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[Business services / USA] WeWork Korea

Matt Shampine, General Manager of WeWork Korea, shares his story, vision for the company
and Korea’s evolving work environment.

WeWork first launched its business in South Korea in August 2016 to spread the company’s unique work culture, space and community across the country. WeWork Korea currently runs eight locations across Seoul, plans to expand to 10 by September this year, and recently announced it would open up another one in Hongdae next year. WeWork aims to help its diverse group of members network with each other, and to “create a life, not a living.”

Matthew Shampine serves as General Manager, where he manages WeWork Korea’s operations, community and sales. Matt was born in South Korea and adopted to the U.S. at a young age. In 2007, he was reunited with his birth family in Seoul and maintains a close relationship with both his biological and adopted families. He also co-founded WeWork Labs in 2011, which is WeWork’s incubator for early-stage startups that has supported thousands of entrepreneurs just starting out. In addition, Shampine is an active angel investor and advisor to numerous successful start-ups both in Korea and the U.S.

We sat down with Matt at WeWork Euljiro, the largest location in Asia accommodating about 2,800 members, to hear about his experience doing business in Korea and his vision for the company.

Please tell us about WeWork and its history. What does WeWork offer to its customers?

We can start from the beginning because it’s pretty interesting. Our two founders, Adam and Miguel, started WeWork in 2010 in Manhattan, in a much smaller building, with a little less than 500 members. They started around the concept that we’re all actually better together as opposed to the whole “I” thing that was going on at the time.

I was a program engineer at Mercedes-Benz, and a bunch of us there didn’t enjoy really working at a big corporation, so we ended up deciding to create our own company. We quit and started a company in New Jersey at my friend’s apartment, where it dawned on us that we could make more money if we had a New York address. We went online and found an office in Chelsea on Craigslist, rented it, and ultimately realized that three computer programmers and a designer do not enjoy running an office. So we decided to look for a different option and found WeWork online, right when it started up. We toured the space and signed on the spot, and moved into the second floor of the first WeWork building as members.

Obviously, there weren’t many other members there, so we got to know Adam and Miguel really well. During this time, WeWork was starting to grow, expanding to San Francisco, Seattle, L.A., Washington D.C., and Boston. It was a transformative time for the company, but we stuck to the concept of community, which I think is very relevant in Korea right now.

What’s happening here is a redefining of success. Success doesn’t have to mean you have a full-time job and make tons of money to survive and support your family. Now, success can actually mean two things. One is that every day, you really love and enjoy what you’re doing, and you feel as if your work has impact and makes a difference. The other side of success is that if you do the first part right, you can have a successful business.

Part of why we think it’s important to be doing something that you love and doing it with intention is because you are probably happier. Then you come into a place like this, and you make friends here that you can have lunch with, have a beer with after work, and you do better work, because you’re enjoying your day, every single day. This building has nearly 3,000 people. If you make, let’s say, 2000 new friends, your business is going to be more successful because you’ll go out of your way to help your friends, cheer them up, and be more willing to make introductions for things that are important to their businesses. There’s real value that comes from having a wider network of friends, because that’s just how real business happens.

What made WeWork establish a branch here in Korea?

A little less than three years ago, Adam texted me and two other guys, asking us to come over to his place over the weekend. He said he had just come back from China, and went on to say, “Congratulations. The three of you guys are moving to China in two weeks to start WeWork in Asia.” We were a bit shocked, but we sat down and talked about the cities we think of as the global hubs in Asia and want to prioritize. Seoul was always at the top of our list of first cities to open in, along with Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and Sydney.

Also, I had met my birth family in Korea when I was 24, and was visiting every six months. Naturally, I started making more friends here, especially startup people, because a lot of them were coming to WeWork in New York as well. I had actually been asking Adam for years if we could open up a location in Korea. We finally had the opportunity and it was the right time, so I was quite excited and spent a lot of time here preparing for it.

We always knew Seoul was a major hub for international companies, but also, from a macro level, saw that Korea is actually going through a transformative time like I mentioned. The government was really pushing the idea of creative economy and the next-generation, what they’re now calling the 4th Industrial Revolution, and promoting the notion that it’s not necessarily the conglomerates that would lead Korea into the future. We worked with Seoul City and signed a couple MOUs with them, and worked with KOTRA from our connections in New York, really supporting this idea that now is an amazing time in Korea.

How is the Korean market different from other parts of the world?

What we’ve seen recently is a massive reflection in larger companies changing how they define work, talent acquisition, retention, attrition, employee happiness, and company culture. Other important factors like commute time, work hours, access to events, and continuing education is very important, especially here in Korea. I think you’re seeing it with the growth of our member base. Most of our member base is made up of local Koreans, not just foreigners, so we are seeing a good reflection of this change. My goal here is to create a truly Korean WeWork, rather than just propping up WeWork locations in Korea. The way we do that is by following our playbook for every market, and hire the best local people, then train and empower them to make decisions based on what will work in this specific market. They will know better what kind of events our members here in Korea will like as opposed to our Tokyo or Shanghai teams.

What were some marketing strategies that WeWork carried out to target Korean customers?

The real estate market works a bit differently here, so we can help smaller companies have access to amazing buildings at affordable costs. They don’t need to put down a huge deposit anymore since WeWork is always month to month. It’s all about flexibility of what is best for the companies.

Also, we are seeing all the multinational companies as well as SMEs look to WeWork as an option that will enhance their company culture and help their employees to be happier. The cool part is that if you’re a member at any of the locations, you can use any WeWork locations around the world. Korean businesses do lots of traveling since a majority of them work with global markets rather than limiting themselves to the domestic market. Especially in the startup world, you have to think early about this idea of expanding internationally. Even within Korea, if you have a meeting in Gangnam, followed with another one in Yeouido, you can book conference rooms or just show up and use the common areas in both locations through the app. This is advantageous for those who have to commute a lot in the city, because it’s sometimes a pain going back and forth across the (Han) river.

On top of this, we hold events across all of our locations so members can attend any of the ones that interest them, ranging from yoga, Pilates, to a speaker, to a happy hour, etc. The bigger the WeWork network becomes in Korea, the more useful it becomes for everyone else.

Were there any challenges your company faced while doing business here?

Not really. Korea has been welcoming and an amazingly easy environment to start up. We went into all of our meetings with counterparts here with an open attitude of “we want to learn and hire local people” but also that we are here to help support Korean companies and foreign companies be successful in Korea. We talked to Seoul City, we talked to KOTRA, asking how WeWork can help support this new idea of creative economy. While being successful here, we wanted to help with job creation, help people work on things they care about, support social entrepreneurs and non-profits and growing a start-up ecosystem here in a way that is both beneficial for Korean companies here and make foreign direct investment easier.

How can Korea become a more ideal business environment for foreign companies like WeWork?

I think the Korean government is very proactive in terms of being supportive and welcoming. Not only that, but government agencies we’ve worked with seem to really care about helping us be successful, and now we are at a point of thinking, how can we also help the government make other foreign companies want to come to Korea as well. It ultimately comes down to the people. People from outside have to actually enjoy their time here. If people from companies interested in opening in Korea have a rough time here, they’re not going to go back to their home country and have positive things to say. It’s all about making it easier through community and utilizing connections. We are now looking to be a partner to the government and help them create this type of environment to help foreign companies here be successful.

What Korean companies are you working with to strengthen your business partnerships?

Almost everyone we work with are Korean companies. Whether it’s Internet or cleaning services, we really make a point to help small business in the local markets. Our coffee is from Anthracite, our beer is from a local Korean craft beer company. We made our agendas through a local Korean notebook company, and our hats through a local company as well. So we are trying to support businesses and entrepreneurs here because we really do consider all of these guys creators.

A big upcoming project for us is our second WeWork Creator Awards, with Seoul being one of the handful of cities we are doing this in 2018. We are giving away well over 1 billion won to non-profits, grants to performing artists, and safe notes to startup which are the best investment documents you can have as a startup. It’s WeWork’s way of showing support for the creators not only in just a monetary way but through promotion and hopefully connecting people to some jobs.

What is WeWork doing to distinguish itself from other companies and rise above the competition?

First is thinking always about what we can do better, and at the end of the day creating value for the members that are working here. If we ever lose sight of that, then we have a big problem. It really is about how do we make our events better, how do we connect our members better, and how do we constantly improve their experiences not just on a personal level but also on a business level as well.

On the other side, not losing sight of the fact that WeWork and all of our members in our buildings are part of their local communities. Giving opportunities to our members to contribute to their own communities, whether it be through volunteering or through any activity that’s of interest to people. For some it’s about animal rights, for others, it’s about the elderly, or education, a lot of different things. In Korea, people are super busy all the time. But they want to give back; you just have to make it easier and find creative ways to do so. The average WeWork in Seoul holds well over 1,500 people. That’s a pretty significant size of people to make a difference in an area.

What are some of the future plans that WeWork has for doing business in Korea and in Asia?

We aren’t shy about talking about connecting everyone in the world together. You’ll see significant and continued investment by us to open more locations in Korea and connect our members and businesses throughout the country. My goal is to expand to at least one more city next year and really start building that network. But I mean, Seoul is already so massive itself, which it’s very important that we achieve success here in terms of continuing to build the network here.

In other parts of the world, we are looking to expand some of our other business lines such as WeLive. In Korea, we are starting to beta test here, where people in Korea can put on meetups themselves within WeWork to connect people over shared interests.

How is WeWork bringing innovation to the how people work in Korea?

For one, we are always trying to innovate the physical space itself, trying to make the best spaces to support a community and the idea of collaborative working. You can’t force a community, you can only create the atmosphere and the mechanics of it.

In another aspect, about 20% of the members at our WeWork locations here are from big enterprises such as GE, SK Holdings, Amore Pacific TF Team, Hana TI etc. We think about ways to connect the large enterprises to other members who are the innovative and creative entrepreneurs working on the next generation of things. Whether they are in FinTech, bio, health and wellness, to accounting and legal, they’re all creators in their own respect. The big enterprises can partner with them, invest in them, anything that will increase business activity and contribute to mutual success.

By Grace Park (
English Editor / Invest Korea

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