By Aaron Kruse and Henry Prinz
For any company entering a foreign market, the task of localizing a good or service is often an endeavor critical for success. While some firms face greater difficulties in localizing a product than others, the shared-office space market provides a fascinating example of how an international firm can adapt its product to serve regional clients.
As the Managing Director of Asia-Pacific for WeWork, Ole Ruch has a unique perspective on bringing creative concepts into the Chinese market. Before coming to WeWork, Ruch advised companies on their international operations and expansion, and also served as Managing Director International at Airbnb, where he led operations in the Asia-Pacific region.
Last year WeWork, an American company which provides shared workspace, community, and services for entrepreneurs, freelancers, startups, small businesses and enterprises, was valued at over 16 billion USD. Part of that success is attributable to their creative approach to the shared-office space concept. No WeWork office looks the same as another, yet each office carries the distinctive features of the globally recognized brand.
Another part of that success, however, is in how WeWork has capitalized on local research and regional partnerships to enter markets in a manner that suits their unique members. AmCham China’s interview with Ruch provides a glimpse into the mind of a product localization expert.
How did your career path lead you to your current position as APAC director at WeWork?
I first joined WeWork in 2014, initially as an advisor, and later in an operational role in January 2015. As a former entrepreneur, when I met Adam [Neumann] and Miguel [McKelvey], and saw their passion in building a community company, one that helps companies grow and succeed, I knew I wanted to get involved. Since I joined, WeWork has opened two locations in Seoul, six in Shanghai, two in Hong Kong, two in Beijing, two in Australia, and have many more on the way across Asia.
What surprised you the most about bringing WeWork to China, compared to other markets?
China is No. 1 in terms of growth rate, compared to other markets. The consistent and impressive growth of China’s market provides promising opportunities for WeWork. China has exceeded our expectations in a number of areas. We are expanding faster and receiving better market feedback in China than we had expected. We have gained enterprise members in China much faster than in the US – after 10 months, we had reputable enterprise members such as
Lululemon, The Discovery Channel, A2Live, etc. In the US, we waited five years after we were established before an enterprise member joined WeWork.
How do you adapt to meet the needs and unique features of a market like China while staying true to WeWork’s core values?
While we are a global company, we operate each site with a local playbook. Whenever we enter a new market, we work together with key partners and experts in the region to help create a localized WeWork experience, tailored to the desires and needs of our regional members. We spend a lot of time reaching out to key communities long before we open the doors of a new location. WeWork starts operational preparation early; we listen to, learn about, and research local business culture so that we create an individualized and localized space for our members. Specifically, China is a unique market with its own features. Our localization efforts in China include:
- Changing our back-to-back seating plan to face-to-face for Chinese members;
- Designing bigger conference rooms since Chinese members prefer to have many people attend meetings;
- Providing freshly ground coffee in our China locations as opposed to drip coffee in other markets;
- Providing multiple choices of tea for the China locations;
- Deploying hot water dispensers in the pantry areas;
- Listening to Chinese member feedback and providing more local services according to their recommendations.
In addition to these operational localizations, we also have strong local partnerships with Hony Capital and Sino Ocean Group, which help us navigate the China market. We build local teams to serve local members, we add local cultural elements into our design and language, and thus we design local products for this market. We are a global company but we play local.
I think a lot of people see WeWork as a space for small companies and startups. Is that accurate?
No, WeWork’s clientele are not limited to small companies and startups. From individual
freelancers, to Fortune 500 companies, to firms at various sizes at different stages of development, we have a very diverse group of members. For instance, in China, we have a 1-dancer working studio at our location on Weihai Lu, in addition to an enterprise member who takes up two entire floors in our Yun Nan Lu space. Roughly 10% of Fortune 500 companies – 54 enterprises – are our members, including GE, Dropbox, Microsoft, Red Bull, and GM. In China, our members include The Discovery Channel, Lululemon, A2Live and other enterprise members. In Hong Kong, for example, HSBC even has more than 300 desks in WeWork locations.
You mentioned HSBC has more than 300 desks in the Hong Kong space. What kind of benefits do you think that larger organizations derive from joining WeWork?
As I said, for the 10% of Fortune 500 companies who are our members, WeWork helps them enrich their office culture, connects their employees with creative talent, provides spaces to attract young talent, and inspires them toward innovation solutions. Furthermore, we help large companies like HSBC to decrease costs. In fact, globally, we help large companies cut about 20-30% of their costs.
On April 19th, WeWork Chief Product Officer David Fano and Head of Product Research Joshua Emig announced in New York City an experimental project to help big companies manage their offices. WeWork currently has around 30 entire floors out of its 144 international locations that are leased by a single member. Services to enterprise members, in addition to the physical space we provide, include interior design, guest services, conference room booking, event coordination, data collection and analysis on space usage, and community managers who provide instant onsite service to solve problems for enterprise members.
AmCham China just held our annual Human Resources conference, and this year’s theme is HR innovation in a digital world – specifically on the best practices for HR professionals looking to meet the needs of a modern workforce. How does WeWork help its members provide an attractive workplace and environment for employees?
We view space as a commodity and we employ cutting-edge technologies to build our product – which is a dynamic, vibrant community. We’re one of very few companies that acts as an owner, operator, and client organization. With our own internal research and development team, WeWork is at an advantage because we are beginning to understand more fully how our members use our buildings and spaces. We are able to observe our members, do post-occupancy studies, and receive their feedback on WeWork’s designs, office spaces, and operations. This allows us to engage our members in a holistic way as WeWork’s members spend a great deal of time at the office, and the interior designers try to make spaces feel as comfortable and approachable as possible, so that members get the most out of their time at the office.
Because community is a catalyst for WeWork, our spaces are designed to inspire collaboration and interaction among all the members. Spatially, WeWork locations provide multiple options in terms of energy level and noise, depending on what activity and mood people are in at a given time of day. Common areas tend to be bustling with playing music and lots of people congregating and buzzing about—this yields a fantastic, infectious energy and is a good place to have meetings and hang out. The office spaces and conferences rooms serve as a middle ground of sorts. Shared offices have more privacy and are quieter than the common areas but still generate a feeling of closeness with the dynamic activity of people working around them. The phone booths and alcove areas scattered around the floor offer a respite from the bustle, where people can escape from noise and energy and find more solitary focus. Furthermore, choosing the type of furniture and accessories is also critical to designing a space that promotes a communal and friendly culture. Soft seating areas are interspersed with desks or pantry spaces so members can find comfortable lounge chairs and large sofas as well as hard-backed seating or standing options. The various details that WeWork commits to delivering make the space a dynamic and energetic community that facilitates collaborative and innovative ideas for all of its members.