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WeWork Labs set for SA: we take a look inside

Global shared workspace provider WeWork will launch its first South African Labs location next month. ON FREUND gives us the inside story



Global shared workspace provider and community platform WeWork recently announced it will open its second South African location, in Cape Town, before the end of 2019. Now, it is set to launch WeWorks Labs in Africa, with Johannesburg set to be the first location, opening next month.

We asked ON FREUND, EMEA head of WeWork Labs, to tell us more about the operation and WeWork’s plans.

What are your plans for WeWork Labs in South Africa?

Before I talk about WeWork Labs, I’d like to give a quick overview of WeWork itself. WeWork is a global community platform which offers companies of all sizes the space, community and services they need to create their life’s work. WeWork is currently present in 105 cities across 27 countries. WeWork Labs will open its doors in our first location in Johannesburg, 173 Oxford Road, in August this year. WeWork Labs provides support for early-stage startups and entrepreneurs around the world. Not only will members in Johannesburg receive a tailor-made support programme, curated by a local WeWork Labs manager, but they will also be part of WeWork’s global network of over 466,000 members, along with the Labs community spread across 50 locations in 32 cities and 15 countries.

The Labs manager will work closely with the Labs members to develop personalised workshops and events, and build connections with investors, mentors and the local startup scene, according to the members’ individual needs. Participating start-ups are offered courses, events and one-on-one sessions to get advice on everything from accounting and marketing to hiring and convincing future investors.In Johannesburg, WeWork Labs will be home to 80 members. 

How does this differ from its approach in other countries?

When it comes to WeWork Labs, there is a really special dynamic between local and global. The programme itself is universal in terms of exclusive member benefits and discounts, and access to the global network of WeWork members. Our WeWork Labs Satellite Programme provides members with opportunities to access programming in any of our global locations, so Labs members can tap into any space whenever they’re travelling, be it Tel Aviv or Shanghai.  It also offers a mentor network comprising more than 1,300 professionals worldwide. Whilst the Labs concept is the same throughout the world, the initiative prides itself on offering a bespoke, localised offering. By sourcing a WeWork Labs manager with expert experience and of course bringing together a community of individual entrepreneurs and early-stage start-ups based in Johannesburg, we hope to create customised programming to meet our members’ personal and professional development needs in South Africa.

How will WeWork Labs collaborate or share with the WeWork offices in Johannesburg?

WeWork Labs members will be located in WeWork, 173 Oxford Road based in Johannesburg. Similarly to WeWork members, Lab members are able to interact with other Labs members across the world, as well as engage with the rest of the WeWork global community including entrepreneurs, start-ups and enterprise companies. Enterprise companies make up 40 percent of WeWork’s global community –examples include HSBC, Citi and Deloitte– and is a big attraction for smaller startups and Labs members as they’re able to not only share a workspace with these larger companies, but also have the opportunity to interact, collaborate and share ideas with these businesses. For example, in London, we found that a third of our members said other WeWork members had given them ideas on how to improve their businesses. We recently announced that in South Africa, Naspers will be taking space with us at 173 Oxford Road. I’m looking forward to seeing the interaction between these large enterprise companies and our Labs members, and the rest of the community.

Your slogan talks about helping to create the future. To what extent does this suggests a strong research & development orientation?

At WeWork, our aim is to empower inventive humans and organisations to impact the present and influence the future. As a business, we are focused on driving efficiency and adapting in areas of the company in order to meet the ever-evolving needs of our members, whether it be entrepreneurs, start-ups, SMEs or enterprise companies. On the ground level, our community teams are in constant contact with our members and hear from them any feedback they may have about the space or our services.

From a tech side, we focus on efficiency, elasticity and engagement. Technology is integrated into everything we do; we use anonymous data and analytics from our global fleet of buildings to better understand larger-scale urbanism and real estate trends, as well as evaluate new locations and services to help our members save, grow and thrive. We recently found that globally, a company of four can save $24,000 (or 35%) on average annually over traditional commercial real estate options. We see real value in taking non-structured data from the physical world and input our findings for machine learning development as well as predictive analytics, for example reallocating conference rooms based on meeting responses. Our collection of member data is anonymous and provides invaluable insight into the member experience as a whole, as well as their working habits to predict and create the future of work. 

Will you have similar partnerships in SA as WeWork Labs has with Alibaba Cloud in China? Please elaborate on potential partnerships here.

We’re thinking about all sorts of ways to service our community globally, and part of this is looking at potential partnerships that will provide our members with useful offerings. Right now, we’re connecting with local start ups and potential partners in the area, but I have no news to share on this at present. 

What are your plans to expand to other tech hubs in South Africa, like Stellenbosch?

Right now, we’re focusing on launching our first WeWork Labs programme and building our community in South Africa. We’re excited to expand our footprint across the country, having recently announced a new WeWork location in Cape Town, bringing our total number of locations in South Africa to three.