Eric Platt in New York, Miles Kruppa in San Francisco and Kana Inagaki in Tokyo – Financial Times
SoftBank has pulled out of a planned $3bn purchase of WeWork stock, a move that is expected to spark litigation by the lossmaking property group’s co-founder and one of Silicon Valley’s most prestigious venture capital groups, according to people briefed on the matter.
The $3bn share tender was agreed last year as part of a multibillion-dollar rescue package that SoftBank put in place as WeWork was on the brink of insolvency. The tender offer was set to provide a lucrative payout to early backers of the company including Benchmark Capital and Adam Neumann, WeWork’s former chief executive.
Benchmark, Mr. Neumann and other investors were expected to sue over the collapse of the deal, according to people briefed on the matter.
SoftBank said in a statement on Thursday that it had decided to pull out after WeWork failed to meet a set of conditions behind the deal.
“Given our fiduciary duty to our shareholders, it would be irresponsible of SoftBank to ignore the fact that the conditions were not satisfied and to nevertheless consummate the tender offer,” said Rob Townsend, SoftBank’s chief legal officer.
SoftBank added that it remained “fully committed” to the US group’s success and that its decision would not have any impact on WeWork’s operations.
Lawyers for Mr. Neumann, who had the option to sell nearly $1bn of stock in the deal, were informed of the decision on Wednesday, one of the people said. SoftBank is expected to notify other investors who had planned on selling their shares that it has withdrawn from the deal after the tender offer lapsed at about midnight.
SoftBank’s withdrawal marks the latest reversal for WeWork, which at one point was the most highly valued privately held group in the US. WeWork burnt through billions of dollars of cash as it expanded around the world under Mr. Neumann, opening locations in more than 100 cities. Its attempt to go public last year failed, as investors balked at its huge losses and a series of deals that benefited Mr. Neumann personally.
The decision to walk away from the $3bn share purchases will also take away a much needed source of cash from WeWork. SoftBank had agreed to provide $1.1bn of debt to the company as part of the transaction, but only if it completed the tender offer.
A little while back, I wrote about how an emerging new category of workplace alternatives are attracting attention from both the venture community and some of the commercial real estate’s biggest players.
One such company is Austin-based Swivel, which has developed an agile leasing platform and network. The startup just raised $8 million in Series A funding led by Jim Breyer of Breyer Capital (who’s also backed the likes of Facebook and Spotify). Breyer is contributing $5 million of the capital. JLL Spark, the venture arm of commercial real estate brokerage giant JLL, put up the remaining $3 million. The financing brings Swivel’s total raised to $14.6 million, according to its Crunchbase profile.
The startup has been testing its model across Texas, mostly in Austin and some in Dallas and Houston.
“Everything seems to be proven right and working,” Harmon told Crunchbase News. “So we raised this round to scale up nationwide.”
How it works
Harmon founded Swivel in late 2016 with some initial incubation capital from Floodgate. He and Floodgate Co-Founder Mike Maples had started and sold a software company together in the late 1990s called Motive and decided they wanted to work together again.
So how does it work? Pre-qualified member companies can contract with Swivel’s landlord partners for turnkey office space on flexible terms with little or no upfront capital expenditure and no lease lock-in.
Landlords use the company’s agile leasing platform to backstop their leases for member companies. (I wrote about a similar startup, Landing, recently that is focused on flexible apartment leases). Using Swivel, leases are typically a 12-month commitment with a maximum of four years.
Clients are able to use Swivel’s software to configure and design the space however they want; most offices are between 3,000 and 10,000 square feet. Companies need only to give 60 to 90 days notice before moving out and they are not charged any penalties or move-out fees and don’t have to deal with subleasing.
Since its network launch in 2019, Swivel has signed up over 30 landlords representing more than 150 properties across Austin, Dallas, and Houston.
What it is and what it’s not
Harmon is quick to point out that unlike other flexible workspace operators such as WeWork or Knotel, Swivel is not a landlord. It does not lease space.
“We’re more like a VRBO for office space,” he told me. “People who own properties use our technology and platform to lease to new tenants on more flexible terms. Landlords make the money and share their profits with us.”
For example, a landlord can open up two floors in a building specifically to be listed via Swivel. They can charge a (10 to 20 percent higher) price per square foot because of the flexible terms, but it will still come out to about half the cost of a co-working space, Harmon said. The swivel will completely furnish the space, and “the building becomes more valuable,” according to Harmon.
“We work with hundreds of landlords,” Harmon said, “and we allow them to make more money by bringing a different kind of client into their building and providing a new class of service.”
Swivel is also not out to replace commercial real estate brokers, opting instead to partner with them so it saves money on marketing as well. It works out well for all involved, Harmon said.
Swivel’s target market is tech-enabled companies in their growth phase, which make up about half of the tenants leasing through its platform. (It works with tenants such as Dremio, Graylog, Guideline 401k, hOp, Plivo, Samcart, TalentRobot, and Verify.)
The process is a more appealing one to tech upstarts that simply prefer a more digital process in general.
“They’re just used to the flexibility and that sort of convenience in other parts of their lives,” Harmon said.
But Swivel has also helped a number of multinational companies that require flexibility for their satellite offices.
The company plans to use its new capital primarily to expand across the U.S. in 2020. It is in talks with landlords in Boston, New York, Northern Virginia, Charlotte, N.C., Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Utah, Denver, and San Francisco.
“Expansion cities are a finite list and expand based on how our landlord partnerships unfold,” Harmon said. “Landlord partners will determine the order and timing of opening up each market.”
For his part, Breyer believes Swivel’s business model is an ideal approach to help landlords be able to meet the evolving needs of tenants.
“As a VC, one of my mantras [to portfolio companies] is ‘don’t sign anything longer than two years,’ ” Breyer told me. “Real estate hasn’t kept up with that, as the leasing business hasn’t yet been tech-enabled, particularly in very important markets, like Silicon Valley and Austin.”
In general, he also believes flexible leases will become more and more important in general given workforce needs.
“The next generation thinks about flexibility first and foremost,” Breyer told me. “Swivel gives landlords the opportunity to attract the tenants of the future.”
HOUSTON—WeWork’s setback could lead to a number of landlords in various US markets wrestling with how to fill space, according to a new Transwestern research report.
There have been many measures of the impact coworking has had on the office sector; Transwestern offers a new one in its study: when comparing coworking expansion to the growth of top industries nationally since 2015, coworking ranks ninth. Just prior to WeWork’s IPO, momentum in the sector accelerated dramatically, improving its ranking to sixth among all industries through the third quarter of 2019, and by itself accounts for nearly 8 million square feet of absorption.
Specifically, WeWork’s US portfolio currently comprises approximately 27 million square feet in 35 US metros, with New York accounting for 10.3 million square feet, followed by Los Angeles (2.2 million square feet), San Francisco (1.8 million square feet), Washington, DC (1.6 million square feet), and Boston (1.5 million square feet).
To state the obvious, the success or failure of these locations has the potential to affect availability, lease terms and other real estate fundamentals, impacting neighboring properties and entire submarkets, Transwestern says.
The math on that point is clear: WeWork committed to more than half the total space it has leased within the past two years at a time when rent was rising nationwide, according to Jimmy Hinton, senior managing director, investments and analytics. More than a quarter of that space remains ‘unsold,’ presenting a significant amount of financial liability for the company, he says in prepared comments. Now WeWork finds itself in the position of having to market more than 7 million square feet of space as the economy is beginning to slow and businesses are taking a cautious stance in an uncertain political environment, Hinton adds.
Hinton explains that WeWork’s business model, grounded in its strategy to build communities by saturating select markets, was predicated on positive leasing spreads between its own base rent and that of its sublessees, an increasingly difficult balance as prevailing market rents increased over time.
“As a result, risks inherent in WeWork’s business plan would most probably have played out in periods of adverse market conditions,” he says. “As we now know, such circumstances came in the form of restrictive capital supply to WeWork, not from a dearth of tenant demand.”
As the company explained in its IPO, WeWork’s workstation pipeline included five distinct phases—Find, Sign, Build, Fill and Run. The first three categories captured locations before opening, while the last two reflected open locations, Transwestern explains. As of November 2019, 66.6% of WeWork’s Build space, 20% of Fill space, and 6.5% of Run space were vacant nationwide, with Atlanta exhibiting the greatest percentage of availability, at 42.4%, compared to the total market portfolio.
The report concludes that the overwhelming majority (90.5%) of risk is related to lease commitments still in the Build and Fill phases—in other words, where WeWork is constructing space it intends to sublease or is currently subleasing, to corporations or individual memberships.
Of the top five metros, as measured by WeWork total square feet, New York, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles have the greatest percentage of available space classified in these phases.
Bye Bye, Booze: WeWork Killing Kegs At North American Locations NationalCoworking January 27, 2020, Ethan Rothstein, East Coast Editor Bisnow/Ethan Rothstein A beer tap is kept locked in a Washington, D.C., WeWork location. WeWork’s free beer taps, one of the defining attributes of the halcyon days of the coworking company, are almost kicked. WeWork is phasing out free beer and wine at it North American locations, a spokesperson confirmed to Bisnow Monday. The company doesn’t have kegs at all of its 600-plus locations, but they were staples of WeWork’s earliest outposts, which were also its most successful, according to WeWork’s financial disclosures last year. By the end of February, the taps will all be phased out, the spokesperson said. Business Insider first reported the change Monday morning. “Data from an expanded member satisfaction survey we conducted last year indicated many of our members wanted a greater variety of beverage options, and we are pleased to roll out these expanded offerings, including a selection of cold brew, kombucha, seltzer, and cold teas, in response,” WeWork said in a statement. “As part of this beverage refresh, WeWork will also phase out on-tap alcoholic beverages in U.S. and Canada locations and aims to complete this process by the end of February.” The beer and wine taps are expected to be replaced with nonalcoholic options, rather than removed. The decision came as a result of new WeWork Chairman Marcelo Claure’s go-forward plan for the business, and was prompted by a member survey, not as a cost-cutting move, a WeWork source said. Booze will still be served at WeWork happy hours and other events, the source added. Alcohol was once a pillar of WeWork’s identity, from bottomless-drink member parties to CEO Adam Neumann’s infamous penchant for shots of tequila. But the company was sued in 2018 by a former executive who said she was sexually assaulted twice at WeWork events, which she claimed “center around partying and reflect the frat-boy culture that starts at the top.” That litigation is still ongoing and is in the discovery phase, according to New York State court records. A month after the sexual harassment suit was filed, WeWork shifted its alcohol policy, from offering unlimited drinks and blatantly promoting consumption to a four-drink maximum. While the company claims cutting kegs isn’t about costs, its other recent stratagems have focused squarely on its blood-red balance sheet. After losing $1.25B in Q3 2019, WeWork nearly stopped leasing new spaces altogether in Q4, laid off 20% of its staff and has sold several previous acquisitions, including its stake in women-focused co-working company The Wing and digital meeting startup Teem in the last month.