We’re starting to see how frighteningly big WeWork’s ambitions really are

It’s a scene all too familiar.
It’s a scene all too familiar.
Image: AP Photo/Mark Lennihan
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On the homepage of WeWork, against a pleasantly neutral palette, the company asks visitors: “Why do you do what you do? Welcome to WeWork. Make a life, not just a living.”

Such language doesn’t quite jive with the image of an office-space company that simply rents out real estate to small businesses and freelance workers—because that is no longer what WeWork is. In its eight years of existence, the New York City-based company has gone from a scrappy startup to a $20 billion corporation, operating 212 co-working spaces around the world and opening gyms, schools, and startup incubators of its own.

Its latest move? Buying up a digital marketing company, seemingly at random. WeWork’s purchase this week of Conductor is small but significant: It is its fifth acquisition in seven months, and is one of the most undisguised and corporate moves the company—which says it will run Conductor as a separate line of business, available to WeWork users and non-users alike—has made yet.

In the case of Conductor, its product does not seem as important as its ties: The company has relationships with 1,000 brands around the globe, including giants like CVS, Salesforce, and Citibank.

WeWork is being bluntly transparent about its new ambition to break into the collared-off world of Fortune 500 companies. In a blog post announcing the Conductor acquisition, it noted that while WeWork started off with smaller clients, “hundreds of the world’s largest corporations, like GE, Mastercard, and Samsung” are now the “fastest growing part of our business,” and that these large corporations make up 25% of WeWork’s present membership.

That’s an odd thought in and of itself—a quarter of WeWork’s customers being employees of existing big companies. Yet it makes sense, when one considers that these businesses often have many employees working remotely, away from headquarters, who might be in need of offices or meeting rooms. WeWork’s uniform, amenities-stuffed spaces provide a solution with vetted standards, the way one might trust a franchised coffee shop or fast-food restaurant over a local deli.

There’s also the fact that WeWork, these days, is trying to sell not just a physical product but an entire ethos. In a recent New York Times profile (paywall), WeWork’s 38-year-old cofounder Adam Neumann rejected the terming of the company as a real-estate business, instead claiming WeWork is a “state of consciousness”—semi-hallucinogenic words that echo the jargon permeating its website (“space as an experience,” “this is a movement toward humanizing work”) and that reaffirm its eagerness to dominate modern work and modern life alike. And it soon will be attempting all this from new headquarters space that it agreed in October to purchase for $850 million.

Judging from recent actions, WeWork’s plan to take over the world begins with buying as much of it as possible.