All over the world, startup founders are trying to figure out some very specific things: how to roast the best coffee beans, using VR in gaming, using AI in B2B, or another highly focused problem.
On top of this, they all have to deal with the same set of standardised issues: managing a P&L sheet, sorting payroll, staying on top of their sales activities. And for many of them, they are facing these issues for the first time.
WeWork’s initial focus was not property, but rather, shared services.
Its pitch was that, as well as a shared office space, the company would centralise some of these services and offer them to tenants. Imagine being a tenant in a building with an amazing accountancy firm, HR consultancy and law firm — all of whom know your business and take care of all those issues for you for a flat fee, allowing you to focus on those coffee beans you’ve been importing.
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Ultimately, WeWork doubled down on the real estate element of the business. This makes sense with what we now know about Adam Neumann. With a focus on the maximum possible valuation, it made sense to focus on the business of property rather than the business of complex startup services.
Obviously, things haven’t gone so well for WeWork. Arguably, a focus on the bricks-and-mortar element would have made sense if it hadn’t been so ambitious with its valuation. The WeWork team built a great brand and had some good margin, and probably could have built a single-digit billion-dollar business with only a pared-back version of their strategy.
But I also think they were wrong to abandon the shared services element.
The initial insight — that many entrepreneurs grapple with services that aren’t a core competency and don’t need reinventing for each entity — seems like one with legs.
How many businesses have failed, not because they didn’t have a great idea, but because they didn’t know how to accrue revenue properly? Or oversee PR? Or build a website?
It also would have allowed them to build the software element of their business. They have been widely mocked for their attempts to pitch WeWork as a tech company, but imagine if the shared-services side of their business included software — maybe with a startup acquisition, such as LawPath, or maybe just through revenue-share deals with companies such as Salesforce. With this approach, WeWork could have figured out entirely new ways to automate these services and show significant margins alongside the property side of its business.
I broadly subscribe to the Andreessen Horowitz view that as time passes, software will take over more and more businesses that were once thought of as needing human intervention. We’ve seen elements of sales taken on by companies such as Salesforce, accounting by Xero, and now even more human-heavy industries such as legal are being automated.
I think WeWork had a truly unique opportunity to leverage their network of tenants to lead this process of automation, while also offering a helping hand to their tenants as they scale.
I also think we’re going to see the rise of consultancies founded on this very premise: assistance with the management of core business services, with a strong preference for automation.
WeWork might have missed their chance. But it’ll be interesting to see if anyone else takes on the challenge.