ALTO, Calif. — At first glance, the light blue cottage
on Alma Street in this Silicon Valley city may not look
like a place where big ideas are born.
in the past 15 years, this modest house has produced
nearly a dozen successful tech companies. Its owner
swears there’s something special in the air.
going to get some good ideas here," said owner
Genie Laborde, who runs her own consulting business out
of the house and lives a few blocks away. Over the
years, her entrepreneur tenants have come to think of
her as the grandmother of Silicon Valley.
got its start in Laborde’s garage in 2010, and four
years later the smart thermostat company was acquired by
Google for $3.2 billion. Several other companies, after
renting either Laborde’s garage or basement, have
raked in capital or cashed out — successes that have
lent the space something of a mythical quality among
used to walk by this office and see Nest, and now Nest
is a huge, huge company," said Ben Brewster,
co-founder of data leveraging startup Monetize, which
moved into Laborde’s basement earlier this year.
"There’s good potential and possibilities."
not just Nest. Business intelligence startup EdgeSpring
rented from Laborde and went on to be acquired by
Salesforce for an undisclosed amount. Comprehend, which
makes software for biotech companies, spent two years at
Laborde’s and piled up $30 million from investors. And
education tech startup VersaMe, another prior Laborde
tenant, recently launched its first product after
raising more than $100,000 on Indiegogo.
as if the house, which Laborde bought in the late 1990s
as an office for her own consulting business, is an
undiscovered incubator. The property is shaded by a
handful of redwood trees, and on warm days, techies
flock to the backyard to hold meetings or take phone
all really enjoyed the idea that it was literally a
garage," said Isabel Guenette Thornton, Nest’s
former thermostat product manager, "because you
have this wonderful mythology of startups in
found Laborde’s garage on Craigslist in 2010, when the
burgeoning smart thermostat company had about five
people. She said the space had a playful, whimsical
atmosphere that reminded her of being in a treehouse or
a clubhouse — right down to the occasional brush with
nature. Birds would come into the office when the garage
door was up.
was sort of charming," said Thornton, who was an
intern when she found the garage, and later moved up the
company’s ranks. "But the squirrels were less
fun. That wasn’t so great."
leaky roof was even less great. By 2011 Nest was
cramming more than 20 people into the garage, and had to
find a bigger space, Thornton said. But Nest kept the
memory of Laborde’s garage alive by naming a
conference room in one of their later offices "No
a cloud-based access and video surveillance startup,
moved in a few years later and tried to make the garage
more high-tech. The employees installed a system they
created to unlock the door with their smartphones, and
CEO Rick Bentley set up a bitcoin mining operation on
the garage roof. He installed a small machine that ran
algorithms day and night to generate the virtual
currency, put it in a dog house to protect the machine
from the rain, and occasionally sent his drone to check
moving out of Laborde’s garage, Cloudastructure joined
the Highway1 incubator in San Francisco.
some ways Laborde, a small, Southern woman with
snow-white hair, 16 grandchildren and nine
great-grandchildren, is an odd fixture in this
quintessential Silicon Valley scene. She’s not
interested in investing in the startups under her roof
because she says she knows nothing about tech. When her
tenants move out, Laborde marvels at the
"remarkable-looking gadgets" they leave
behind. But as a writer and an artist — her paintings
adorn the walls of both her home and office — Laborde
says she feeds off the energy her renters bring to the
is a whole vibration," she said. "All of us, I
think, support each other’s creativity."
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lives a few blocks from the Alma Street property, in a
house packed with just as much creative energy. She also
rents living space in her home to an eclectic group of
techies, investors and artists, and they host regular
inner-circle parties. During a recent Friday-night
soiree, Daniel Kottke, Apple’s 12th employee, regaled
guests with stories about Steve Jobs. Laborde was
upstairs in bed by 10 p.m., while the festivities
carried on below.
Laborde may not know about tech, she is an expert in
people and business. She has a Ph.D. in psychology, runs
training seminars for corporations called
"Influencing with Integrity," and has written
a host of books on management, communication, sales and
says she generally stays out of her startup tenants’
affairs unless they ask for advice. But at the very
least, most tenants receive a copy of one of Laborde’s
books and an invitation to her seminar on leadership and
cared about us as people," said Abe Ankumah,
co-founder and CEO of network analytics company Nyansa,
which rented Laborde’s basement in 2014 and 2015.
"She would stop by from time to time just to check
moving out of the basement, Nyansa scored contracts with
Uber, Tesla and Wal-Mart and closed a $9 million second
round of funding.
days Laborde’s reputation precedes her. She hasn’t
needed to advertise her Alma Street property in five
years. Startups only move on when they outgrow the
space, she said, and when they do, they usually have a
friend waiting to fill the spot.
generally doesn’t raise her tenants’ rent, even if
they’ve been there for several years. Her current
garage tenant, health tech company Echo Labs, pays
$7,000 a month — roughly $5 per square foot. That’s
about half of what the average commercial tenant pays in
downtown Palo Alto, based on data from real estate
services firm JLL.
who paid $3,000 a month for the basement, said he
probably would have coughed up an extra $1,000 if
Laborde had asked — but she never did.
one sense, Laborde is sitting on a gold mine. She bought
the Alma Street property for less than $1 million back
in the late 1990s. Now it’s likely worth millions
more. But Laborde isn’t selling.
has limited use, actually, if you’ve got something you
enjoy and it’s working for you," she said.
she added: "I don’t really feel like moving