WeWork and the hollow rhetoric of business

There are a lot of truly hideous companies out there enabled and emboldened by tech, but one of the absolute worst has to be WeWork.

If you have had the good fortune to pass through life blissfully unaware of WeWork let me ruin things for you: WeWork is a company that offers ‘flexible workspaces’.

Okay, so that might not sound that bad. But in the context of gentrification, rising property prices, the gig economy, and startup culture, WeWork has built a business model that exploits the sheer horror of the milieu in which we find ourselves, and wraps it up inside a shiny package of aspiration and productivity bullshit.

WeWork’s IPO makes potential investors nervous

That packaging is only part of the story - what’s at the centre of its vacuous and nauseating branding appears to be as hollow economically as it is spiritually. Filing an IPO (Initial Public Offering) today, the company revealed the reality of its financial situation in its prospectus (a document that’s produced to give investors a detailed insight into the company’s finances and future plans).

I won’t go into detail, but the Guardian provides a good overview of the numbers:

“We Co, WeWork’s parent company, more than quadrupled its revenue from 2016 to 2018 to $1.82bn. At the same time the company lost close to $700m in the first half of 2019, $1.6bn in 2018, almost $900m in 2017, more than $400m in 2016, the filing shows.”

While it’s clear that the company can grow quickly - something that investors will be particularly interested in - the fact that the company is also losing substantial money will cause concern.

Added to this is Uber’s slump - it went public back in May, but since then the value of its shares have dropped 18%. This might well further discourage WeWork investors worried about the reality of investing in a company that is losing a massive amount of money.

In its prospectus WeWork admits that “we cannot predict whether we will achieve profitability for the foreseeable future” because of the level of investment the business requires to continue to grow. That means that for those that do decide to invest, they need to be thinking about WeWork in the long term, and how it might shape the nature of workspaces in the future.

Back to the bullshit

This brings us back to the bullshit. Because WeWork is struggling to make itself profitable, it has to use rhetoric to position itself as a visionary company. It needs to communicate to investors that the company is playing a long game - and that investors will be too.

This is the driver behind certain sections of the prospectus that have been mocked online. Take, for example, the WeWork story:

We are a community company committed to maximum global impact. Our mission is to elevate the world’s consciousness. We have built a worldwide platform that supports growth, shared experiences and true success. We provide our members with flexible access to beautiful spaces, a culture of inclusivity and the energy of an inspired community, all connected by our extensive technology infrastructure. We believe our company has the power to elevate how people work, live and grow.

It’s true that many companies will use this sort of language. Thought Leadership, after all, is pretty much a mainstream marketing strategy even for the most mundane businesses today.

The lure of fantasy

But in the context of an IPO that’s worth outrageous sums of money, to offer up bullshit to this degree is significant. It tells us something about modern tech-led businesses and how important it is for them to create fantasies.

In WeWork’s case, it creates two fantasies which are inextricably linked. One is for its customers who buy in to the WeWork ‘lifestyle brand’, with its images of productive creatives, people that glide through our current economic hell just doing cool business stuff. The other is for its investors, whom WeWork wants to encourage to see themselves as equally creative, powerful people, not simply looking for a quick buck, but instead to play an instrumental part in reshaping the world.

There’s something that’s also interesting here that I think is the case with a lot of companies today: WeWork essentially mediates the relationship between its customers and its investors, inviting everyone in as if they’re all joining a club. Of course, in reality the needs of investors and WeWork’s customers - its tenants, if we’re being honest - are massively at odds with one another.

The rhetoric of business, technology, creativity, and productivity all converge to assuage our rage at a world that doesn’t work for us. It hides the hollow reality of growth, and provides a mirage that acts as a surrogate for a better and happier future.