Uni­corn’s suc­cess is the stuff of leg­ends

China’s largest co-work­ing space provider takes col­lab­o­ra­tion to new heights in the shar­ing econ­omy

China Daily European Weekly - - NEWS DIGEST - By LOW SHI PING

Mao Daqing stud­ied ar­chi­tec­ture as his first de­gree, holds two PhDs in re­gional eco­nom­ics, has run 70 marathons and spent al­most 20 years work­ing in real es­tate.

Dis­parate though these parts are, they have to­gether shaped Mao to be­come who and what he is to­day.

The 48-year-old is the founder and CEO of UrWork, the largest Chi­nese provider of co-work­ing space. UrWork, with a mar­ket val­u­a­tion of $1.3 bil­lion, is one of an in­creas­ing num­ber of “uni­corns” in China — startup com­pa­nies val­ued at more than $1 bil­lion.

UrWork, founded in 2015, has 88 co-work­ing spa­ces in 20 cities in China and Sin­ga­pore. By the end of this year, it plans to open one lo­ca­tion each in Los An­ge­les and New York in the United States.

Its cur­rent ten­ants — known as “mem­bers”— in­clude other uni­corns such as bi­cy­cle-shar­ing com­pa­nies ofo, Blue­gogo and Mo­bike, in­ter­net tech­nol­ogy com­pany NetEase and sup­ply-chain ser­vices com­pany JD Lo­gis­tics, a unit of JD.com.

Mao’s busi­ness can­not be de­scribed as merely cre­at­ing shared of­fices with com­mon ameni­ties. “The era when a co-work­ing space was only a phys­i­cal of­fice is past. Af­ter rounds of up­grad­ing, it has trans­formed into re­source op­ti­miza­tion and a busi­ness net­work,” he says.

It is per­haps this clar­ity of thought about co-work­ing’s new def­i­ni­tion that has helped him steer UrWork to stand out among the sec­tor’s more than 4,000 brands in China. In fact, Mao has pieced to­gether a busi­ness that is as mul­ti­di­men­sional as he is.

Mao says he hopes that his ten­ants — par­tic­u­larly the small and medium-sized en­ter­prises — will be able to use UrWork to find op­por­tu­ni­ties out­side China, and vice versa for those over­seas.

This is be­ing done in three ways — the com­pany app, the Ex­press Fi­nanc­ing Pro­gram and the Link China Pro­gram.

Apart from its venue and desk-book­ing func­tion, the UrWork app lists mar­ket­ing pro­grams and ac­tiv­i­ties from its data­base of more than 1,000 part­ner ser­vice sup­pli­ers. These range from fi­nan­cial ad­vi­sory to in­tel­lec­tual prop­erty pro­tec­tion and startup ac­cel­er­a­tors.

Just as use­ful is the Ex­press Fi­nanc­ing Pro­gram, which se­lects the best in­cu­ba­tion projects through a rig­or­ous process and pro­vides train­ing, cap­i­tal and ser­vices sup­port to help the UrWork plat­form’s mem­bers to grow.

The com­pany also op­er­ates China’s first shared en­trepreneur­ship in­sti­tute un­der the shar­ing econ­omy, where it trains, se­lects and pro­vides cap­i­tal sup­port for high-po­ten­tial en­trepreneurs.

Fi­nally, the Link China Pro­gram col­lab­o­rates with Chi­nese gov­ern- ment agen­cies and ser­vice sup­pli­ers from all trades to pro­vide quick mar­ket en­try for over­seas star­tups.

“For ex­am­ple, at our Sin­ga­pore space, we have Volans-i, a Sil­i­con Val­ley-orig­i­nated startup man­u­fac­tur­ing drones for the B2B (busi­ness to busi­ness) sec­tor, which has part­nered with us thanks to the Link China Pro­gram,” Mao says.

Bridge-build­ing aside, Mao, who is a Sin­ga­porean na­tional, also has am­bi­tions to help 10,000 SMEs scale up and grow through part­ner­ships, such as with real es­tate op­er­a­tors, govern­ments and ser­vice sup­pli­ers.

“SMEs and in­no­va­tions in China are hap­pen­ing at an ex­po­nen­tial rate. They have be­come a pil­lar of the na­tional econ­omy. The Belt and Road project will also wit­ness the erup­tion of a large group of SMEs in the re­gion,” he says, re­fer­ring to the China-led strat­egy to re­vive the an­cient Silk Road routes.

In a way, Mao’s plans for UrWork are learn­ing points from his own chal­lenges early in the startup game.

“When chat­ting with friends about po­ten­tial ven­ture ideas, we thought it would be won­der­ful if some­one could set up a plat­form and sup­port us with all the ser­vices we need, to save op­er­a­tional cost, im­prove work ef­fi­ciency and scale up things at a much faster rate.

“Cre­at­ing an in­ter­con­nected and whole­some co-work­ing ecosys­tem was the whole idea when I cre­ated UrWork,” he says.

Vis­its to in­cu­ba­tors around the world pushed him in this di­rec­tion, but the “eureka mo­ment” was a re­al­iza­tion that there was a com­mer­cial prop­erty glut out­side of Bei­jing and Shang­hai that needed a so­lu­tion.

“The idea was also built on the phi­los­o­phy of ge­nius loci (the per­vad­ing spirit of a place), a con­cept in­cepted by the renowned Nor­we­gian ar­chi­tect Chris­tian Nor­berg-Schulz, in­di­cat­ing that ar­chi­tec­ture needs to cre­ate a sense of recog­ni­tion and be­long­ing.

“Through cu­rat­ing a space where var­i­ous con­texts are en­abled, the col­lab­o­ra­tive op­por­tu­ni­ties are un­locked and imag­i­na­tion max­i­mized. The shar­ing econ­omy thus is no longer just a busi­ness model, but more of an ide­ol­ogy, a way of re­con­struct­ing peo­ple-to-peo­ple re­la­tion­ships.”

Mao, born in Bei­jing in 1969, started out in life along a very dif­fer­ent path as the son and grand­son of engi­neers. His grand­fa­ther, in par­tic­u­lar, was some­one he looked up to: Mao Ziyao, an ar­chi­tect who helped de­sign Bei­jing’s Great Hall of the Peo­ple.

“He’s been a tremen­dous role model to me, with his strict work ethic, loy­alty to his coun­try and pas­sion for his work. It took a lot of fore­sight, ar­chi­tec­tural fi­nesse and guts to cre­ate a build­ing ahead of (its) time and yet with such longevity. His for­ti­tude, pi­o­neer­ing spirit and sheer vi­sion have in­spired me till to­day.”

Lit­tle won­der that Mao went on to study ar­chi­tec­ture. His dream back then was to ei­ther prac­tice or teach the sub­ject.

From 1992 to 1996, Mao put his de­gree to good use, work­ing first in Thai­land, then Sin­ga­pore.

Next, he ap­plied his skills and knowl­edge to real es­tate — at Sin­ga­pore-based Cap­i­taLand and later China Vanke.

Life, though, had other plans for him. In 2012, im­mense stress from work caused him to be di­ag­nosed with de­pres­sion.

For­tu­nately, re­lief came in the form of run­ning. “Some of my good friends are hobby run­ners and told me about the ben­e­fits of the sport.”

Run­ning helped him shift his fo­cus from in­doors to out­doors, where he learned to com­mune with na­ture.

“The sport pushes you out of your nor­mal bound­aries, chal­lenges your men­tal strength, and those small in­cre­men­tal ad­just­ments re­ally make the dif­fer­ence in the end — just like run­ning star­tups.”

To­day, he can boast of hav­ing run 70 marathons, re­cently com­plet­ing one in Mau­ri­tius.

Look­ing ahead, Mao has big plans to boost the num­ber of UrWork lo­ca­tions to 150 in 35 cities within the next three years.

Sin­ga­pore is the first city it has en­tered out­side China, do­ing so in June this year. Although the city-state al­ready had more than 80 co-work­ing providers, Mao was keen to es­tab­lish a pres­ence there, con­fi­dent that UrWork oc­cu­pies a unique niche.

On the in­ter­na­tional stage, Mao’s brand is com­monly com­pared with WeWork, the US equiv­a­lent. But the com­pe­ti­tion does not faze him.

“I think we are def­i­nitely well-po­si­tioned to face any in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion. I my­self have a com­mer­cial real es­tate back­ground and un­der­stand how to keep the whole­sale rental low.

“Also work­ing to our ad­van­tage is the in­valu­able sup­port from our phe­nom­e­nal in­vestors and our strate­gic al­liance with the gov­ern­ment.”

He says UrWork is com­mit­ted to div­ing deep into the Chi­nese mar­ket. Its home-ground ad­van­tage lies in know­ing the needs of the Chi­nese en­tre­pre­neur and be­ing able to of­fer a com­pre­hen­sive plat­form to help Chi­nese star­tups and SMEs grow.

“UrWork is about build­ing a seam­less com­mu­nity where dream­ers, do­ers and cre­ators work to­gether to make great ideas hap­pen.”

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Mao Daqing, the founder and CEO of UrWork, says he hopes that the small and medium-sized en­ter­prises will be able to use UrWork to find op­por­tu­ni­ties out­side China, and vice versa for those over­seas.

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