WeWork, the world’s largest community company, has something big planned out for the Chinese market. As a part of their deeper dive into the country, the office-sharing giant is introducing its startup-focused program WeWork Labs to China to help the growth and global expansion of Chinese up and comers.

“WeWork is very committed to China. We think that there are a few things very relevant to China. One is the revamping of mass entrepreneurship innovation policy, the other is the timing of China’s 40th anniversary of opening up combined with the transformation from Made in China to Create in China, which is the biggest story,” Roee Adler, global head of WeWork Labs told TechNode.

WeWork Labs gathers promising early-stage startups and provides them with working space, community and mentorship. Collaborative and flexible in nature, the program will offer a range of courses and training sessions for entrepreneurs from all industries and backgrounds, everything from accounting and marketing to hiring and pitching future investors.

Different from accelerators, WeWork Labs is taking rent instead of taking equity. In addition, entrepreneurship covers something much broader than three-month or six-month programs. That’s what WeWork Labs want to focus on: a community that encompasses both ends of the broader entrepreneur spectrum from first-time entrepreneurs to accelerator grads.

Oftentimes, accelerators have higher standards for enrolling startups, but WeWork Labs is more inclusive to early-stage entrepreneurs even though they are just starting out the journey with passions and commitment. “We want to build a platform where budding innovators are given the chance to fail, before they succeed. At the same time, some of the entrepreneurs are already experienced. They need a different level of a support system,” Adler said.

Given these, it is opting for a more operative rather than a competitive relationship with other supporting institutions in the startup ecosystem. The service aims to partner with organizations to share community, curriculum, and insights among startups.

“We actually celebrate for our members getting accepted by an accelerator and they can come back to us when they graduate.  In order to make a true impact with our platform, we have to be long-term partner and friend to the startups, allowing them to be with us sometimes even before they have the idea,” Adler explained.

Global Head of WeWork Labs, Roee Adler (Image credit: WeWork)

WeWork Labs in China, for China

Given its vision, WeWork is bringing its first WeWork Labs to China at its flagship location in West Nanjing Road, Shanghai on July 1. More locations in Beijing and other Chinese tech hubs will open soon, Adler told us.

The first China WeWork Labs is welcoming a lot of retailer technology startups, due in no small part to China’s new retail boom. But the company says it’s not limiting itself to retail. “With time we will have vertical and specialized spaces, but we are trying to be more inclusive initially,” said Adler.

Startups at various stages and different cultures have various needs. WeWork Labs is building a custom program for different startups coming from different locations. “On the one hand, it’s about hiring the local leaders who are very experienced in the local startup ecosystem and allowing them to structure the local programs. On the corporate level, we take the learnings from all the countries, bring them together and send back to everyone,” he said.

“There is an entire generation of startups, born in China, created in China, and want to impact the world outside of China. We believe that through collaborating with all the local incubators and accelerators,” he added.

Although the company is aiming for a more collaborative model, it is facing a crowded market in China where there’s an unavoidable business overlap between the US company and its local counterparts. In Shanghai alone, there are over 500 mass entrepreneurship centers, be them state-funded incubators, co-working spaces, accelerators. Actually, the government propelled incubator boom has passed its prime time and already recorded its first group of casualties in the past two years.

Compared with local competitors, WeWorks Labs’ chance in China lies in its global network, but that also limits its clientele to those entrepreneurs who have a foreign background or a global vision.

Why now?

Started as a shared space for entrepreneurs and freelancers, WeWork was always about small businesses and startups. Given the history, WeWork Labs was launched in 2011 as a project to boost its startup community. However, the program was a neglected as the company began to focus on other initiatives like its global expansion, and enterprise-focused services like Powered By We.

While WeWork is expanding globally and increasing diversity in clientele, the company has more varied communities of companies of different sizes and cultures. WeWork is now refocusing on where it started, with the relaunch of WeWork Labs in Feb this year.

“We believe it’s the right time for us to go out with a lot of resources behind helping startups all over the world. One of the things we have today that is very exciting and allows us to do this is that we are truly global today. We can really focus on helping startups connect globally, exchange and travel, learn from different cultures, different markets and different customers all over the world, which positions us to collaborate and to partner with everyone from different markets and provide local study,” said Adler in response to our inquiry on what this shift means for the company.

Of course, WeWork Labs is a global initiative. The service is now operating two spaces in New York with a total of 190 members. They have launched one space in Sao Paulo in April, and three more locations in Seoul, Tel Aviv, and Gurugram are opened this May. By the end of the year, the company plans to have at least 25 spaces open in 14 cities. Members come from various industries including finance, fashion, media, marketing and more.

Emma Lee (Li Xin) was TechNode's e-commerce and new retail reporter until June 2022, when she moved to Sixth Tone to cover technology and consumption. Get in touch with her via lixin@sixthtone.com or Twitter.

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