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WeWork: The Last Unicorn or a Black Sheep?

Brad Stone

(Bloomberg) -- The We Co. roadshow is set to begin this week, perhaps as soon as today. Such corporate processionals through the ranks of blue-blooded Wall Street institutions are usually a triumph for buoyant, young companies. WeWork’s roadshow, on the other hand, will likely more closely resemble Cersei Lannister’s humiliating march to the Red Keep in Game of Thrones.

Shame! WeWork’s valuation, $47 billion in a private funding round last January, could be set as low as $12 billion.

Shame! Shame! Investors will no doubt be distrustful of any evidence of apparent self-dealing by the chief executive officer, Adam Neumann, such as buying properties and leasing them to the company. (WeWork took additional steps on Friday to change some of the unorthodox aspects of its governance structure and seek an independent board member.)

As the nine-year-old office-sharing startup continues its stumble to the public markets, some prognosticators see this moment as something more significant: that a WeWork belly-flop portends the end of the unicorn era in Silicon Valley.

The argument goes like this: SoftBank, the Japanese conglomerate and its $100 billion Vision Fund, has become an engine pushing the technology market to its limit. If it’s forced to retreat on its $10 billion commitment to WeWork, SoftBank will reconsider the nearly blind sanguinity that has perverted incentives for founders and distorted valuations in the industry over the last few years.

In this seductive vision of a calamitous—and cleansing—WeWork initial public offering, modesty will once again return to Silicon Valley; humbled venture capitalists will stop bidding the valuations of unprofitable startups into the stratosphere; and the unicorns—those magical startups worth a $1 billion or more—will be put out to pasture, their legendary horns clipped like the tusks of poached African elephants.

But that’s probably wishful thinking.

The current cycle in tech started more than a decade ago, fueled by excitement over the iPhone, Facebook Inc. and the infusions of cash from a new generation of VCs like Andreessen Horowitz and Y Combinator. Business cycles tend to last seven to 10 years in Silicon Valley, and the resulting boom should have ended by now. But that was before the longest bull market in American history and a seemingly never-ending supply of venture capital from an array of new sources, including wealthy Chinese investors and Saudi Arabian oil money.

It doesn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon. The stocks of Dropbox Inc., Lyft Inc., Slack Technologies Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. are all under their IPO prices. And yet, many investors still believe.

Uber lost $5.2 billion last quarter, dismissed more than 800 employees in the last two months and lost a policy battle with California lawmakers last week that could rock its business model. Somehow, Uber is still worth a cool $57 billion. Meanwhile, SoftBank says it’s going to raise another Vision Fund, with contributions from Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp. and Foxconn—this one even larger than the last.

The belief underlying the persistent tech boom is that savvy entrepreneurs in vast markets with access to enough capital can engineer their way through even the most challenging issues. Witness CloudFlare Inc., the unprofitable internet infrastructure company that raised $525 million last week at a higher-than expected market value of $4.4 billion. Investors were able to overlook recent controversies over unsavory former CloudFlare clients, like the forum where a mass shooter hung out, and the stock popped on the first day of trading.

What will it take to really put an end to the unicorn era? Perhaps an economic recession and an accompanying withdrawal of overseas capital from the Valley. Perhaps it will take a total collapse of a once-promising unicorn to change the risk tolerance of conservative investors like endowments, pensions and sovereign wealth funds.

If the WeWork IPO flops, technologists will try to dismiss it as an outlier, the bad fortune of a real estate startup that was never truly a tech company. It will be viewed not as an indictment of current excess in Silicon Valley but as an exception to it. That’s not realistic, but then again, neither are unicorns.

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And here’s what you need to know in global technology news

Speaking of SoftBank, some of its other companies would be hit hard by California’s new labor bill that would force gig economy companies to hire their workers.

Lawmakers are seeking information from customers of the Big Tech companies. A House panel investigating potential antitrust violations has contacted customers of Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook, according to documents reviewed by Bloomberg. They also asked the companies to hand over documents.

Disney CEO Bob Iger left the board of Apple. The long-allied companies are now streaming rivals.

Stanford University took money from Jeffrey Epstein, too. The school, located in the heart of Silicon Valley, received a $50,000 donation from a foundation backed by the late sex offender in 2004. Other donations to Harvard and MIT are prompting scrutiny of the schools and their faculties.

A former Golden State Warrior is the U.S. face of Jumia, the Amazon.com of Africa.

To contact the author of this story: Brad Stone in San Francisco at bstone12@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Milian at mmilian@bloomberg.net

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