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The lofty ideals at work behind WeWork's IPO

A WeWork office.
Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images

WeWork has long bet that it can wed the mundane efficiencies of commercial real estate with the lofty ideals of mission-driven tech. That would resolve the age-old contradiction between hard-nosed profit-seeking and high-minded world-changing — and its IPO prospectus aims to prove it right.

The big picture: WeWork knows it looks like an aggregator of coworking office space rentals, but it aims to persuade the public it is instead "reinventing the way people work," helping them "make a life, not just a living."

How it works: The company's mission is "to elevate the world's consciousness," and the magic wands it waves toward that end include...

  • Smart, beautiful design: A WeWork office is typically gleamingly new, carefully optimized for efficient use of space, and scattered with informal conveniences.
  • Vast data acquisition: Thanks to its size in the cities it operates in, WeWork is in a position to know everything about its local markets.
  • Idealistic talk about community: One way to change the office-space game is to get people to stop thinking of these places as "offices" at all. If they're "communities" instead, maybe we'll like them more. Yes, the hunger for community is real — but rarely do successful efforts to satisfy it take the form of profit-driven, publicly traded companies.

Why it matters: With many investors, analysts and pundits deeply skeptical of WeWork's losses, debt and business model, a successful IPO would be a sweet victory for the company.

  • Its real challenge will be navigating the ups and especially the downs of the business cycle, which can be especially unkind to companies that, like WeWork, have taken on lots of long-term leases.
  • If budget-cutting ever kicks in, all the talk about elevating consciousness and personal fulfillment is going to come back to bite the company.

Reality check: Fashions in office topography never stop changing, rejecting the fads of the past. The cubicles of the '80s and '90s became the butt of jokes long ago. WeWork's sleek looks, open kitchens and slouchy sofas may not be hot forever.

Our thought bubble: Has there ever been an SEC filing that began like this? "We dedicate this to the energy of we — greater than any one of us but inside each of us."

  • WeWork's embrace of "we" is an over-the-top and, so far, successful re-branding of the traditionally adversarial commercial landlord-tenant relationship as a group hug.
  • But all those first-person-plurals aside, the single most important fact in WeWork's filing is more of a first-person singular: Even after it raises billions from the public, this company will be totally controlled by one person, co-founder Adam Neumann. Community, meet majority shareholder.

Go deeper: The financiers' hour