WeWork has quietly started recruiting for “Area 51 Paradise Ranch,” a private, secretive, “invite-only” startup incubator.
Area 51 differs from other startup incubators in that it doesn’t offer investment or take equity in exchange for participation, or offer a free workspace for the duration of the project. (WeWork has no shortage of cash, having raised $9.8 billion from investors, including money used to buy out early shareholders, according to Crunchbase.) Rather it will charge the startups a typical WeWork desk fee (which start at $350), according to recruiting communications.
Area 51 offers “all the amenities of a fertile paradise,” according to a pitchdeck featuring black-and-white photos of the Nevada desert. Those amenities include a “curated community” of startups, a workspace that is apparently designed by an algorithm meant to foster meaningful relationships, mentorship from unnamed mentors, introductions to other WeWork members, events, and funding opportunities from unnamed venture capital firms. Events will include happy hours and “weekly standups.”
WeWork, in other words, is launching a private, invite-only version of WeWork. Curated communities, meaningful relationships, intros to other WeWork members, events, and happy hours: these were all tenets of the original shared WeWork office, where press coverage never failed to mention the cultish groups of millennial workers and beer-on-tap. The only real difference with Area 51, other than the name, seems to be the artificial mystery of having to apply through a minimalist online form. WeWork declined to comment.
WeWork is protective of its reputation as a professional relationship-builder, which it has long used to convince investors—and customers—that its desks and offices can’t be priced by their square footage alone. WeWork talks about “space as a service,” a play on the more common tech lingo for software that customers license year after year, “software as a service.”
“Our members are connected through our proprietary, mobile-centric technology,” WeWork said in an October 2014 pitch deck, “allowing them to extract maximum value from the WeWork ecosystem.” Adam Neumann, WeWork’s eccentric co-founder and CEO, likes to say the company is making “a life, not just a living.”
In summer 2016, Analytics startup Thinknum got in trouble for scraping data that threatened this picture, suggesting WeWork’s efforts to create “meaningful connections” had “not been well received.” (WeWork, which evicted Thinknum from its WeWork office, said the startup had violated its membership terms of service by scraping WeWork data.)
These days, WeWork isn’t pivoting so much as aggressively bolstering its social offerings, doubling down on the promise that its company builds communities. In late November, WeWork bought Meetup, an app with about 35 million members that helps people meet up offline for professional networking and hobbies, for an undisclosed amount. Shortly before that it led a $32 million investment into The Wing, a New York-based women’s club; acquired Flatiron School, a New York-based coding academy; opened a gym; opened a bar; and announced plans to build a grade school for kindergarteners.
“There is no community in the world that provides consistent and continuous long term support and curated services to entrepreneurs,” says the pitch deck for Area 51, a thesis that seems to be driving the broader WeWorld as well.