fixer, and a constant .

If I want to do something, I don’t want to hear, “NO, you can’t.” I want to hear, “YES, you can.”

Understand that I love to be part of a community and to help people. And I take on most anything thrown at me. I love new tasks. Even if I’ve never done it before, I just dig in, learn what needs to be done, and do it. I have become a YES person.

YES, I will work late tonight to finish that project.

YES, I will organize the neighborhood party.

YES, I will introduce you to that person.

YES, I will volunteer in my child’s classroom.

I say YES to most anything as I love connecting people and feeling part of a something bigger. And it makes me feel good to say YES and complete a task. I’m the busy person people call to complete a task because everyone knows I get shit done…and shit done well.

But then I realized, “WTF am I doing, trying to please everybody else?”

That’s when it hit me. I have a problem…with saying, NO.

Over the summer, I took some time to think about my life. I’m fortunate to have found a loving husband who still puts up with my shit even after twenty years. I’ve got kids who are young but on the edge of being self-sufficient. I volunteer a fair share of my free time to amazing organizations. My knees are aging so I have to rethink my exercise routine. I have many friends and family getting divorced. My day job is all consuming that my passions are now shelved off to the wee hours of the night. My parents and in-laws are aging way too fast. My entire family ecosystem sometimes feels like playing hot potato with a cactus. And health issues are constantly coming up all around me. Throw in a couple tragic and natural deaths and you start to question your role in this adventure I call life. What is my purpose on this earth? I see many people going through the motions of life but not focusing on what is important to them. Life is way to short. Don’t you want to make a difference on the path you take? I know I do. That is why I came up with a list of five top priorities:

#1 family #2 health #3 passions #4 friends #5 day job

Don’t get me wrong, I will always help a friend in need. No questions asked. And some of these priorities do overlap. But with everything life throws my way, I need to take a step back, look at my priorities and start saying NO. It doesn’t mean I don’t like you. It doesn’t mean I don’t want to be a part of your life. And it doesn’t mean I don’t want to help. It just means that I’ve got a lot of shit going on and I have to make hard choices.

So next time you see me and ask for the world, understand the YES inside of me would love to help, but the new NO might take over and politely turn you down.

And that’s alright. It’s okay to say NO if it means YES to focusing on my priorities in life.

If we build it, they will buy it…

I’m a product manager by nature and profession, so today in a slight departure from life in Silicon Valley – I’m going to talk about building products in Silicon Valley. Carl Sagan used to talk about, ‘ … billions upon billions of stars…’. And likewise we have billions upon billions of ideas floating around in the ether above highway 101. Everyone thinks that they are about to create the next big thing. And if you follow tech news, there are many big things that even receive several rounds of funding, before falling over. In my opinion many of these fail because they did not consider the most important step in product development: What is the problem? If you are not able to articulate a problem statement, and what your snazzy resolution would be – then you are going to run into trouble.

This means there needs to be some research done with your core audience, and I mean talking to actual people not reading industry analysts or guru reports that you can get online. Take your idea and meet with your existing customers first. They will provide you with one view – which is usually biased more towards their specific needs with your product line. But, you will have some customers that are thinking about the future and where their systems and processes go next, and they will provide you with valuable input. The next step may be more challenging, because you need to locate core audience that is not an existing customer. These folks are potentially your future customers, and they can give you another perspective. Perhaps they are struggling with a similar but different problem than what you previously focused on. Listen to these people, because if you are trying to expand your market, you need to bring fresh faces aboard the customer train. AND, do not ever leave out your field sales force, if you have one, that is. If your product requires direct sales, you should run your plan by the field, including the Services team, because they provide you with a third perspective. They are constantly beating the bushes for new logos, and can help you with input from prospects, and what they hear about the changing issues for companies in your field.

I realize that for many this should be product management 101, but I have rarely seen this done very well, and usually there are several products that a) never get released, but syphon budget and resources from revenue generating product lines, b) get released and never get sold, because the customer does not ‘get’ how the product will help them, c) reflect negatively on the company brand if a big marketing splash was made, and then the product is suddenly withdrawn. And yes, there are many other factors that affect the success or failure of a product – but it always boils down to what problem are you solving, and is that a valid problem. I have seen software organizations go into tailspins because everyone got caught up in the brilliant idea excitement and had a science project percolating in development which did not have real funding. I have seen posters, graphics and expensive product videos get built – even when the product has no true release date in sight. And, in the end, all of this harms your core product lines that are generating solid revenues. So product builders beware! Don’t be taken in by the next shiny object without doing your due diligence on the research side!

The Top 10 Things I Did to Finally Write That Book

We all have a story to tell. And living in Silicon Valley, our stories usually center around innovation. I’m a “chupacabra” of sorts, since I was born and raised in Palo Alto and decided to stay after college to pursue a career in high tech.

I cut my teeth on some no-name startups, grew up at Adobe, became an evangelist at Apple and am now a “mompreneur” doing the contract gig. And like most working moms, I’m trying to figure out the whole work, life balance and not lose my identity.

I volunteer on a couple boards, help out at my children’s school, and I’m involved in my community. But every step of the way, I feel like I’m losing a piece of myself. Who have I become? What is missing from my life? I have a great career, family, and friends but what is that one thing that makes me feel whole?

I LOVE to tell a good story. I can’t count the number of times in high school, my imagination got me out of trouble. I observe life and rethink the possibilities through my writing. This passion began in my youth, in the privacy of my bedroom with a journal. When high school came along, my creative writing took a backseat to boys and homework. And then with college, the start of my career, a marriage and two young children, life got in the way. Would I ever write that book?

Then I began to think about my career and how I had created some real life stories with all of you. If I twisted things around, the fictional outcomes were endless. I slowly began to write whenever I had a free moment. You see, for me, I discovered  the writing process soothes my soul from the chaos of life. I can transport myself to another world, if only for 30 minutes. So, several years ago, I decided to take the plunge and go for it. I decided to write that book.

Last week, I finally did it. I my debut novel, , a high tech thriller about the inner workings of a Silicon Valley start-up on the eve of its IPO. It’s been a labor of love that took YEARS of hard work.

The first question most people ask is “How did you do it?” That would require a long discussion over a bottle or two of wine. For this blog, I’ve come up with a list of The Top 10 Things I Did to Finally Write That Book.

  1. Just Write! Easier said than done but it’s true. All you need to do is come up with an idea and start typing.
  2. Get a Support Network: You need at least one person in your life to support your dream. My husband was that person. And I put him through hell and back but he was my anchor, reassuring me ever step of the way that I could do it.
  3. Make Time: Carve out time every week to write. I work full time. I volunteer. I have two kids, a husband, a house, a new puppy, extended family and I wake up most days at that crack of dawn to exercise. My life is booked solid and I don’t even drink coffee — crazy right? But in between these events, I make myself write. And I always carry my laptop.
  4. Observe Life: Wherever you are, look, listen and feel. You will find the best material all around you. And you can capture any moment on your phone through a photo, video or your own words.
  5. Attend Writing Workshops: Learn the craft of writing for your genre. My favorite workshop was the in Marin County. I got the opportunity to spend three nights and four days immersed with people like myself and published authors. After that weekend, I realized I had found my tribe. I was born to be a writer.
  6. Read Books: Read books in your genre and see how other authors craft their stories. This is the cheapest and easiest way to learn the art of storytelling.
  7. Meet Authors: Build connections with published authors to gain their insight and advice. Attend readings or workshops. Don’t become a stalker. Be smart and ask questions to build a rapport. Almost all successful authors will help aspiring writers because at some point in their career, they were like you. Thank you , and .
  8. Know that the 1st Draft Is CRAP: I’m just being honest. No author can write words of gold the first time. The point here is don’t get lost in the process of editing. That can take you down a rabbit hole of distraction—and I know this from personal experience. Just complete the first draft and get the story down. Then you can begin the editing process.
  9. Be Open to Feedback: There is always room for improvement. But you need to be able to accept constructive feedback as you edit your book. Find a writing group to test your work and learn from others. But at some point, you will need to go beyond family and friends. Hire an editor who knows your genre and will be brutally honest. As famed novelist and screenwriter once said, “If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.”
  10. Never Give Up: It took me YEARS to write . And it was not easy. Life always has a way of interrupting well thought plans. But stay on point and get it done!

The above is just the tip of the iceberg but hopefully it will resonate with some of you. Although I won’t be giving up my day job any time soon, I will continue to write — book #2 is already in the works. I’ll leave you with one last thought. When I worked at Adobe, they had a marketing campaign that said, “If You Can Dream It, You Can Do it.” If you have a dream of writing that book, what’s holding you back? Just go write!

The Accidental Tech Career…or what I learned to do with a liberal arts degree

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before...”Well, I never really thought I’d work in tech — I fell into a technology career by accident, really…”

Uh huh. When I hear that (and more importantly, when hear myself saying that), I can’t shake the vision of someone falling into an open manhole on a side street in a Silicon Valley city.

“I was just walking along University Avenue on my way to Peet’s, just minding my own business  and – boom!!  I fell in…and now I’m in a tech career! I have NO idea how it all happened!!”

But back to my story. I didn’t exactly fall into a high-tech manhole and I didn’t really end up in my current career by accident. Unless you define “accident” as…

  • attending a Bay Area university  where many, many, many of the graduates go on to high tech careers (HINT: it’s the college that doesn’t have that dirty golden bear as a mascot)
  • deciding that my BA at said university in International Relations with a focus on Eastern European history and politics was NOT going to pay my Bay Area rent; AND
  • living in a house in Palo Alto after graduation with two roommates who were employed by Oracle and who talked about their workdays as if every day at the office was something iike Disneyland-meets-Vegas-but with geeks and free feminine products in the bathrooms (okay, this was Oracle in the 1990s).

FLASHBACK [insert woo-woo sound effect here]

I remember with fondness and only mild stomach churning the day I told my chemical engineer father that I was going to major in International Relations AND  that I was learning that oh-so-practical and widely-used language, Polish, so I could spend my tuition and time documenting the 1980s Solidarity revolution’s impact on the post-Berlin Wall generation (you can stop dozing now).  After what seemed like a ridiculously long and very uncomfortable silence, my dad cleared his throat over the long-distance line from Wisconsin and said, “Oh, so that major is going to help you get into law school, right?”

“Uh, sure, Dad. It’s a great pre-law major. ” (It’s not like I wanted or needed to go into details for him at that point about the two summers I spent clerking for an attorney, which essentially drove me to realize that while I loved the law, my affections did not extend to the actual lawyers.)

And, let’s be honest about why I didn’t level with Dad:  I needed the beer book money.

FLASHFORWARD [insert more woo-woo sound effects here]

It’s about a year after graduation. Many of my friends and classmates have taken jobs in the high tech industry, as the Valley was starting the frenzied ramp-up to what was to be later called rather derisively, “The Dot-Com Bubble.” I was fascinated and even a little envious – as my friends racked up stock options and free snacks at work, I was careening through unsatisfying attempts at a career in what someone cleverly called “boutique” management consulting. (Any one out there remember Business Process Re-engineering for Healthcare? Don’t bother Googling it – it’s better left as a relic of the 1990s, like the Clinton administration or scrunchies.)

But the doors to the magical kingdom that was Silicon Valley seemed closed to me, a liberal arts major with the ability to drop in random Polish words into 50-page papers on post-WWII Eastern Europe. And then one of my roommates explained to me that there was even room in tech for those of us who weren’t gifted programmers. There was this profession called Technical Writing, and it required people who had an ability to both write and communicate with other people.

And I got so excited – I could write (even without weird Polish terminology) AND I could communicate with other people. (My mom told me i was good at that.)

Technical Writing. It sounded so…technical. And writing-y.

I knew I could make this tech writing thing work even though I had no idea how on earth I would get a job doing it.

But serendipity was on my side. I managed to find a technical writing manager at a startup company who wanted to hire young liberal arts majors who could write and who had a lot of enthusiasm but hadn’t been tainted by what she called “Big company bad writing habits.” Whatever that meant. I was in – I had my Golden Ticket and I was now part of the official Tech culture, and at a startup even.

I had no idea what a ride I’d signed up for..the subsequent years were filled with stock options and snacks (yay!), and layoffs, market crashes, re-orgs, and acquisitions (not yay). All within the first 3 years of my career.

I also had fantastic mentors and managers who encouraged me to branch out from my original focus area of technical writing into the field of user interface design and user experience. See, after about 4 months of working as a technical writer, I learned that about 75% of the work I was doing was documenting systems that weren’t designed intuitively. My job was to explain to normal people how to get their work done using software and web sites that perhaps could have been made a leetle beet easier to use if there was more focus on how normal people would use it before it was coded.

It turned out there was a entire field already in existence: usability, human factors, user interface design, user experience. The dot-com boom just brought it to the fore faster as more and more people starting using the internet and Web to do all sorts of things. There was a need to design “stuff” right from the beginning, rather than expecting a user to read a manual first.

And so, long accidental story short:  Turns out after all that, I actually had a knack for designing digital products so that normal people could use them successfully. I honed my skills in the field, went back to school to learn even more, and ultimately started my own consulting agency, and have spent a number of years helping many other Silicon Valley companies design really great products that people can use.

And now I’m also working on my own products as a tech entrepreneur…but more on that another day. And I swear I won’t even try to tell you that it’s by accident…