WeWork has already disrupted the traditional approach to setting up office as a startup or small company by offering a series of spaces where people can get things done together. Now Julie Rice wants them to become spaces where they buy from each other, too.
The pioneering coworking provider has recently launched WeMRKT, a series of corner convenience-style retail shops that will feature products for WeWork members that were designed and produced by other WeWork members. According to Julie Rice, a partner who initially joined the firm as chief brand officer late last year after co-founding SoulCycle, WeMRKT has involved more than six months of travelling across the world and conducting special events where members pitched their ideas across five different product categories.
“It’s been a great way for me to get to know our members on the ground,” Rice said during a fireside chat at the Elevate Toronto TechFest this week. “You can see the spark in everybody’s ideas, whether it’s for stylish compression socks or chocolate covered chickpeas.”
This is, admittedly, an unusual form of “B2B,” particularly given the economic challenges facing more traditional merchants. However creating a retail presence within what is already an unusual environment for companies to run their business is more natural to WeWork than outsiders may imagine, Rice said.
“We’ve often been thinking about, what is it that we can create in these spaces that can create attachment to brands, to other people?” she said. “I think WeWork is a logical choice as a company to take on that kind of a task. What is so unique about the companies we house is the communities we create for them, the culture we’re providing.”
Rice likened WeWork’s coworking facilities, which are used by entrepreneurs across a wide set of industries, as a new form of community center that serves as a sort of antidote to the largely digital interactions that dominate many people’s daily professional lives. Most businesses could benefit from that proximity to their target audience, a lesson she said she learned while at SoulCycle.
“We found that somewhere between eight and 15 studios was a sweet spot. At that point we still knew everybody,” she said. “There comes a point where you’re not talking to your customers every day. I think that’s where people do go wrong. I think for a lot of people when you stop listening to your customers and operate your business ‘up here,’ people really lose touch with what customers, riders or members want.”
As an example, Rice said she often told SoulCycle team members that one hour working in the studio was worth more than one month working at her desk in a corporate office. This would be hammered home when the company conducted any kind of research on member attitudes or desires.
“The data always come back and I would say, ‘Oh, yeah, I took three people to lunch and I found out the same thing,’” she said, adding that while all feedback companies may not be meaningful, it’s important to look for and action on patterns. “Feedback tends to be valid when you hear it more than once.”
WeMRKT offers an experiential way of deepening members’ connection with the WeWork brand, but Rice suggested it’s only the start.
“When you talk about office space, that’s not what we see this company being about forever,” she said. “This is company will be about the future of working, the future of shopping, the future of cities and the way we live . . .There’s so much we believe we can do with the ecosystem we’re creating.”