WeWork Lessons for Startups

When the WeWork IPO went belly up, its primary investor, juggernaut SoftBank Group of Japan, through its Vision Fund, lost a staggering $4.5 billion.

WeWork’s spectacular debacle is widely viewed as symptomatic of today’s iteration of irrational exuberance that plumps up “unicorns” — startups valued at $1 billion or more — without just cause. SoftBank’s fundamental philosophy — of throwing billions at promising startups so their meteoric growth can obliterate the competition — is starting to look flaky.

While Masayoshi Son, the chief executive of SoftBank did admit he made a “mistake” with WeWork, he insisted he would make “no strategic change.” Judging by the lukewarm reaction from capital markets, other investors are recalibrating their approach.

As lessons from WeWork sink in, investors will increasingly look under the hood. Recent startups that went public sense this renewed focus on profitability over a founder’s vision. For example, Lyft CEO Logan Green recently acknowledged that public market sentiment had turned against companies that are spending heavily in pursuit of high growth: “There has been a major shift from investors valuing growth to going to value stocks. That shift has had very broad implications that have impacted us,” he said.

Second, optics matter less over unit economics. AirBnB CEO, Brian Chesky pointed out that one of the lessons from WeWork is that tech companies occupy a sliding scale on gross margins. A true tech company — a SaaS with a subscription model, for example — will not incur much overhead when scaling up. WeWork uses technology for its operations, but its beating heart is commercial real estate, a widget that does not deliver high margins.

As capital markets tamp down on irrational exuberance, and chips fall from the WeWork downfall, startups will have to go back to the basics to win big. Learn how dynamic startups across different cities are doing just that.