For Tech Start-Ups, Sublets Upon Sublets in Manhattan

July 23, 2013

For Tech Start-Ups, Sublets Upon Sublets in Manhattan


To understand how the current office market for technology companies can resemble a Russian nesting doll, with layer upon layer of increasingly smaller subleases, it might help to consider the upper stories of 568 Broadway in SoHo. In the cast-iron former sewing factory, Scholastic, the publisher, is subletting two floors of space to Foursquare, a social media company. In turn, Foursquare is subletting one of those floors to a handful of other tech firms, including Fueled, which designs apps for phones. And Fueled has divided its column-lined room as a co-working space, where $650 a month gets a renter a seat and unlimited snacks from jars along a wall.One of those seats belongs to David Spiro, a self-employed entrepreneur, who sat alone at the corner of a long table on a recent afternoon, a bag of popcorn by his laptop. “I’ve raised some funding,” Mr. Spiro said, “but not nearly enough to afford a typical lease in Manhattan, so this place is great.”

The sentiment could also apply to the daisy chain of tenants in his building, and more broadly to the surrounding neighborhoods.

In the last few months, the area of Manhattan south of Midtown has been awash in deals where early-stage tech companies have opted to take over office space belonging to another tenant, rather than enter into a direct lease with a landlord.

These sublet deals are often preferred, tenants and brokers say, because the rents are usually slightly cheaper than conventional leases. They can also be for shorter lengths of time than the typical 10 years and require a far smaller security deposit up front.

As important, they say, is that the spaces usually come built out, which means essentials like high-speed Internet lines, air-conditioning and conference rooms are already in place. Getting up and running quickly is critical for companies or self-starters that often measure growth in months, not years, analysts explain.

Of course, the office within an office within an office can carry risks. If the first, second or third tenant goes bankrupt, a subletter could find itself without a home. But because their own leases are so brief, these low-rung tenants can also easily wind down operations quickly if, say, their app never catches fire.

“They don’t know about the future, so flexibility is key,” said Heidi Learner, the chief economist at Studley, the commercial real estate firm, who is the co-author of a report on the tech sublet trend. “You don’t know about what head count will be, whether you will get any venture capital funding, or whether you will be acquired.”

In general, subletting is becoming more popular. In the Midtown South area, or from Canal Street to 30th Street, sublets accounted for 19 percent of major leasing activity this year, up from 11 percent in 2010, Studley said.

And between January and April of this year, 33 percent of all the leases signed in Manhattan by tech companies — a major driver of the current economy — were sublets, the report said. Sublet tenants among other industries within the same period were less than half that.

The report also states that the average length of tech subleases is about four years.

Not just any space will do; tech firms almost exclusively want prewar buildings with lofty ceilings and open floors, said Sean Black, a broker with Jones Lang LaSalle. Since that type of converted industrial space is clustered mainly around the Broadway corridor, supply is limited, he added, and demand is robust.

“They like the ‘old world meets new world’ look,” said Mr. Black, whose many tech clients include Foursquare. A lack of walls and cubicles, with eclectic art on the walls, embodies a certain attitude. “The last thing they want to do is conform with corporate America.”

Technology firms have been subletting a bit more space than they personally need, reflecting awareness of heightened demand from a flourishing industry that allows them to rent out extra room to similar companies. Besides, locking in the space at today’s asking rents, which for sublets is about $45 a square foot in Midtown South, according to Studley, is considered wise, because rents are expected to climb, companies say.

“It’s a great way to hedge the lease,” said Derek Stewart, who handled leasing for Foursquare before leaving the company this summer.

Foursquare, which has 120 employees in New York, paid about $45 a square foot in 2011 in a seven-year deal, Mr. Stewart said. But he estimated that with companies like ZocDoc, a physician app service, and Thrillist, a lifestyle site for men, under the same roof, the building had gained a bit of buzz as a popular tech address. That means the space could command $55 a foot today, he said.

But so far there has been little urge to profit off the subtenants, he added, saying that Fueled and the other subtenants also pay about $45 a foot for their space. “We felt kind of badly making money off it,” Mr. Stewart said. “We didn’t want to have a bad name in this tight community.”

Mr. Stewart, who now works for David Tisch, a tech investor, also pointed out that subleases were essential for the survival of the tech community.

In San Francisco, where Mr. Stewart leased two spaces on behalf of tech companies, start-ups can afford direct leases, which often require just three months of rent for a security deposit. But in New York, 12 months of rent is common. “Landlords here are just so risk-averse,” he said.

In a business where a company’s start-up phase can be hypercompressed — Instagram was founded in 2010 and bought by Facebook for $1 billion two year later — short sublets are not unusual.

The news site BuzzFeed, for example, has signed a two-year sublease for space in the new headquarters of Tiffany & Company at 200 Fifth Avenue, across from Madison Square Park. BuzzFeed, which had been based on West 21st Street in a 20,000-square-foot space, will take an entire 58,000-square-foot floor, which is one of seven floors Tiffany has there.

The rent was not disclosed, but Greg B. Taubin, the Studley broker who represented Tiffany, said that comparable sublet space in the area went for $65 a square foot.

“Companies like this don’t sign long-term leases because they don’t have a crystal ball,” Mr. Taubin said. But for Tiffany, which doesn’t need the space immediately, there’s an upside in cost reduction, too, he added.

Other advantages include having lights on and more people in the elevators, said Bonnie Shapiro, the director of leasing for Allied Partners, an owner of 568 Broadway. “You don’t want tenants touring the building and seeing dark, unused spaces,” she said.

For tenants that may be consolidating or downsizing, the new demand for sublet space may come at a fortunate time. Credit Suisse, the investment bank, which has undergone several rounds of layoffs in recent months, has managed to sublet all its former office space at 315 Park Avenue South, one of three locations it has in Manhattan.

Tech subletters in the 20-story Beaux-Arts tower, which is at East 23rd Street, include VaynerMedia, X+1 and Responsys, as well as Adap. TV, which this month took the entire seventh floor measuring 16,000 square feet. The new space features a red wall decorated with words like energy, creativity and passion, and executive offices around the perimeter have been turned into shared conference rooms. The space is a far cry from its cramped, plain-jane 4,000-square-foot space at 915 Broadway, said Gerry Manolatos, the communications director for Adap. TV.

Mr. Manolatos would not disclose the terms of his lease, only that it is for less than a decade. But in the merry-go-round of the tech sublet market, Adap. TV is cashing in itself; its former space on Broadway is also being sublet to a tech firm, he said.

“It’s like one deal leads to the next,” Mr. Manolatos said. “Everybody’s thinking, ‘Who knows where we will end up next?’ “

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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