Is WeWork a Tech Startup or a Lifestyle Company Serving Technologists?

April 8, 2016, 12:32 PM UTC
A man enter the doors of the WeWork co-operative co-working space on March 13, 2013 in Washington, D.C. In a large warehouse-type office in Washington, software coders work on apps, while angel investors and mentors help budding entrepreneurs figure out strategy for their startups, in what is being dubbed Silicon Valley on the Potomac. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by Mandel Ngan — AFP/Getty Images

This essay originally appeared in Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily tech newsletter. Sign up here.

The next time you find yourself at a bustling bar in Manhattan, strain your ears. Unlike in Memphis, where you might hear locals marvel at a new piece of state legislation, or Minneapolis, where denizens may discuss last night’s box score, the default topic of conversation for New Yorkers amounts to one thing: rent.

The block, the neighborhood, the space, the price—in New York, as in San Francisco, small talk is measured in square footage. It’s a byproduct of being one of the most expensive rental markets in the world. And it’s a trend that perpetually threatens to extinguish the creative flame that attracts people to major metropolitan areas in the first place.

That’s a scary thought for some. But for Adam Neumann, chief executive of the well-funded coworking startup WeWork, it’s business opportunity.

On Tuesday, the New York company, which has raised hundreds of millions of dollars at a multibillion-dollar valuation, announced a new product: WeLive. WeWork made its name on selling shared office space; WeLive aims to do the same for shared living space. The first apartments will be on Wall Street, mere steps away from Fortune’s New York HQ.

What fascinates me isn’t the product (with its yoga and free beer) or even the model (which, based on the company’s marketing materials, seems to be targeting Yeezy-loving A&R reps). It’s the fact that we continue to talk about WeWork as a tech startup, even though it’s in the business of real estate.

On yesterday’s edition of Fortune Live, which you can watch on each Thursday at 11 a.m. Eastern, I spoke with Philip Krim, CEO of Casper, a New York startup known for its mattresses and whimsical marketing. I asked him why we continue to call Casper (which has raised tens of millions of dollars in funding and is valued north of a half-billion dollars) a tech company. “We’re a sleep company” that uses technology, he replied. Fair enough.

Mattress company or tech company? You decide.

WeWork is in the same boat. Both companies have been brilliant at marketing to digital-native millennials, even though they won’t explicitly say that’s their aim. And both companies are happy to operate with the reputational lift—that certain je ne sais quoi—of being a tech company.

“We happen to need buildings just like Uber happens to need cars, just like Airbnb happens to need apartments,” Neumann told The Wall Street Journal two years ago. WeWork’s multiples “are more like a tech company than what a real estate company would get,” a former real estate attorney told Fast Company last month.

I don’t know what to make of this. Perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics—our inclination to use “tech” whenever an entrepreneur has a great idea. But the more I think about it, the more I believe that the real money isn’t in starting a technology company, but starting a lifestyle company that serves technologists.

So here’s a Friday toast to my new tech startup, coming in 2020: FreeBeer. I think it’s going to be a real hit.

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