Avoid the ’emperor’s new clothes’​ hallucination of startup unicorns

In a matter of weeks, WeWork, one of the world’s most highly valued private companies and an emblem of venture-backed unicorns, had become a casualty of consensual hallucination between a bombastic startup founder, and investors who seemingly shopped at the tailor who makes emperor’s new clothes.

WeWork was valued at $47bn, a staggering amount for a company that lost $1.9bn on revenues of $1.8bn last year. It’s now postponed its IPO. Softbank, the majority 29% shareholder, has a gaping hole in its $100bn Vision Fund, and departed founder Adam Neumann has left a toxic waste to clean-up behind him – but with $750m in his pockets for his efforts.

In frothy capital markets such a romantic delusion is possible, where the charisma and audacity of the founder is more alluring than spreadsheets, and venture capitalists jostle with each other to write cheques of $100m. However, for me the fundamental flaw here is that capital isn’t a strategy – which has been the WeWork and unicorn operating model.

SoftBank has been acting like it’s the 1850s Californian gold rush all over again, where the hubris of megalomaniacal founder Neumann seduced their ambition, such that they ignored the usual red flags highlighting the need for diligence in startup business models. So, here’s my summary of the WeWork story, and then my thoughts on its impact for startups in Manchester.

In 2008, Neumann was subletting part of his office space to save rent, and convinced his landlord to let him take over an empty space in one of the landlord’s nearby buildings. He divided it up into semi-communal offices, and rented them out. The original space, Green Desk, was an instant hit. The landlord wanted to expand it to his other properties, but Neumann decided to do his own thing and opened the first WeWork in 2010 in NYC. WeWork was thus born as a co-working space.

In 2017WeWork opened its 200th location in Singapore, and Neumann met Masayoshi Son, the head of SoftBank, a Japanese company reinvented as a VC. In 2016, SoftBank had launched the $100bn Vision Fund, backed by $45bn from the Saudi Arabian government. Son told Neumann he had precisely twelve minutes for a meeting, after which Son sketched out a deal to invest $4.4bn. Son told Neumann to make WeWork ten times bigger than your original plan and to recognise that being crazy is better than being smart. Neumann didn’t hold back.

Today, WeWork is the largest private occupier of office space in London, New York and Washington. In central London, it has more branches than McDonalds. It has become the biggest and fastest-moving force in what many see as the future of work and remote working. But disrupting the world of commercial property required capital, and Neumann excelled at pitching his vision, raising $12bn.

WeWork could simply be described as a leasing company, renting desks to startups and freelancers. However, the IPO filing describes it as a community company, a worldwide platform that supports growth, shared experiences and true success. This sounds like self-important deluded jargon, and therein lies the root of the problem.

Neumann declared that WeWork’s valuation and size are much more based on our energy and spirituality than on a multiple of revenue. He maintained that categorising WeWork as a property concern was too limiting. For example: WeWork Mars is in our pipeline, Neumann declared. He said he’d met with Elon Musk and offered the company’s services supporting Musk’s future Mars missions. He forgot to add that Musk wasn’t interested.

So, what are the lessons for startups in Manchester from this debacle? It is important, as there are four existing and a fifth WeWork office being built in the city.

1.     Startup valuations

Are Unicorns overvalued? In a recent survey, Yes said 91% of VCs who don’t have any Unicorns in their portfolio; and Yes said 92% of the VCs who do. The spiralling prices of tech startups have been based on unsustainable rates of assumed rocketing growth. Uber, once considered the biggest and fastest unicorn of all, lost $5.2bn in Q2. Uber’s growth has been spectacular, but there is something unreal about a company losing $40k a second.

Takeaway: We need to blend the reckless ambition of founders with the sober adult supervision of investors. Show your startup has a genuine edge and innovation, an ambitious customer scaling roadmap, but also a credible strategy to achieve cash generation – and don’t get greedy on your valuation.

2.     Attracting investors

Asked whether they make a gut decision to invest in a fledgling company rather than relying on analysis, 44% of VCs said yes. Some 9% admitted they didn’t use financial metrics to back this up.

Takeaway: Scale unit economics. A startup is a bet on a business model attaining the scale/critical mass beyond which the unit economics starts making sense. Focus on determining the economic drivers of success, not throwing out outrageous revenue projections, and build a growth story around this. WeWork failed to demonstrate any economies of scale.

3.     Growth strategy

SoftBank’s cash infusion helped WeWork cover the increasing costs of its whirlwind growth. WeWork spent heavily to fill the desks it was adding – they bought out new tenants from their existing leases, and provided a year rent free. There was thus a spiralling chasm growing between revenue and costs. WeWork’s occupancy rate went up, but the deals made it difficult to determine the natural demand and price point for its product.

Takeaway: Think of scaling as building the base of a pyramid, the foundation upon which everything else is built, and you know that it will hold. Focus on building your architecture in an intelligent way that will allow you to grow to realise your potential, without over taxing your cash or endangering your roadmap.

4.     Set and hit your (proper) metrics

WeWork has consistently been wildly off its forecasts. Their forecasted profits in their original pitch deck are: $14m (2014), $64m (2015), $237m (2016) $542m (2017), and $1bn for 2018. It hasn’t made a profit yet.

Finding normal accounting a bit boring? WeWork published a financial metric it called Community-adjusted EBITDA – a proven accountancy way of measuring a company’s performance, but Community-adjusted excluded many costs, claiming they would disappear once it reached maturity in an attempt to show it could make a profit. The Financial Times dubbed WeWork’s doctored version perhaps the most infamous financial metric of a generation.

Takeaway: The hype superseded numbers. It was accounting jujitsu at its finest. At some point, startup gestalt of overpromise and underdeliver can paint founders into a corner where they begin massaging numbers. Simply, set and hit your metrics to get trust and confidence from investors.

5.     Know the risks in your business model

WeWork isn’t a commercial property firm renting desks, it’s a Space as a Service (SAAS) firm according to Neumann; but ultimately it is a property based business model, signing long leases even though their own subleases to customers are short. The IPO prospectus disclosed $47bn in future lease obligations and forecast $3bn in revenue this year. What could go wrong?

Takeaway: In all markets, the market leader gets an unfair advantage because casual and unsophisticated customers choose the leader because it feels easier and safer. But your strategy is not to wish and dream of becoming a big fish. The strategy is to pick a small enough pond. By engaging with the smallest viable audience, you gain the reputation and trust you need to move to ever-bigger audiences.

6.     Have a vision and purpose, but don’t hallucinate

Until recently the image of an entrepreneur was of a thrifty workaholic toiling away long hours. But Neumann was more emperor than entrepreneur. In such cases, attention invariably focuses on the founders’ hubris. Their rise and fall is the stuff of barnstorming, bestseller novels. Ultimately, they fall off their pedestal because the foundations lack a sense of reality.

Takeaway: The startup world is filled with the idolatry of winners, constantly promoted on Instagram, creating a high many then chase. The ‘startup founder’ badge, the spoils, coupled with the false narrative that we live in a meritocracy, have dulled our sense of reality.

We’re kidding everyone. We’re deluding ourselves. We’ve lost sight of what’s important. We’ve lost ourselves. We’re addicted to growth at all costs. Emulate the tortoise, not the hare. I’ve always preferred opportunities where time is an ally, not an enemy.

7.     Blitzscale doesn’t work

The folly begins with a sound idea. Startups need scale to become global. The ideas spread quickly, because of network effects, and the more people use a service, the better it gets. The fastest growing firms like WeWork ‘blitzscale’, they attempt to disrupt a whole industry before anyone can stop them, raising fortunes to acquire users – at any cost.

But ultimately, unless you can finance your growth from a growing revenue stream, Blitzscaling means you need investors with very deep pockets. And you usually need more money than you thought, because you’ll need further funding to recover from the mistakes you’re likely to make along the way.

The fast-paced Blitzscaling process is marked by organisational chaos – Zuckerberg’s move fast and break things mantra at Facebook means every week is an emergency – and that’s what insiders said about WeWork. For every company like Paypal that pull off that feat of hypergrowth without knowing where the money would come from, there is a graveyard of startups that never figured it out. The risks of potentially disastrous defeat are ignored.

Hoffman and Yeh, architects of ‘Blitzscaling’ explain the conditions in which it makes sense, which includes having a sustainable competitive advantage and high gross margins, so that the business will generate positive cash flow and profits when it does get to scale. This is good advice, but it didn’t apply to the WeWork model.

Takeaway: There maybe a hard landing here. Startups with no recognisable route to profitability will find it harder to get cash, even before WeWork’s fiasco the taps were being tightened. Blitzscaling may become a dirty word. It’s a do-or-die approach. Cash-burning firms may find themselves stranded. For your startup, don’t fall for the hype.

8.     Leadership red flags

I’m stunned at how Neumann’s sheer force of personality kept the obvious questions about WeWork’s future viability at bay. The cult of personality provided for an outsized view of his own leadership capabilities, and frankly a delusional view of the firm’s role in society. Also, WeWork looked to some like an old-boys’ club, the management ranks were sprinkled with Neumann’s friends and extended-family members.

Neumann sold $750m of his shares. I understand the need for some liquidity and to diversify holdings, but three-quarters of a billion dollars? He was on the brink of becoming a decabillionaire.

Takeaway: If my daughter informed me she’s dating a premiership footballer, that would be a red flag. The vacuum of leadership and governance transparency in WeWork has undermined the often fragile startup leadership culture that investors tolerate and accept.

As a result, the balance of power may shift from founders to investors, as whilst no one wants to crush a creator’s zest, for a while at least, there could be fewer high-risk innovations funded. The key takeaway here is build your leadership team and culture as much as your brand and product.

The salutary lesson from the trauma of WeWork is that common sense has prevailed, and the free rocket fuel stoking the tech startup mania may be rationed, rewarding firms that will generate cash or profit. This will cause a shift away from the quest for growth at all costs towards more responsible stewardship of startup capital to improve runway growth.

The goal for startups should be to make their ventures sustainable, not just explosive. After years in which VCs have cast themselves as infallible Merlins, it is good to see investors shouting when an entrepreneur, for all his charisma, cannot demonstrate how they’ll zoom from unprofitability to massive profitability in a way that’s not obvious to the naked eye – the tailor making the Emperor’s new clothes has a lot to answer for.

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