At 9:30 a.m. on April 12th, Chinese co-working space startup Naked Hub held an internal management meeting to announce that it would sell the company to the U.S. co-working company WeWork for 2.5 billion yuan ($400 million).
According to the South China Morning Post, Huaxing Capital’s valuation of Naked Hub was $1 billion in July 2017. Over the next six months, its valuation shrunk by nearly half. Last year, Naked Hub completed a $33 million Series B financing led by Hong Kong-based Gaw Capital. Previously, its operation funds were from the parent company Naked Brand Group.
Founded in 2011 in New York, WeWork has expanded to 295 co-working offices in 49 cities in 15 countries, providing services for 120,000 clients. The company is now the world’s fifth-largest technology unicorn, valued at $20 billion.
Since its entry into the Chinese market in July 2016, WeWork has experienced a compound annual growth rate of more than 300 percent over the past two years, and it has become one of the few U.S. technology unicorns with a valuation of $20 billion.
Traditional offices are on the decline, and local co-working spaces including UrWork and SOHO 3Q are facing crises and challenges. Has the curse of international giants losing out to Chinese local companies finally been broken? It might still be too early to tell.
Although still in the early stages, the market for co-working spaces is currently at five billion yuan ($800M), with a potential market of three trillion yuan ($480 billion). Emerging high-end competitors such as Bee+ and ATLAS Workspace are attracting the public’s attention and waiting to make their impact in China. Their creativity, operational capacity and profitability can not be underestimated.
Current situation under the waves of mergers and acquisitions
- In March 2017, the co-working space WE+ announced a merger with office community COWORK.
- In January 2018, UrWork acquired Hong Tai New Space. UrWork was then valued at nearly nine billion yuan ($1.4B).
- On March 9, 2018, UrWork announced a merger with Woo Space, bringing its total valuation to nearly 11 billion yuan ($1.75B).
- In March 2018, UrWork officially announced its acquisition of Wedo Union.
Crises and challenges exist behind the seemingly influential waves of mergers and acquisitions. Most medium and low-end co-working spaces that have experienced mergers and acquisitions charge between 1,000 to 2,000 yuan ($160 to $320) per month for a seat. Their space and operational capabilities are far behind WeWork. There are also many risks in the M&A process within an emerging industry such as the co-working space. For example, utilization scarcity, lack of authorization chains, and short duration of leases will all impact operations. Whether the M&As will create synergy remains to be seen.
The core drivers of a co-working space are mainly occupancy rate, product, operation capacity, financing and brand influence.
WeWork’s occupancy rate has remained at 90 percent for a long period of time, and new locations are always filling up fairly quickly. The occupancy rates of most Chinese co-working spaces are relatively low. As traditional office rental businesses have poor management and considerable personnel loss, many key talents hop on to other local co-working companies.
One of the core factors that determines a company’s occupancy rate is its compatibility with the lifestyle of younger generations. On one hand, WeWork emphasizes innovation and creates spaces with an atmosphere that is popular with young people. On the other hand, their use of data and technology to optimize office design for improving worker productivity is an advantage that most Chinese co-working space comapnies cannot easily duplicate.
Most co-working brands outsource their interior design. However, brands like WeWork, Naked Hub and Bee+ have internal core design teams. After WeWork acquires Naked Hub, Bee+’s competition in co-working spaces will become more prominent.
Bee+ has created examplar co-working spaces in renovated factories, high-end office buildings and industrial parks. It has a powerful design database as well as an investment calculation model to ensure precision and comfort in their desks and chairs while maximizing their profits.
Bee+ distinguishes its brand by boasting the ability to recover the full cost of each project’s investment within two to three years.
Because Bee+’s co-working spaces have an competitive edge in the market, their seats are sold fast. A 600-seat space will reach an occupancy rate of 80 percent in three months. Fortune 500 companies, publicly listed Chinese companies, and large internet companies have all chosen Bee+ for their office space.
A new brand in Southern China, ATLAS Workplace, is also popular and highly competitive in the market due to its new concept and high-quality products.
At the same time, some brands in China are experiencing bottlenecks due to their lack of innovation, competitiveness and more. Over the past two years, these brands have not made much progress in operational data or product development. Other brands lack real-estate mindset and service experience; their co-working spaces look very similar to WeWork, but are less than satisfactory in the details as well as operation and management.
Operation is a short plank for co-working space companies in China
Most Chinese companies lack a service mentality, and because co-working spaces are a relatively new industry in China with no standardized operational processes and practices, there is still much to be improved before quality services can be delivered on a regular basis.
Traditional office rental and business service centers have advantages in standardization, establishing processes and providing services. A good example is the Executive Centre who maintains a high level of service. However, the products they offer are very traditional and they typically lack in community management and innovation. The community activities of Wework and Bee+ are highly influential in the industry. The operations team from Bee+ are all from international five-star hotels. With strong professionalism and services, their professional operational capabilities and community management are second to none in China.
Financing capacity still needs to be strengthened
WeWork has strong financing and brand influence. WeWork’s valuation surged to $16 billion after receiving a $430 million investment in March 2016 led by China’s HONY Capital and its parent company Lenovo Holdings Inc. In August 2017, WeWork announced its new round of financing of $4.4 billion led by Softbank Group and SoftBank Vision Fund, raising WeWork’s valuation to $20 billion. WeWork has become a premium brand through its high-quality space products and sound operations.
With a personal background and abundant experiences in the real estate industry, UrWork CEO and founder Mao Daqing has developed the company into China’s largest brand with the strongest financing capacity. In August 2017, UrWork announced that it had raised 1.2 billion yuan ($190 million) from Beijing Capital Land, Xingpai Group, Aikang Group and Jingrong Holdings, completing its pre-C round financing. However, its product creation, operation, and sales still need to be strengthened. After multiple rounds of consolidations, there are still challenges in risk control and team coordination as well.
According to industry insiders, Bee+ has completed Series B1 round financing and will invest 300 million yuan ($48M) into the Southern China market next year. Meanwhile, Bee+ is also preparing for Series B2 found financing. After Bee+’s market expansion, it will become Southern China’s largest high-end brand and possibly WeWork’s largest local competitor in the area.
In February, the ambitious ATLAS Workplace brought in Asia’s leading investment management company Pacific Alliance Group and the world’s leading investment bank Goldman Sachs as strategic investment partners. Its foundation building in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hangzhou and Hong Kong will be completed later this year. ATLAS Workplace is fast-paced to become one of the leading brands in high-end co-working space in China.
Although WeWork is growing rapidly, it is still too early to tell whether the curse of international giants failing in China will finally be broken. This industry is still in its infancy with great market size and potential. Many younger Chinese high-end co-working companies with more potential than Naked Hub are still taking root in the market. They are waiting for an opportunity to face WeWork head on, but factors such as the maturity of the market and push from the capital side will all play a role in determining when this fatal moment will come.