September 5, 2019 / 1:26 PM / 10 days ago

UPDATE 6-WeWork mulls slashing IPO valuation as skepticism rises over business model -sources

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By Joshua Franklin

Sept 5 (Reuters) - WeWork owner The We Company is considering slashing the valuation it will seek in an initial public offering (IPO) to a little over $20 billion, less than half the $47 billion valuation it achieved in a private fundraising round in January, people familiar with the matter said on Thursday.

The We Company's deliberations illustrate how growing investor skepticism over the U.S. office space sharing startup's lack of a roadmap to profitability, and its co-founder Adam Neumann's firm grip on its governance, are weighing on its IPO prospects.

A dramatic drop in the We Company's valuation could also prove to be a seminal moment for the IPO expectations of Silicon Valley unicorns, or startups with a valuation over $1 billion.

Other high-profile stock market listings this year, such as those of ride-hailing companies Uber Technologies Inc and Lyft Inc, have fared poorly in subsequent trading, amid investor skepticism over their lack of a concrete plan to profitability.

In May, Uber completed its IPO at a valuation of $82.4 billion, well below the $120 billion bankers had told the company it could be worth in 2018. It still fared better than the We Company stands to, given that Uber's IPO valuation was higher than its most recent valuation of $76 billion in the private fundraising market.

The We Company has not yet launched its IPO road show to formally solicit feedback from investors. It may begin this process as early as Monday, according to one person familiar with the matter.

The sources cautioned that no decision on the valuation has been taken and asked not to be identified because the deliberations are confidential. The We Company declined to comment. The Wall Street Journal reported earlier on Thursday that the We Company was considering an IPO valuation of around $20 billion.

The We Company rents out workspace to clients under short-term contracts and pays rent for the properties under long-term leases.

The New York-based company lost more than $900 million in the first half of 2019, up 25% from a year earlier, even as its revenue doubled to $1.54 billion, as it burned through cash to expand.

The mounting losses and concerns over how its business model would survive an economic downturn have raised skepticism from analysts and investors about the IPO.

Complicating matters further, the company is looking to go public against a turbulent market backdrop, with the U.S.-China trade war making for the worst August for U.S. stocks in four years.

"The market has changed very much since Uber and Lyft went public. What investors want now is an appropriate discount to price in the risk and have greater comfort that it won’t fall below the IPO price," said Barry Oxford, a real estate analyst at D.A. Davidson & Company.

SOFTBANK BACKING

WeWork, which was rebranded We Company earlier this year, is backed by Japan's SoftBank Group Corp, which has invested or committed to invest $10.65 billion since 2017.

We Company Chief Executive Neumann recently met with SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son to discuss SoftBank making an anchor investment in the IPO to support demand, or making a further private investment in the We Company in order to postpone the IPO, according to the Wall Street Journal.

SoftBank and its affiliates own around 29% of the company's shares compared to a 22% stake owned by Neumann, Bloomberg reported on Thursday, citing a person with direct knowledge of the matter.

The We Company has also faced a criticism from some investors over its extensive and unusual ties with Neumann, including him being a landlord to the company on some properties, and initial plans to go public with an all-male board.

The We Company has disclosed it paid almost $17 million between 2016 and 2018 for leases on properties owned by Neumann.

The company on Wednesday took some steps to address these concerns by adding a woman, Frances Frei, to its board and announcing that its CEO would return a $5.9 million payment for use of the trademarked word "We."

The We Company has not given a time frame for becoming profitable.

J.P. Morgan Securities and Goldman Sachs are among a nine-member underwriting team for the IPO.

Reporting by Bharath Manjesh in Bengaluru and Joshua Franklin in New York; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Tom Brown

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