Lesson from the crash of two unicorns

January 13, 2020 11:04
Hong Kong-based Tink Labs was among the startup failures in 2019 despite the backing of some heavyweight investors. Photo: Yahoo

The year 2019 has witnessed, among other things, the fall of two so-called unicorns, or startups valued at over US$1 billion.

US-based shared working space provider WeWork, which at one point had commanded a valuation of US$47 billion, saw its value plunge to less than US$5 billion, a slide of nearly 90 percent. 

Meanwhile, Tink Labs, a Hong Kong startup which offered free-to-use smartphones for hotel guests, came crashing down despite some heavyweight backers. The company was valued at around US$1.5 billion at its peak, but by July last year we had reports about cessation of operations in most of its markets, and that the firm left employees and third-party suppliers unpaid.

If we take a closer look at these two companies, we find they have one thing in common: they chased valuations before the business model was proven.

Tink Labs once raised more than US$160 million (over HK$1.2 billion), from investors including Foxconn subsidiary FIH Mobile, Japan’s SoftBank, artificial intelligence expert and former Google executive Lee Kaifu, and Meitu Chairman Cai Wensheng.

The entrepreneurial idea of Tink Labs was to enable hotel guests to use smartphones as a solution to high international roaming charges while away from home country. At one point such phones were installed in 600,000 hotel rooms in more than 80 countries.

However, the Financial Times has pointed out that in 2017, when Tink Labs fully disclosed its financial status for the last time, the loss in European division had increased by nearly three times to more than £9 million (over HK$90 million), compared with £3.25 million pounds in the previous year.

Although Tink Labs successful signed with multinational hotel chains such as Shangri-La, Intercontinental and Hyatt, the smartphones had become increasingly superfluous as most travellers had their own data cards.

Returning to WeWork, whose business is to provide common working space, was seen as an eco-friendly co-workspace for startups when it was founded in 2010. It arranged companies in related industries such as fashion design and sewing to work together on specific floors, and for people from other industries, such as musicians to produce music on other floors. It was also a place for members to barter services: e.g. 2 hours of writing in exchange for 4 hours of graphic design services; a cafe and lounge were also set up for like-minded entrepreneurs to meet together.

When I started my own business, I had to deal with internal and external affairs all by my own for the first time. Therefore, I appreciate WeWork's incubator idea, it is very suitable for meeting the needs of startups which are short of resources. If WeWork bolstered its shared services further by providing professional consulting services, such as legal (handling contracts, applying for patents), taxation, personnel management (recruitment, employee insurance and payroll), etc., to reduce the administrative burden of young entrepreneurs so that they can focus on product development or business expansion, the firm could have gradually fostered a rich ecosystem.

However, the company began focusing on property acquisitions and leases. The deals helped push WeWork valuations higher, but then the problem started as it became known that the firm was burning cash at an astonishing pace. The FT reported last year that WeWork spent an average of US$219,000 per hour. In 2018, the firm posted a loss of US$1.9 billion on revenue of US$1.8 billion.

How can startups avoid repeating the same kind of mistakes? Airbnb founder has some ideas. Let’s talk about this next time.

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Adjunct Professor, Department of Computer Science, Faculty of Engineering; Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences; and Faculty of Architecture, The University of Hong Kong