The End Game for Co-Working

I have been watching – and our firm has been participating in – the co-working trend.  It started with Regus when it was founded in 1989 but didn’t really go anywhere until the past few years.  Since then, numerous players have entered the market, each with its own twist to appeal to different parties.

There is an ongoing debate as to what will happen during the next downturn.  Some say that the co-working spaces – filled with millennials – will become ghost towns as these millennials will go home to work out of their parents’ basements for free.  Others say that in a downturn, co-working will boom even more because there will be more people out of work.

I am not wading into this debate except to say that I am certain that no one has a crystal ball and we will just have to see what happens at the time of the next downturn.  If I had to guess – and I shouldn’t guess publicly – I think the latter (i.e. the boom) is much more likely than the bust, but that is just my guess.  However, I do have a perspective here that I think is interesting….

To take you through my thinking, I hearken back to the internet.  When it started, everyone was so excited.  It was a “new business” and everyone was pouring into it.  However, it turned out that it was really not “a new business”; instead, it was “a new way of doing business.”  This meant that WalMart could be in the business just as easily as an internet start-up.  If you fast-forward about twenty years, I don’t think there is a single business that exists today that is truly an “internet business”, with the single exception of Amazon and, at least according to my calculations, it is only just now starting to turn a profit.   So much for the “internet business”.

I think the exact same analysis applies to co-working.  If you look at what is happening now, there are numerous competitors; however, recently, landlords themselves have started to enter the fray.  For example, if you own an office building, you might consider allocating a floor for co-working space.  The margins are dramatically higher than what you would get if you leased the floor – versus the risk that your tenants are sort of like hotel guests and could evaporate if the market changes.

To be clear here, since co-working is so labor and operationally intensive, most landlords will team up with a co-working provider.  I think you will see a lot more of this.

As a landlord you wouldn’t want to risk the entire building on this concept just yet and even if you did your lender wouldn’t let you, but for a single floor it probably makes sense to take a chance and enjoy the upside without that much downside risk.  And ten years from now, once co-working has proven to be a longer-lasting concept, your lender will probably let you co-work out half of your building or even more than that, i.e. co-working will likely morph to be more like a hotel concept.

In any case, over the next ten years I suspect co-working will become more and more ubiquitous.  Then what happens to the co-working companies?

My prediction is that there will be a couple of survivors.  The rest will fold or be absorbed or bought by other real estate players.

Meanwhile, I advocate that real estate players – worldwide – should be looking at how they can optimally apply this “new way of doing business.”

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