When WeWork’s plans for a blockbuster initial public offering imploded in 2019, the company became a poster child for the excesses of venture capital and startup culture in the post-2008 era.
“What happened to WeWork is not just a failure of this particular set of individuals,” wrote Shira Ovide, a New York Times columnist who was at Bloomberg at the time. “It’s a consequence of the last decade of easy money that has made investors throw money at assets promising to grow fast. It has been peak silly times, and they won’t last forever.”
Now, after a tumultuous two years that’s included changes to the company’s top leadership and a historic pandemic, WeWork [which has big operations in the Triangle area] is ready to try again.
Shares in the flexible office space provider start trading on the New York Stock Exchange Thursday under the ticker “WE.”
But it’s a different deal, a different world — and a very different WeWork.
Then: Initially, WeWork pursued a traditional IPO. Bankers were expected to assign the company an eye-popping valuation. At its peak, private investors believed WeWork was worth $47 billion.
Now: Thursday’s listing follows a merger with BowX Acquisition Corp., a special-purpose acquisition company, or SPAC. The deal values WeWork at roughly $9 billion.
Then: When WeWork released its IPO prospectus in 2019, questions quickly emerged about how quickly it was burning cash. The company shared that while it was rapidly growing its business, it had lost a staggering $1.9 billion in 2018 and $904 million in the first six months of 2019.
WeWork’s corporate governance also came under the microscope after it was revealed that co-founder and then-CEO Adam Neumann had amassed huge voting power, giving him extensive control over the company’s direction.
Now: Under Sandeep Mathrani, the real estate veteran who took over as CEO in early 2020, WeWork has cut costs and overhauled its portfolio of leases.
Yet the company is still losing money. Following the SPAC deal, which will raise $1.3 billion, Neumann will have voting power of about 11%.
Columbia Business School professor Len Sherman said that taking the SPAC route allows WeWork to avoid the scrutiny it drew in the past.
“The advantage of a SPAC offering is it allows WeWork the ability to make bullish forward-looking growth projections that would not be allowed under traditional IPO regulatory rules,” he told me.
Then: What’s Covid-19?
Now: The pandemic has dramatically changed the office space market as more people work from home.
“We think increased work from home decreases office demand by about 15%,” Daniel Ismail, lead analyst for Green Street’s office team, told me. “That’s a real paradigm shift.”
It’s not all bad news for WeWork, though. Ismail thinks companies want more flexible office agreements as workers trickle back, and will favor signing one- or two-year contracts with a firm like WeWork instead of locking in longer leases that span eight to 10 years.
He predicts that the flexible office market, which currently accounts for just 2% of total office inventory in the United States, could reach 10% by the end of the decade.
That said: Shares of IWG, which Ismail said is WeWork’s main publicly-traded competitor, are down 13% this year as uncertainties linger.
One more thing: Neumann is infamous now (he’ll be played by actor Jared Leto in an upcoming Apple TV+ series). But that’s not stopping him from celebrating WeWork’s delayed debut. The Financial Times reports that Neumann will host a party in New York on Thursday with early employees at the Standard Hotel.
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