What happened at WeWork?

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WeWork has been lauded by many as one of the huge success stories of the 21st century. Before they came along, renting office space was run-of-the-mill, boring. You paid money, you got a room and installed some desks, some chairs, a printer. You moved in. That was it.

Not just an office space

WeWork, however, wants you to believe that you aren’t simply paying for space. Of course, you get a beautiful new office, but you are also paying to be a part of something new, part of a community of like-minded people. Indeed, part of WeWork’s mission is that it is “a place you join as an individual, ‘me’, but where you become part of a greater ‘we’.” WeWork positions itself amongst those big disruptors of this century – Netflix, Uber, even Facebook, and an IPO was a natural next step for this real estate/tech behemoth.

A failed IPO

Dreaming of a huge $47 billion valuation, the cash-hungry We Company, WeWork’s parent company, aimed to sell enough shares to raise $4 billion and had, according to the New York Times, ‘lined up a $6 billion bank loan that was contingent on the IPO’.  By the end of September, though, those heady days were over. WeWork discovered that investors were sceptical about their huge valuation, large amounts of debt and corporate governance issues. They pulled the IPO, Founder-CEO Adam Neumann was forced to step down, are looking at redundancies and are reconsidering their expansion strategy into China.

Positioned as a tech firm

So how did WeWork value itself so high? What was it doing right? A lot of it came down to brilliant brand-building and marketing. As touched on earlier in this piece and explored by Mark Ritson in this article, WeWork didn’t position itself as a real estate or office rental firm. It wanted to be seen as a tech firm, or, as Ritson says, there was a “vague, socially-constructed idea that this is another big disruptive tech firm with another massive IPO.” 21st century tech firms have of course seen phenomenal success over the past two decades, and many have an aura of community and purpose to humanise the vast profit they turn over. WeWork, with its mission to ‘Create a world where people work to make a life, not just a living” embodies that tech ethos, and as such pushes its community app. This wasn’t just a forward-thinking branding decision: if it worked, it was a sage financial decision, with tech companies raking in revenues far higher than those of more traditional businesses.

Shaky foundations

From the outside, this approach seemed to be working for WeWork: in the first half of 2019, for example, it earned $1.5 billion in revenue. However, the gloss loses its sheen a little when you discover that in the same period it lost almost $900m. And the sheen disappears completely in the context of information that it was looking to raise between $3 billion and $4 billion in debt to tide it over.

A future in debt

And that’s the key to this story: the losses and associated debt. While investors don’t necessarily insist that start-ups are profitable before they go public, it helps to be able to show a path to profitability. We Company’s revenue and operating losses are moving in tandem, rather than showing an increasing gap. They may find some cold comfort in the fact that they aren’t alone in this plight: ‘fellow’ disruptors Netflix and Uber, to name just two, show no sign of becoming profitable in the near or even mid-future. Netflix must continue its huge investment ($15 billion this year) into original content in order to survive stiff forthcoming competition in the shape of Disney, Amazon and Apple. To finance that, Netflix is estimated to have a debt of around $12 billion – and with a net income of just a twelfth of that, it seems unlikely that it will ever be able to pay that off.

What does this all mean?

Is WeWork’s failed IPO the first sign of a difficult, uncertain future for the big disruptive organisations of the last 10 years? Perhaps the tech disruptors of the future will bring the focus back to business strategy and creating revenue streams. Brand positioning and purpose are of course crucial to a business’ success, but they must be founded in a robust business and financial strategy to guarantee success.

Disclosure: ECI Media Management’s UK office is a tenant of WeWork in London

Image: Shutterstock

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