WeWork Co-Founder Miguel McKelvey on entrepreneurship & Miami's startup scene

With entrepreneurship reaching a critical mass in the U.S. economy and Miami’s startup scene squarely on the map, the largest co-working network has opened a branch in South Beach at the foot of Lincoln Road. WeWork furnishes a stylish brand of flexible shared office space (rates in Miami start at $220 per month for a desk and $500 for an office) that fosters a community of over 30,000 entrepreneurs, freelancers and startups in 15 cities globally. “As a business network that’s just a stronger thing to tap into,” says Miguel McKelvey, WeWork co-founder.

“Our mission is to support people in their life’s path or career path, as they define it, and really, to help people succeed in whatever way they choose to. That’s what we started from,” explains McKelvey, 41, who launched WeWork in New York City in 2010 with business partner Adam Neumann. “We said, we want to be a place where people who have made that decision, that they want to take control of their future and do something cool, do something they’re passionate about, do something that they find meaning in, we want to figure out how to support them.”

At WeWork, that support comes with a sun-filled, aesthetically pleasing workplace (think, exposed brick walls, high-gloss hardwood floors and Miami-inspired neon art on the walls) with gratis micro-roasted coffee and craft beer on tap. But the true strength of the foundation, as McKelvey sees it, is in that 30,000 strong professional network. Members are connected not only by proximity in their respective locations, but also globally through message boards on WeWork’s proprietary server and app. That network will continue to grow in Miami with plans for a second location downtown in 2016 already in the works. 

We sat down with McKelvey during his visit to Miami last week for South Beach’s official launch parties to discuss branding, design, entrepreneurship and Miami’s unique market. 

Shayne Benowitz: What is the WeWork brand and how did you go about creating it?

Miguel McKelvey: We wanted to create an experience that would speak for itself and would speak through our members. We didn’t want to talk about community or collaboration when we first launched because we thought those are things that need to grow on their own and organically evolve. You can’t force people to feel like they’re a part of a community, but we felt by doing things in certain ways, we would encourage it to happen. By delivering a really great experience around practical needs we were able to assemble a group of people that turned out to be ambassadors and they told their friends and then their friends told their friends, so that was really our brand strategy from the beginning. 

Now, many times whenever we go into a new city, people are already interested and excited about it. Now, we just do cool stuff, like cool stickers and t-shirts and artist collaborations and stuff like that.

How important is design in a space like WeWork and what drives you to innovate?

I’m super-super aware of my environment. The difference between me and a lot of other people is I can feel the effect of light, space, furniture, height, scale, distance, all these micro-environments affect me in a strong way. Why? I don’t know exactly. I studied architecture, but that’s only a small part of it. [At 6’8",] I’m also like a larger than normal person. I care about details as small as consistent seat heights and then the broader picture, which is one of the first things we ever decided, is that we would take, almost always, buildings on corners just because there’s light coming from two directions. I you’re in a deep corner and there’s light coming from two sides, it just inevitably will feel more bright and open. 

In opening a branch in South Beach, what did you find unique about the Miami market?

One thing that people in Miami seem to be good at is partying. The space that we created here on the second floor of this building was designed to be transformable in order to host events. That’s been one of the best aspects of this project is that there’s been a lot of events, not necessarily that we do, but that we facilitate by the community and by the people who are interested in bringing people together around the startup and entrepreneurial scene. 

The other thing we noticed is there are a lot of individuals. Our waiting list for a one-person office is really long. I don’t know enough about why that’s the case here, I just know that it is the case. It’s something to learn from. We didn’t know that formula before coming here. The good thing about doing multiple locations is you can continue to modify. What we’ve learned is every market everywhere has enough people to fill up the spaces. It’s just a matter of the timing and who comes first.

Why do you think entrepreneurship and freelancing has become such a force in the economy in recent years?

It’s multifaceted, but certainly the financial crisis in 2008 and the shift in terms of people’s trust in established systems changed things. I know, especially being in New York, a lot of people turned away from finance at that time. It used to be if you were a smart, East Coast, Ivy League grad, you should work in finance. It seems like there was a shift where tons of those people decided, that’s no longer what I’m looking for. If I’m going to work 14 hours a day, I’d rather be doing something I want to do rather than some big dark box that I don’t even understand. 

Certainly our culture celebrates entrepreneurs now, whether it’s Mark Zuckerberg or the guy from Uber. The people on the covers of magazine after magazine, the stars of the business world, are entrepreneurs, for the most part. I think that probably inspires a lot of young people. To have a role model like Mark Zuckerberg who’s what, 31 years old and has $30 billion, that’s a pretty cool think to aspire to. He, for example, and many others like him, are actually not about the money, not about even the success, but about doing something they believe are meaningful for the world. That being a part of our culture is becoming more and more pervasive, like you should do something with your time that actually means something. Don’t just work to acquire material possessions. We’re a part of it [a[at WeWork]nd we’re lucky because we’ve had great timing. We were in the right place at the right time to start. 

What’s your advice to budding entrepreneurs?

It depends on where you are in your life’s path. If you’re really young and you’re trying to figure it out, I think the best thing to be is a sponge absorbing everything you get because—I forget who said it or what book it is, but someone has this thing about say yes to everything. When you have no idea what to do or how to do it, you just need to see and absorb as much as you possibly can and just fill your vocabulary and your brain with as much as humanly possible. It’s all going to come back at some point. If you get too linear or focused on one thing, then it’s really hard to diverge. The thing that I think is cool about being young now, it feels like there’s more acceptance of non-traditional paths. If you want to do something that’s weird, hopefully people are like, do it. 

In the big picture, the coolest thing is just anyone who has the willingness to make the leap should be celebrated, revered and supported because it’s a big thing. If you’re going to do it, if you’re going to make a break and start something new, everyone should cheer you on.

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