I went to WeWork, and I finally got it.

Some co-working space.

It’s not because of those industrial looks, cosy sofas and coffee aroma.

It’s the people that makes WeWork so successful.

“I know people makes a difference but there has to be more…”

That’s probably what you are thinking right now. Somehow journalists strategists we human beings believe the secrets of success is something else other than the people. Perhaps we think using people to explain greatness is just too simplistic or … common. Perhaps we yearn for something more spectacular, something more tangible, more mystical.

But let me compare Starbucks vs Pacific Coffee and WeWork vs a WeWork-copycat to try to illustrate why I think … it’s really the people.

I was at Pacific Coffee the other day. It had lush red sofas, green plants, and desk lamps that reminded you of old libraries. They smelled coffee. They had long and high benches to make you feel you could just chill there, look amazing and attractive while browsing facebook on the HP laptop, and perhaps casually meet someone that magically find you intriguing. It had all the hardware.

Pacific Coffee Emporium, Hong Kong.

Yet the staff was a tad indifferent. They didn’t smile as much. They made less eye contact. They didn’t communicate orders with each other with the same loudness and (pretended) eagerness/urgency. They surely didn’t ask for my name and wrote it on my cup. They didn’t seem to care that much.

I talked to a friend who worked at Pacific Coffee. She shared that the biggest differences between Starbucks and Pacific Coffee, were (1) her team needed to do a lot more, from cleaning bathrooms to stocking inventories to serving customers, and (2), management struggled to balance the focus between sales vs customer service. Whereas at Starbucks, the partners (yea that’s how Starbucks calls its team members) were not asked to do as much peripheral tasks and were allowed to spend a bit more time to express care and the romance of coffee making. They hired more people, so some could focus on caring about the customers, while others focus on caring about the place, the cleanliness, the ambience, the upkeep, etc.


The emphasis on care and experience was also more directive at Starbucks. Even though some might feel the superficialness of some of their “gestures” (writing down your name, etc), according to my friend, at least everyone was very clear that Starbucks expected them to try and care about the romance of a cup of expresso and the customers. The same could be said about the upkeep of their stores. They tended to be better maintained, more tidy and more clean.

Whereas at Pacific Coffee, even though the management would talk about customer care, apparently many of the team felt it was just … talk. You could see that in the way the staff interacted, and you could also clearly see the lack of care in the stained sofas, dying plants and beat-up table corners littered across most of their shops.

I saw the same at WeWork vs this copycat in Kennedy Town of Hong Kong. Hardware-wise, they are all the same at a glance, but that’s about all the similarities.

“You should have brought your own plates.”

This space in Kennedy Town was inside an industrial building. It looked great: High ceilings, spread-out space, big windows. There was a luxurious Chesterfield Sofa. There was a welcoming coffee bar. You could see the fishbowls of all the offices. Meeting rooms scream “social” and “open”.

We were hosting an event there. We needed stuff in the last minute, because we were amateurs. We wanted to move some furnitures around to set up our check in area. We needed a few more plates. We needed the easel to move. We needed extension cords.

The staff didn’t try to engage with us when we arrived. She continued to stay inside the coffee area. Therefore when we needed help, we felt we had to “ask”, instead of her being part of the event. She was reactive (we had to ask instead of she came to offer help). She did introduce herself “I am Lisa, and let me know if you need anything!”, but it felt disingenuous very quickly, when she said, “You should have brought your own plates.”

Whereas at WeWork, the community leads and managers were very different. They seemed to know everyone in the space. They were constantly walking around, chatting with people. They seemed to have more freedom to do whatever they wanted. This was one story I heard that probably illustrate the difference the best.

WeWork, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong

The community lead shared a story of a founder. He ran a tiny business, and he rented a hot desk. His business finally grew to a point where he needed to hire his first staff, a sales person. He hosted his interviews at the common area. The WeWork teammate told me that the founder would always show up early at the common area, eagerly waiting for his candidates. Often times, people wouldn’t show up. Many candidates were poor fit. Sometimes he would find a great potential, but the candidate would eventually drop out. It was a rollercoaster ride. Eventually, after a few months, the founder finally managed to find someone. On the day the new person started, the WeWork team threw a small but warm welcoming celebration to the founder and the new person.

This WeWork teammate told the story with a lot of emotions. I could feel she genuinely cared deeply, and prided herself for being a part of this founder’s journey. I also started to understand why the designers were given the room (and expectation) to care enough to create a space that felt a bit more thoughtful. I also witnessed how the team there cared about the place enough so it was a bit more well kept. Their energy also created the culture for the tenants … you know, this feeling of … please take care of your own space, please take care of each other … because we care. I strongly believe it was the people that cared enough to make the space the way it felt.

While at this other co-working space, the Chesterfield sofa was stained. Some power plugs did not work. There seemed to be more aloof tenants. The whole place just felt not cool but a tad … cold.

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