Source: The Economist
With its stylish shared workspaces and chic occupants, lubricated by fruit-infused water and nitro coffee on tap, WeWork, a firm that rents out temporary offices, had seemed to be riding the wave of a new trend in managing desk-jockey life. But the nine-year-old private company has suffered a setback, announcing on September 16th that it would postpone an initial public offering (IPO) that had been expected to raise $3bn-4bn. Investors, it seems, cannot decide what the firm is worth.
They have four main worries. The first, and most glaring, is WeWork’s lack of profits. The firm argues that this is explained by the huge investments needed to secure economies of scale. It says that mature locations are profitable—revenues doubled during the first half of 2019 over the same period in 2018, to $1.5bn. But its net losses also rose, if more modestly, to $905m. A second concern is how the company would fare in a recession. It has taken on $47bn in lease payments but has only $4bn in committed future revenues from customers. A third bugbear is corporate governance. WeWork will issue multiple classes of shares that give its flamboyant founder, Adam Neumann, control with a minority stake.
The final concern is the company’s valuation. When it raised money in January, with funding led by Japan’s SoftBank, the firm was valued at a heady $47bn. Critics point to IWG, which offers shared offices under the Regus and Spaces brands worldwide, and has a market capitalisation of just $4.5bn (see chart). Already WeWork seemed willing to accept a much lower price tag for its flotation, seeking a relatively modest valuation of $15bn or less from its IPO. Even that seems out of reach and the company has, for now, dropped the attempt.
Mr Neumann’s claim that his firm will “elevate the world’s consciousness” is plainly silly. Even so, it is not fair to equate WeWork with the more conventional Regus. CBRE, a property-management firm, estimates that the flexible-work niche experienced “meteoric growth” of 25% in America’s top ten markets in 2018, with similar figures in big cities worldwide. WeWork’s innovations in work-place facilities have dramatically enlarged the size of the market for temporary offices. But investors need more certainty that it knows how to make money from it.
They will also be all too well aware that the shares of some stars of the new economy have disappointed of late.Uber, a ride-hailing firm, listed its shares at $45 in May on the New York Stock Exchange. Today they were trading at about $34.50. In March its rival, Lyft, had sold its shares on the Nasdaq exchange at $72; today they are worth about $48. Slack, a corporate-messaging service whose shares started trading on the NYSE in June at an opening price of $38.50, is now valued at about $26 a share. Unicorns are going a little cheaper these days.