It’s no secret that WeWork, the world’s largest community company, has been aggressive in its China push. After the initial effort to launch its first space in Shanghai in June last year, the company is getting more serious and dedicated to its China expansion.
What the company has accomplished so far is pretty impressive. “We have been in this market for 16 months with 9 locations across Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong in operation. We just announced another 4 newly added locations to be open in early 2018, adding the total locations of WeWork in China to 13. The average occupancy rate is as high as 90%,” WeWork Asia Managing Director Christian Lee told TechNode. This would make China the second largest country for WeWork in terms of number of locations operated, next only to its homeland in the US, where WeWork has been operating for 7 years.
But it seems that this is nothing near what the company has planned for the emerging market. The already-loaded company received another $500 million investment from existing backers of SoftBank and Hony Capital in July this year. To emphasize their dedication to market, WeWork has made it clear that this hefty round is only for its China business.
Adjustment in management structure was also made accordingly through the establishment of a standalone WeWork China unit. Christian Lee, previously CFO of the firm, relocated to the regional headquarter in Shanghai to oversee Asia operation. He was followed by Alan Ai, who resumes his role as WeWork Greater China General Manager this October after serving as Vice President of Marketing for Shanghai Disney Resort.
“We are working on some more initiatives for China market, 2018 will be a big year for WeWork China,” said Christian. Christian first came to China in 1995 as a foreign language student in Nankai University. More than two decades later, the new vigorous country has a lot more to offer for global citizens like him.
Last week, we caught up with him at WeWork’s whimsical opium factory turned space in downtown Shanghai to discuss WeWork’s China and Asia plans, their newly launched enterprise-faced services, how to build an innovative community here, workplace technology, and more. What follows are the highlights of our conversation.
Why China and what new opportunities does WeWork see here?
We look around the world and China is obviously the center of a lot of changes that are going on globally right now. So for a company like WeWork, whose mission is helping to connect people, helping companies innovate and expand globally, it’s critical for us to have a meaningful presence in China.
The fast developing economy, people’s passion, the government’s call for mass entrepreneurship, and the 420 million millennial population, all of these exciting facts makes China an important market for us.
Also, we see lots of great innovative companies come into being from this country, Alibaba, Tencent, JD, ofo, Weibo, etc. Clearly, they are going to be global players in the near future. At the same time, it’s a place where a lot of people want to come, learn and invest. So we can both help Chinese companies grow and expand internationally, not just in space but also through community and ecosystems exists around the world, and of course to provide the access to China for foreign companies who want to be part of this amazing growth story in China.
For all the foreign companies coming to a new market, localization is the first priority. But it’s a big term. How do you approach the problem especially when it comes to Asia, a region with diversified user groups and cultures?
We really start by finding an amazing local team and an amazing building. When you look into each of the regions, you will see a very local management team of WeWork, who runs the market, sales, digital and real estate. They are all top talents who have grown up, lived and worked in China, with deep knowledge and expertise of what it means to take a global brand and localize it in China. Over 80% of WeWork members are Chinese locals.
Obviously, the first thing we do is to open buildings and those buildings have to reflect the local design aesthetics. It’s not only about designing a beautiful space, it’s also about being highly functional. WeWork has incredibly deep data analytics on how people use space. We take all that global information and learning about finding, designing and running spaces, then put it back to our real estate and design team. We study what will make people more efficient, what working styles are the best in China, then we use it as tips for design the spaces here. In China, that means bigger conference rooms, more tea, different types of event, and more.
All of these things go to localize, it’s not just one answer, but the combination of team, design, building, functionality of the spaces and digital products.
What’s the plan for China and the whole Asia market?
WeWork is going to open three to five new cities in 2018 in China. We are looking at cities like Shenzhen, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Hangzhou. In addition, four new locations in Shanghai and Beijing are to open in early 2018.
WeWork is renting out buildings faster in China than almost anywhere else in the world. One of the interesting things about China is that once Chinese consumers experience something and realize the value of a product, the adoption rates are incredibly fast, you see companies and individuals really able to make decisions very quickly and move at a pace that’s unparalleled in the rest world. That gives us a lot of confidence in expanding even faster in China.
For the Asia market, WeWork just acquired SpaceMob for Southeast Asia expansion. We are also opening in India (Bangalore and Mumbai) and will have two locations in Singapore and Japan.
Shared spaces first boomed among freelancers, entrepreneurs and tech startups, but now it’s becoming mainstream with more big corporates moving in. How do you see this trend? How do you combine teams of different size and cultures to fit into one community?
For SME and startups, they want inspiring work environments, like-minded communities for great ideas, resources sharing, collaboration with others and growing their business; for enterprise members, they look a place where could help keep their team innovate, to attract and retain young talents. It is this mix of diverse membership that makes our community full of energy. We will definitely keep this diversity.
We just launched enterprise member solutions on Oct 24th, offering “Off-the-Shelf” and “Powered-by-We” services to our members. With these services, we bring our community, technology, services, spaces to your buildings, make your company tap in our international network immediately.
The good news is that we don’t have to force certain behaviors when it comes to integrating them into the community. The way we design this space is to bring people together. It causes people to come in and contact with each other and have a conversation. We are bringing people together not only over work stuff but over cultural and social things as well. When such social bonds are created it would also help the business models. It happens organically but there’s a lot of decisions and things we have done to create an environment to foster that.
Technology is taking control of our lives, what’s WeWork’s progress in workplace technology?
Technology is pervasive in the way people work now. There’s positive things as well as negative things about that. But it results in certain behaviors. Because we are on the mobile platforms that means you are working 24/7 even when you go home. By definition, personal and work have been blended and I believe that’s particularly true in China. That means the type of work environment you need for the future is a place like WeWork where you have a mixture of dedicated office spaces, social environments where you can sit with your colleagues.
We also think technology can really dehumanize people, there’s a tremendous amount of value in bringing people together. If you don’t have this physical interaction it’s really difficult to get things done and related to people to find ways to collaborate and understand what’s going on in the broader world.
All that being said, technology also has a huge impact for the positive. We certainly use technology as a tool to enhance our community. For instance, we have an app for members to post recruitment information, book conference room, post for potential business cooperation, register for event, provide feedback to our community teams, etc. In China, we are trying to melt our system into WeChat and Alipay, since we know these two platforms are almost dominating every aspects of people’s lives.
It’s one of the ways we design our space. For the building itself, we definitely are using lots of industry-leading technologies like BIM, data collection and analysis (for member behavior), 3D laser scanning of the whole building for a rendering so we can do the design, architect, and get an estimation of the materials we need, etc.
WeWork has more than 400 people team for R&D, including design, globally, we try to build a space that can communicate with our members. As said, we don’t just provide spaces, we provide the community, the energy and inspiring mind for our members. All technologies and design stuff are all applied to serve one purpose, that is to connect real people in real life, to humanize people’s way of life and work.