Speaking at the most recent CornellTech@Bloomberg event, held November 14, 2017 at Bloomberg’s Global Headquarters in New York, WeWork Co-founder and Chief Culture Officer Miguel McKelvey discussed the early days of WeWork, the future potential for WeLive, and what others have to say about the company’s $20 billion valuation. But no matter what the topic, one theme rang throughout: The idea behind WeWork, and its ambition, is larger than you ever thought. And it always has been.
At its launch, WeWork, which now has 170 locations in 58 cities, was widely described as a co-working space. The company launched WeLive, a new take on apartment living, in 2016, and Rise by We, a fitness concept, in October 2017. It also recently purchased Flatiron School, a coding school, and announced plans to launch a grade school.
In response to questions from Bloomberg TV anchor Scarlet Fu, McKelvey said that, like all startups, there’s been a mix of strategy and opportunism in the company’s growth. But he also said that none of these new initiatives represent a change of direction.
In the proposal for WeWork’s very first building, said McKelvey, there was something akin to WeWork and WeLive. That proposal also included “a hotel concept, a restaurant concept, a barbershop, a fitness concept and a philanthropy concept. There was an education idea there too,” he added. “The premise from the beginning was that this was a multi-dimensional support system for people who thought differently in the world. If you were a person who was interested in others, who felt like being surround by others, who felt like being open to them was meaningful, and you had a greater chance of success in a community like that, then that could support all business types.”
McKelvey initially thought those business types would be made up mostly of small businesses that didn’t have an incubator or venture capital infrastructure to support them. “Fashion designers, filmmakers, independent accountants – they all had stable business models, but not any small business support,” he said.
Since then, WeWork has become home to both venture-backed startups and a surprising number of large companies, including Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft, noted Fu. McKelvey said those larger companies often got introduced to WeWork when a remote employee or consultant would get a WeWork space and have meetings there. Visitors would think it was a great place to work and would want to bring more people in. “We would have to respond to that,” said McKelvey. “Instead of having a workspace that was good for 10 people or 20, we would have to go to 80 or 200 – or now 600.”
When Fu asked if WeWork put a limit on the number of people from a single company who could move in, suggesting that a few hundred people from a big company might change the vibe at a typical WeWork, McKelvey seemed a bit indignant at first. “The idea that people from IBM are less interesting or cool, or don’t deserve to be connected, or have the same energy startups have is false,” he said. “They just exist in environments that aren’t supportive of those things.”
But then he shared that he had once shared Fu’s concern. “Then I had a major shift. I realized that’s a stupid premise. They’re human beings. All humans want to be in an environment that makes them feel good every day,” he said.
Now, with WeWork providing space for some larger companies, McKelvey, and WeWork, have the opportunity to provide that environment at scale. “You come into this building, your teams love it, they’re super-inspired, there’s 100 of them here, and you have 20,000 other people. Don’t they deserve the same experience?” he asked. “Let’s work together to deliver it to them. To me, that’s super-exciting.”
McKelvey admitted he never thought WeWork would head down that particular road. But the opportunity is just too good to pass up. As important as the physical space is, he said, it’s really the culture that matters. Now, he says, larger companies are coming to WeWork asking for help transforming their corporate cultures. “We can deliver the space and the community management team, and there’s a certain power in that,” he says.
But, culture is much more challenging, and he’s determined to figure it out. As Chief Culture Officer, McKelvey said, his job is make sure WeWork staffers are the “happiest, most engaged, most excited, and most energized employees we could ever have.” He wants to take what WeWork learns from trying to create that workforce and apply it to other companies. “We’re in discussions with companies that have hundreds of thousands of employees. As an opportunity to have a positive impact on humans, that’s a multiplier we previously couldn’t even consider,” he said. “I think that’s amazing.”
You can watch the entire discussion here.