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Business

Co-working pioneer WeWork confident of rapid Japan growth

US startup foresees no local cultural barriers in venture with SoftBank

WeWork co-founder Miguel McKelvey stands outside the company's flagship office in Hong Kong.

TOKYO -- WeWork, a New York-based provider of shared office space services, has never met a cultural barrier it hasn't overcome, said co-founder Miguel McKelvey. He said Japan will be no exception and expressed confidence that his company will grow quickly in its newest market. 

WeWork designs, develops and maintains office spaces with the aim of encouraging interaction and creativity among the people who work in them. Its "co-working" service was originally intended for entrepreneurs and startups, but Chris Hill, who will head WeWork's Japan operations, said large corporations are increasingly asking the seven-year-old company to help them reinvigorate their organizations.

WeWork announced Tuesday that it will establish a joint venture, WeWork Japan, with SoftBank Group, and that it will open its first location in the country in early 2018.

Q: What problems was WeWork aiming to solve when it was founded in 2010?

McKelvey: No one was serving small businesses. No one knows how quickly they are going to grow ... so you see many times people are taking too much space, or people are struggling because they don't have enough space for their team. We wanted to respond to that and create something very flexible.

Q: Did you face competition on the West Coast?

McKelvey: We believed that by bringing together a diverse audience of many different business types, as well as solving business problems for them -- especially for work spaces -- and allowing them to connect both socially and for potential business opportunities, for collaboration and innovation, we could do something different. So we never felt there was competition. We don't think anyone is doing what we do.

Q: How does WeWork foster a sense of community in the workplace for clients?

Hill: I think our company probably does more events than any other company in the world. In any given building, there is anywhere between three to five -- sometimes more -- events per week.

Q: We heard big companies such as Microsoft and General Electric are also using your service.

Hill: We see the enterprise channel as one of the fastest-growing segments on our platform. Just last month we added 19,000-plus members to the platform, and 30% of that 19,000 came from global enterprises.

McKelvey: Many of them are trying to evolve and grow their culture to create an environment where their team members are more human-focused, more inspiring and more supportive to creativity and innovation. In big companies, it can be difficult to create that environment internally. It's hard to change bureaucracy or, perhaps, history.

Q: Japan will be the fourth East Asian region that WeWork has entered. What are your expectations?

McKelvey: When we open [in a] new market, we are very ambitious and try to grow as fast as we can. In New York, we have 40 locations. It took us seven years to get there, but many of them came in the past couple of years. In London, we had 15 locations in two years. So you can see how quickly we grow in markets. You will see that happen here as well.

Q: Do you anticipate any cultural obstacles in Japan?

McKelvey: When we went to London, I literally heard people say: "This will not work in London. People in London are not open to each other. They will not sit next to each other with a glass wall -- they want privacy. They are not interested in talking to each other, and they are not friendly."

Every time we go to a new market, there are people who perceive cultural challenges. It has never been true. So everywhere we have gone, we've been able to navigate the local culture and create a customized solution.

Interviewed by Nikkei senior staff writer Kazuyuki Okudaira

 

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