[dropcap size=small]M[/dropcap]iguel McKelvey routinely towers over the crowd, and not just because he stands 2.02m tall in his socks. As co-founder of shared office space company WeWork, a global phenomenon and poster child for tech start-ups (the company is valued at US$47 billion after its most recent round of funding), Mr McKelvey and co-founder Adam Neumann have consigned the idea of following a traditional career path to the dust pile of history. Instead, they are leading the change in the way we work by providing an inspired response to that age-old question, now asked by next-gen millennials: ‘Who are we?’
We, or The We Company, was started in New York by Mr McKelvey and Mr Neumann in 2010, a re-boot of an earlier entrepreneurial venture that focused on eco-friendly work spaces. Each was raised in a community-based environment – Mr McKelvey in a matriarchal collective (or five-mother commune) in Eugene, Oregon and Mr Neumann in a kibbutz in Israel. They met in New York and hit upon the notion of creating a multi-faceted, all-in-one building combining offices with living, recreational and retail spaces targeted primarily at tech start-ups and creatives who would thrive in an environment where community and personal well-being were high on the agenda. They hit a roadblock when a deal with the owner of a run-down building in Manhattan’s Lower East Side fell through – but you can’t keep a good concept down. The pair found financing, the office aspect took shape and WeWork became a reality by offering physical and virtual spaces with global reach. The company now rents spaces to startups and multinationals in 100 cities and 27 countries around the world, with close to 5,000 employees and half a million members. In Singapore, the 10th WeWork space opened recently, just 15 months after the first.
As Chief Culture Officer of a company that’s been doubling in size every year, with 425 physical locations currently, Mr McKelvey, 44, criss-crosses the globe regularly, guzzling Red Bull (to beat jet lag) while reinforcing the WeWork ethos, building more communities (50 percent of WeWork’s members actually do business with each other, and 70 percent interact with one another) and looking at ways to improve a product that generated US$1.35 billion in revenue last year (but losing US$1.22 billion), according to business magazine Fast Company. He may have gone from commune to community in a flash, but there is more to We than meets the eye, says Mr McKelvey. “It’s just a small part of a bigger picture – I’m interested in making a positive impact in the world.”
How did growing up in a commune influence the ways of the We world?
The way I grew up was very idealistic. What mattered were the big ideas: women’s rights, cooperatives, organic food, community. There was no materialism, no money, no real care for keeping up with anyone else’s expectations – that’s a real freedom. No one expected me to comply with any formulation of life. At the same time that I felt unconditionally supported 100 percent of the time, there was a looseness. As a kid I was out riding my bike around town – that’s an idealised life that’s hard to replicate. At WeWork, it’s about the mindset of being connected to that energy, the cool design spaces, removed from the boring ways. The inclination is to make things new and vibrant.
You rent out millions of square feet of office space around the world and make a deliberate effort to avoid feeling generic. What is a typical WeWork space like?
I’ve never worked in a traditional office. My interpretation is to be happy about the space you’re in. The cool and edgy start-up vibe, the feeling that the workspace should be this place that gives you energy and opportunities to grow, not a place that feels oppressive. We said, ‘let’s just make a great place for people to work, airy and with great natural light.’ Once we created that environment, we saw that it made people feel more connected and supportive of each other – that connection led to new opportunities.
The WeWork mantra is to create a world for people, including employees, to make a life, not just a living.
If you come into a WeWork building, you’re going to feel that people working there are there not because it’s a job, but because they believe in something. If we provide anything from a business culture perspective, that should be the most important thing. It’s almost an addiction for me to want to provide this kind of space. It was seeing that ‘conversion effect’, the idea that people couldn’t wait to escape from the old ways. When we transformed our first building, that’s a really compelling thing to be involved in. It was a successful business model, generated by technology and the way we run the business. We’ve always been focused on people and community so we’re much more involved in real people and real life – we’re interested in the complexity and challenge of dealing with real people.
The material reward that comes with great success is not what drives you, but do you have a retirement plan: what is your exit strategy?
The exit strategy is to stay in. There is a big premise that says you’ll be much more fulfilled if you do what is true to you, not just checking someone else’s box. If you’re in a community of people doing things, you can get energy from each other. Entrepreneurial culture has celebrated fast growth with the destination of an IPO, or acquisition, or making millions. For my part, I’m not in that formula, there wasn’t a plan for us except to build a business we love. There’s no destination in mind – it’s about the journey.
With that in mind, what’s the next stage of the journey for We?
The ‘we’ is a fundamental part of life, of our business model. Unlocking potential is the part we’ve always been interested in, and the next step is creating open environments, tapping the potential of people coming together to make things better in education, hotels, residential, restaurants, fitness. From day one that’s what we wanted, it’s just that WeWork started out strong. WeLive (co-living spaces) does not have the same growth but it’s all a part of what we do.
As Chief Culture Officer, what’s your most important task?
The most important thing is to reinforce our purpose and why we’re here. It’s also important to set high standards across the board and to keep that entrepreneurial spirit of ‘move fast, take risks’. Adam and I have been in that process from the start: reinforcing the idea that we have to be in touch with ourselves and our own growth. We go through therapy, meditation and spiritual practices. I have no religion, it’s basically taking a variety of spiritual wisdoms and applying it to the business context. I believe I’ll be living like that the rest of my life.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.