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WeWork’s melodramatic IPO withdrawal could hurt Compass & Opendoor

(REAL ESTATE) You may ask what some tool who claims he invented coworking has to do with the real estate tech world, but it turns out the ties that bind them are closer than many thought. Buckle up, this is a wild ride.

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If you haven’t been paying attention to the WeWork melodrama, we’ll give you the TL;DR version, but you should first know that I am absolutely certain that this will all be a Netflix documentary a la the Fyre Festival scam or the Theranos debacle.

Like many of you, I have been obsessed with this wacky story, and I’m convinced that it is a fleecing of historic proportions that is complex and is (finally) unraveling before our eyes.

WeWork’s parent, The We Company announced today that they will be withdrawing their filing for their initial public offering (IPO) which initially was based on a $47 billion valuation that by this month had slid to around $10 billion. The Board successfully voted to oust CEO, Adam Neumann last week, with Neumann himself allegedly casting a vote in agreement.

The IPO failed for a number of reasons, but the meat is that the company had to disclose information in their filing that showed more of their shady underbelly than they would have preferred.

The S1 revealed made up accounting methods, wild spending, questionable dealings between WeWork and companies that Neumann owned (that benefited Neumann’s personal finances), and when investors began digging into the filings, they uncovered billions of dollars of annual losses that weren’t exactly documented or explained in a way that Wall Street was ready to invest in.

An editorial was posted on Medium.com that went viral, simply entitled “Is WeWork a Fraud?” to which the entire internet read and responded with “yep.” It was republished by countless blogs as a dramatic summation of the facts.

It empowered the average American to read and balk at Neumann’s bizarre God complex. He believes he is literally destined to be The One save the planet. He constantly played a shell game with his companies and brushed off legitimate questions about finances with answers that sound like some spiritual guru on stage.

People shared the editorial endlessly, and it was the catalyst for people becoming interested in the eccentric CEO who smokes weed in his private jet and cusses on stage like a hecka cool guy.

To really understand how all of this ties into Compass and Opendoor, we urge you to go read the original editorial before continuing- it’s worth the time, we promise.

So you’re probably asking yourself right now what WeWork has to do with anything in residential real estate.

The first common thread is Japan-based Softbank, the big bucks behind WeWork, Compass, and Opendoor.

Many fingers are pointed at Softbank CEO and Chairman, Masayoshi Son for being overly optimistic and underly diligent about companies that he personally sees as innovative.

Softbank had reportedly pressured WeWork to hold off on their IPO (and keep the noise down), as they are in the middle of raising their second $100 billion Vision Fund, hoping to attract investors who won’t notice Son’s reputation for investing in companies that don’t yield any returns.

But WeWork filed, the noise has become overwhelming, and the Vision Fund is in trouble.

Softbank has been the only real investment in WeWork, and the only one who says the company was ever worth a $47 billion valuation, investing $12 billion in 9 rounds since 2012.

The second common thread between WeWork, Compass, and Opendoor is that they are all growing incredibly quickly and are unprofitable.

That sounds like good news, but it’s not. Everyone in the startup and/or investing knows that burn rate is a critical component of a company’s sustainability.

Having a high burn rate is like a 7 year old that got their allowance, immediately rushed to spend every dime on candy, and are now in debt to their siblings because they used their allowances on candy as well. It’s corporate gluttony.

The third common thread is that they all claim to be technology companies.
They aren’t.

This is a deep point of contention for some, but let’s digest this together.

Ben Thompson offers analysis of industry topics at Stratechery, and recently dissected whether or not WeWork (and others) are tech companies or not (and included an in-depth historical perspective leading up to his criteria). Per his definition, to be a tech company, one must check all five boxes:

  • Creates ecosystems.
  • Has zero marginal costs.
  • Improves over time.
  • Offers infinite leverage.
  • Enables zero transaction costs.

Thompson asserts that WeWork checkmarks exactly none of the boxes, and under this same criteria, it is hard to see how Compass or Opendoor can either.

We offered a simpler criteria earlier this year when insisting that the media stop calling it the FAANG (Facebook Apple Amazon Netflix Google), noting that most of the companies aren’t technologies.

We noted that any company whose primary function is serving up content is a media company, and any company whose primary function is hardware or software is a tech company.

Under this simplified criteria, it is clear that WeWork, Compass, and Opendoor are not technology companies, they’re real estate companies that are either knowingly masquerading as tech companies to attract investors, or unintentionally giving themselves a label because they use technology better than their competitors and/or consider their use of technology as their core identity.

The final common thread is that all three companies have major competitors that are similar (and they don’t call themselves tech companies, they operate at a profit, and all have much lower valuations), but you would think from their marketing that they’re the only one in their field.

WeWork’s Neumann claims he invented coworking after growing up in Israel in a kibbutz. The only problem is that ServCorp has been around since the 70s, IWG (fka Regus) has been around since the 80s, LEO since the 90s, The Office Group since the early 2000s, and so on.

Compass is doing really cool things with technology (again, they’re not a tech company), but they are a glossy competitor to any other major brokerage, namely Realogy which is publicly traded and according to Forbes, “had 42 times the number of transactions, 11 times the sales volume, seven times the revenue — and actually made a profit.”

Opendoor became a unicorn (valuation of over $1B) right out of the gates, and they’re definitely thinking creatively to speed up the residential real estate process, but they directly compete with Homie, Offerpad, and Movoto, none of whom have the same wild burn rate.

All that said, there’s nothing wrong with Opendoor or Compass, but WeWork has made their existence more difficult.

Because all three are in a similar camp as described above, not only will investment from anyone other than Softbank be difficult to obtain, but WeWork’s insane bookkeeping practices have had a chilling effect in that people are looking more closely at profitability and operating procedures.

That chilling effect means external pressure to improve revenues, which real estate tech journalist, Mike DelPrete asserts, “could lead Opendoor to raise its fees, or Compass to reduce its generous commission splits with agents; either move would severely limit growth. Reducing expenses would come in the form of office consolidation (Compass has over 250 offices across the U.S.), ratcheting down employee perks, or even staff layoffs.”

And it wouldn’t be unprecedented. Uber has had layoffs and struggled with an image problem as they are hand-fed money by Softbank’s CEO who is ultra aggressive with investing in potential rather than profitability.

DelPrete adds that for all three businesses to succeed, they “require an unprecedented amount of capital and a willingness to buy into a vision that is driven more by words than numbers and where the long-term validity of the business model is easier to assert than to prove. The current WeWork fiasco… shows that valuations can’t keep rising unchecked by the realities of basic economic principles—and that investor patience does have a limit.”

WeWork’s newly ousted CEO has already cashed out and is set for life, and his God complex has made for some meaty headlines, but Compass and Opendoor may also pay a price.

This all sounds like a far away Wall Street problem, but try telling that to Compass’ 7,000+ agents (and 1,000+ staff), and Opendoor’s agent partners in 21 cities (and nearly 1,200 staff).

Nice job, Adam Neumann. Thanks a bunch.

Real Estate Corporate

Zillow hit with double whammy discrimination allegations

(CORPORATE) Zillow is facing new allegations of discrimination between employees based on their gender and how unequally they were treated during a crisis.

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We can all agree that violating the Americans with Disabilities Act makes you a capital D D-bag, right?

When a company (or CITY – looking at you, every tilted, rampless sidewalk in Austin) refuses to build accessibility, accommodations, and human GD dignity into their physical, corporate, and digital infrastructure, not only are they breaking the law, they’re being a bunch of unwiped butts.

Today, it looks as though my favoritest real estate site, Zillow, stands accused of being among that skidmark-leaving number.

Now because I’m too cute for defamation suits, I need to be 100%, crystal clear, like clear enough for a bird to fly into it, that Zillow has not been found guilty of anything. We’re going to report on the allegations and the suit brought against the company, but until Zillow gets their day in court, neither this esteemed publication nor I myself can say what definitely did or didn’t happen.

Said allegations are being brought against Zillow by Mr. Michael Cerce, and they’re as such:

Jane Doe at Zillow had her phone stolen, and was being harassed by someone awful, who also made mention of Mr. Cerce in their threats. Zillow stepped up and offered her protection with a security detail, all the days off she needed and… asking Mr. Cerce to step into danger for her.

Mr. Cerce further alleges that while Jane Doe rightly got paid days off to deal with her trauma, he wasn’t afforded the same resources, having his time off requests to take care of his mental health denied, having his concerns about company security dismissed, and not being afforded his commission payments during a leave of absence related to the stalking.

It might actually behoove me to say “the assumed stalking” though, as Mr. Cerce has come to believe he may have been collateral or intentional damage in a hoax perpetrated by Jane Doe.

So. Allegedly. Mr. Cerce was, I repeat ALLEGEDLY, discriminated against on the basis of disability as he was diagnosed with PTSD during counseling related to these allegations, as well as on the basis of sex as he claims a female employee was treated with more respect during similar travails.

To paraphrase the kids these days,  that’s effed up if true.

It should be obvious, but because I know it’s not, I’ll say it anyway. Someone’s being a man doesn’t mean that said someone comes automatically equipped to shrug off being stalked, threatened, harassed, and denied opportunities for healing from an ordeal.

Furthermore, not all disabilities are easily visible, though according to witnesses named in the suit, Mr. Cerce was noticeably distressed for days at a time.

If the allegations are found to be true in a court of law, then Zillow’s got a pretty serious deal on its hands, and we’ll have more as the story develops.

No matter how things shake out in court, ideally, public spotlight of the case will lead more folks of the gentlemanly persuasion to continue standing up against ACTUAL unfair treatment regarding their physical safety and mental health.

Fingers crossed (and Covid triple washed) for justice.

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Real Estate Corporate

Zillow’s patent game is strong – they just got 3 for IBM’s creations

(CORPORATE NEWS) This company was just granted not 1 patent but 3 on tech more than twice their age! What does it mean for you? Nothing good…

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Welp. They did it.

We’ve been watching Zillow for some time now, and in the midst of even the strongest of OP Eds saying how terrible an idea it is, Uncle Sam officially handed them multiple patent keys to tech they didn’t invent.

How big do you have to be before you can clout jack with this much impunity?

I’m used to seeing this with small artists. Forever21’s Etsy spies find a cute, simple design, maybe do the work to alter the pallate a smidgen and rely on the ‘Matilda’s Dad’ strategy of “I’m smart, you’re dumb, I’m big, you’re little, I’m right, you’re wrong, and our lawyers will argue the same, peasant’.

But with technology, you can literally trace the code back to a source. It’s not like using teeth as a motif, it’s real, it’s definite, and it’s definitely really shocking that the government signed off on this.

Zillow’s not exactly startup sized, they’ve been in business since 2004. They’re a big name. Their competition probably can’t muscle their way in and out like they can. Matter fact, a company you may have heard of fighting them on patents has only been doing their doings since…wait, since 1911. Must be a tiny outfit, that was in some other business for over a century right?

It’s IBM.

What le freaque?

We all need to be concerned about this level of government sanctioned patent jacking, no matter what field we’re in.

I’ve heard before that if you’re just starting out, and low on funds, paying for your inventory and manpower are more important than filing anything with the government. Now we’ve got fresh, bloody proof that that’s 100% not true.

Your or your company’s intellectual property can be deeded off with a factor no more elaborate than whether the patent office likes your face that day, regardless of what kind of trail you’ve left, and as far as being run into the ground or laid off goes, that’s hardly a non-factor.

This decision represents a higher financial barrier to entry for everyone from Amazon entrepreneurs to realtors daring to use tech as basic as texting in their business.

Yes, literally.

Zillow’s patents, condensed for readability, are on:

Taking panoramic images for 3D walkthroughs

Multi-criteria search engines

And superimposing images scaled for size onto an area of land

Do all of those sound familiar? They should. We’ve been using that tech for years. And Zillow’s no Microsoft.

As always, we’ll have to see how this plays out. But if your New Year’s resolution was to take more bold steps in your business, maybe see if you can patent the idea of putting your picture in your email signature?

Apparently it couldn’t hurt.

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Real Estate Corporate

Conductor buys their company back from WeWork (that’s a good thing)

(CORPORATE NEWS) In an effort to refocus, co-working giant, WeWork, is looking to offload many of its recently purchased assets which may work in the small companies favor.

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Once upon a time, WeWork, the popular, ever growing, co-working space giant, was valued at $47 Billion. But on August 14th, 2019, everything changed.

In August, WeWork submitted its first IPO paperwork for the company, not realizing it would almost immediately face incredible scrutiny from various entities, such as investors and the press, in regards to its finances. Although the company’s revenue doubled in 2018, Business Insider found that the company wasn’t actually earning any profit. In fact, reporter Rebecca Aydin reported on July 3rd that the company was losing $216, 000 every hour of every day.

But that’s not all. Since WeWork went public, the company has witnessed an incredible devaluation, from $47 billion, all the way down to $8 billion. Now, since we’re talking about billions of dollars here, the devaluation may not seem like a big deal for the future of the company, but I can assure you it is.

This devaluation resulted in Softbank, WeWorks’ biggest investor, taking over, and offering $1.6 billion to then CEO, Adam Neumann, in exchange for stepping down.

Throughout their growth, WeWork acquired more than 20 businesses, such as Spacious, a small co-working space in Manhattan, New York. Spacious’ CEO prior to the acquisition was Preston Pesek, who launched the firm in 2016. Pesek had a background in real estate and founded the business to leverage and monetize abandoned buildings and restaurants.

Customers had easy access to these spaces for a nominal fee, but because of WeWork’s recent decisions with finances, it made the decision to offload quite a few of its previously acquired businesses, including Spacious. They’re also looking to liquidate Managed By Q, which was purchased by WeWork from founder, Dan Teran in April.

In light of this news, Pesek anounced that Spacious will close its doors at the end of the year, alluding to WeWork’s refocus on its core workspace business. But while Spacious is set to close, Teran has decided to fight to re-acquire his company. In a article on The Real Deal, writer Rich Bockmann states that Teran said he’s actively looking to buy back his company.

Conductor, another company WeWork purchased more than 2 years ago, has already been successful in purchasing its company back, and it looks like it may be a better setup for its employees than previously. Co-Founder, Seth Besmertnik, stated in an interview that, prior to the sale of Conductor, he actually only owned 10% of the company. But with the re-acquisition of the company, Besmertnik and his partners, investors, and employees will be in full control. He says that under the company’s restructuring, employees will have “more than four times what they did when we sold the company”, which is clearly a better deal than what they had before.

But WeWork isn’t just liquidating co-working assets they’ve acquired. They’ve also laid off 2,400 employees in an effort to cut costs. Additionally, they’re also considering selling and/or shutting down other ventures, such as Meetup.com, a web platform that makes meeting up with like-minded individuals as easy as possible (purchased in 2017 for $156 Million). WeGrow, an elementary school in Manhattan, is also on the chopping block.

At the end of the day, WeWork just wasn’t as strong as users, investors, business partners, and the general public thought they would be. At a current valuation of only $8 billion (again, down from $47 billion), and with a $9.5 billion bailout from Softbank, the company will have to get really smart with their remaining finances. It’s obvious that the company is still in a state of flux, reevaluating their options and their main focus, but the question remains – can they still be saved? Maybe even more importantly, are they worth being saved? Only time will tell.

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