I confided to a colleague that the WeWork IPO filing on Wednesday reminded me of a lower-stakes Mueller report. Truly.
It was good for WeWork, as it was for President Trump, that the public had a chance over years to process in small doses the wild events described in those very different tomes.
If journalists didn’t have a history of reporting on WeWork, it would have been stunning to see for the first time the massive growth and losses of an office-leasing company on steroids, its Russian-nesting-doll corporate structure, the string of WeWork’s eyebrow-raising financial arrangements with its chief executive, the company’s outlandish mission statements and its history of questionable spending and investments.
We have had time to digest WeWork in all its WeWork-iness, and for the shock to settle in.
Let’s be clear, though: This company is profoundly shocking and odd. It is at once perhaps the most controversial member of the last decade’s “unicorn” era of richly valued start-ups, and the one that perfectly encapsulates this moment in financial history. WeWork is so unicorn, it hurts.
Historically, brand-new tech companies tended to follow an established pattern. They created something or found ways to make a niche product accessible to the masses. The pioneers of Silicon Valley created computer chips first for government or military purposes and then for more widely useful equipment such as radios and smartphones. Bill Gates and others made computers useful and cheap enough for everyone. Google made software that organized the sprawling digital world. For the most part, these companies were treading on terra incognita.
The big change in the last decade was that new companies started busting into established industries with the aid of unprecedented amounts of cash, at least a little technology and a spin on a conventional strategy.
Uber Technologies Inc., Lyft Inc. and others took the idea of matching people with drivers for hire and added the twist of letting just about anyone become an ersatz professional driver. A boatload of companies are creating brands of sneakers, mattresses and luggage and trying to cut out the retail store middlemen. Young companies are buying houses for resale as a replacement for the inefficient home-buying process.
Technology changes make all these ideas possible, although in many cases tech isn’t the point of differentiation. What’s new is the freedom, and mountains of cash from outside investors, to try shaking up old ways of doing things. It doesn’t usually matter if businesses are run on the knife’s edge of irrational in the short term, or if corporate conventions are cast aside, as long as the opportunity is big enough.
WeWork’s “superpower,” to use a term apparently favored by its CEO, is taking those hallmarks from the unicorn era to their absolute extreme.
It rents office space under long-term contracts, gussies it up and charges a markup for flexible, shorter-term rentals. It’s not a new idea, but WeWork does this to the max, to the point where its revenue barely exceeds its basic expenses to serve tenants. At the same time, it is lavishing cash on buying buildings and expanding into every country it can. Adam Neumann, WeWork’s co-founder and CEO, once said his company’s valuation was based on “energy and spirituality,” but the mystics won’t help pay the $47 billion in cold cash that WeWork owes its landlords in coming years.
WeWork also takes up a notch the Silicon Valley habit of empowering founder-CEOs. Neumann runs the company, controls it through a special type of stock, has leased to the company several buildings he has owned, borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars backed in part by WeWork shares, seems to be lowering his taxes through a recent WeWork reorganization, and his wife will have a significant say in his successor if he dies or is incapacitated. Take that, Mark Zuckerberg.
WeWork, Uber, Airbnb Inc. and other young companies founded in the last decade or so have absolutely helped shift what people and businesses expect of their products and services and forced every conventional industry to change what it does or risk death.
The unicorn disruption is real and mostly healthy, although it remains unclear how many of the unicorns will thrive beyond the shake-ups they sparked. WeWork is the inevitable outcome of the last decade of technology and financial development. The unicorn era could only have led to this.