WeWork, the larger than life monopoly game in China

Will WeWork stand a chance of building a rare success case in China eventually?

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Speaking of American giants foraying into Chinese market, we usually open a can of worms, one after another, names like Google, Facebook, eBay, Microsoft’s MSN, Groupon, Uber…crushed, paralyzed or retreated, but one special breed managed to wiggle its way and imbibe the juice of China allure, for the time being.

I’m talking about WeWork, the super unicorn with its USD 35 billion valuation even above Elon Musk’s SpaceX (a startup making rockets), and its core business offer even has little to do with tech, unless you count property rental and management in the tech area.

Then why WeWork still stands at where its genuine tech predecessors all fell?

Because in life timing is everything.

WeWork entered China in 2016, around the auspicious time when:

-Local commercial real estate and office rental had been continuing swelling

-The fever of startup and entrepreneurship was running at an all-time high

-The concept of sharing economy was blooming. And unlike its remote cousin Airbnb in the sharing clan, WeWork only deals with B2SB (small business) sublease, perhaps fewer data/privacy/regulatory sensitive compared with a pure B2C model.

BTW, Airbnb landed in China in 2015, but it still lags behind its Chinese peers.

It does not mean WeWork did not face ferocious local rivals. And the fact the local competition is rife and relentless speaks to only the co-working space’s all the more unmatched flexibility compared to its American peers.

In 2017, there’re estimated about local 3000 players in the arena.  Nevertheless, the battleground is still pending for consolidation. The strategy for WeWork in China is very clear: it needs dominance and territory. To achieve this goal, you need money, and the model-looking, party-throwing Israeli founder is never short of charisma to enchant people to open checkbook for him.

He soon attracted local investors as powerful allies. Just after one year in China, Masayoshi Son, the titan of Softbank from Japan, lavished a staggering USD4.4 billion onto WeWork. It is said these days the Japanese billionaire has been binge-shopping unicorns to the extent of almost insanity; after all what is the fun of money if not to be spent madly?

That extravagant scale of war chest catapulted WeWork to the vicious expansionary path. It has rolled out more and more fancy co-working spaces in the chicest areas in the 1st, 2nd tier cities, to the extent that two locations can be only 5 minutes away on foot. In addition, it swallowed a foreign background co-working startup in China, NakedHub, at the hefty price of $400 million.

Its branding influence is also growing, thanks to its effective marketing campaigns, glamorous offline events and pretty and leggy front desk girls (considering most entrepreneurs are often males, hiring a bunch of beautiful girls should be essential to boost sales and community spirit).

And above everything else, WeWork knows how to localize. They entrust native Chinese for the day to day operation and management roles. The corporate culture seems salubrious; promotion is based on seniority and meritocracy. For instance, a girl who joined WeWork after one year training and experience, can be elevated to the position of “Mama-san” like figure in charge of a total 7-story co-working office building.

However, the warfare is far from over. Local competitors are up the ante for a cut-throat fight.

For example leader like Urwork backed by Sequoia, Sinovation just raised an undisclosed C+ round in June. Urwork operates more than 78 co-working spaces in 20 major cities across mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, New York and London. It has merged or purchased a string of small competitors under its thumb, either domestic or overseas. UrWork claims its integrated service can be more beneficial for startups in terms of bringing them network, resources, funding, government subsidy, clients etc, aside from working in a fun community environment.

As huge and lucrative as China might often sound, it is, in fact, the cruelest market for a foreign company to gain an upper hand. Though the ammunition of money is the VIP ticket to keep you a seat on this monopoly game table, it never guarantees success.

Will WeWork stand a chance of building a rare success case in China eventually?