Then there’s salad restaurant chain Sweetgreen, which WSJ Pro Venture Capital said was recently valued at $1.6 billion in part because of its smartphone app and other digital tools. That’s roughly four times as much as the market cap of Del Taco, a fast-food restaurant with more than 500 locations. Sweetgreen has 96 restaurants.
The parent company of co-working spaces WeWork, We Co., was valued at $47 billion in January, but is reportedly considering lowering that to $10 billion in the wake of investor skepticism. We Co.'s prospectus uses the word “technology” more than 100 times, and chief product officer Shiva Rajaraman told TechCrunch that the company is “moving toward a Google Analytics for space."
Compare that to IWG plc, formerly known as Regus, which has provided co-working spaces for about 20 years longer than WeWork. It is also eyeing a possible stock market listing for its U.S. operations--but it’s worth a fraction of WeWork, with a possible $3.68 billion valuation. IWG had revenue of about $1.1 billion last year in the U.S., compared with $1.8 billion We Co. generated globally. IWG declined to comment.
Companies that might have identified themselves as part of the lower-growth fitness, food or real estate industries have tapped into the investors and funding traditionally accessible only to tech companies. The access to billions of dollars in potential venture funding affects how companies approach growth and profitability as well as how many people they employ.
“Every company is a technology company at this point,” said Venky Ganesan, a partner at technology investor Menlo Ventures, which invested in Uber (which he considers a tech company) and eyewear retailer Warby Parker (which he doesn’t consider tech, and doesn’t believe the company has represented itself as such). “People use the name as a way to goose up their value. Be very skeptical of people who are selling the (tech) moniker."
Justine Moore, who works on direct-to-consumer and other investments at venture capital firm CRV, also known as Charles River Ventures, says she has recently seen a stream of media and entertainment, real estate and direct-to-consumer organizations seeking funding as a tech company while providing little evidence they are one.
“It gets egregious when it’s someone selling a physical product through retail or Instagram, but in the long run, it’s data play,” said Moore. She said some retail firms pitch using artificial intelligence to analyze and get insights on their customers. ”That’s probably not going to happen, especially if you don’t have a team right now that has that expertise.'"
The issue goes beyond mere semantics. Some investors worry that the slipperiness around tech terminology and valuations could contribute to an economic bubble. According to a recent Goldman Sachs report, only 26 percent of companies that completed an IPO in 2018 had positive net income in their first annual report. That’s the lowest share since the first tech bubble burst around the turn of the millennium. And some of the most recent tech IPOs have slumped, suggesting that their venture valuations were too hyped. In their first day of trading, Peloton shares lost about 11 percent of their value, opening at $27 and closing at $25.76.
One business CRV’s Moore decided to invest in: Harper Wilde, a direct-to-consumer online bra retailer that allows customers to schedule a video call with a stylist if they need help with fitting. Not a traditional tech company, she acknowledged, but the company’s approach to bra e-commerce was sufficiently promising to warrant a venture bet.
Sweetgreen’s tech-like $1.6 billion valuation came with investment from hedge funds and venture capital firms, organizations that have traditionally ignored most businesses in the food sector. Sweetgreen CEO and founder Jonathan Neman said in a statement that the business doesn’t think of itself as a tech company, despite its focus on digital channels over the past few years.
“While investing in technology is important for our next stage of growth, at our core, Sweetgreen is a food company and mission-driven brand,” he said.
Ganesan says Warby Parker, though it leverages technology, is not a tech company because it doesn’t sell its technology to others. Warby Parker declined to comment.
Though several analysts and investors said they didn’t think of the tech vs. not-tech question in binary terms, they cited several qualities that differentiated tech companies from the rest of the crowd--and that many of the current tech start-ups are simply retailers, restaurants, real estate or fitness businesses. To be sure, technology is woven into nearly every business now.
A tech company, according to these individuals, is a business that is primarily devoted to creating and selling technology, like software, or offering a technological service, like a social media platform. The company’s revenue comes primarily from these activities. And its growth does not have a linear relationship with the marketing money put into the company.
Scott Galloway, a professor who teaches marketing and branding at New York University’s Stern School of Business, said that defining a company can be as simple as looking where the business is spending money, to whom it sells its product or services, and what skill sets it seeks in its recruits. Under his definition, he says Microsoft and Apple are tech companies. WeWork is not.
WeWork’s core “space-as-a-service” business involves turning leased buildings into co-working spaces that offer perks like yoga classes and kombucha taps. But it has consistently pitched itself as something more than a real estate company-- the prospectus describes We Co. as a “global platform (that) integrates space, community, services and technology” --and major investors have agreed. Softbank invested more than $10 billion in WeWork through its technology-focused Vision Fund.
We Co.'s chief executive, Adam Neumann, stepped down from his position Tuesday stating that the scrutiny directed toward his leadership of the company had become “a significant distraction."
WeWork declined to comment in the quiet period before its IPO.
Barry Oxford, an analyst with D.A. Davidson, said the difference to him comes down to revenue. WeWork’s revenue comes primarily from subleasing space, which is a real estate activity and renders WeWork a real estate company. If its primary revenue stream came from a technology activity, it would be a tech company.
One difference between Peloton and WeWork, Galloway said, is that without the technology, Peloton’s customers are far less interested in using their exercise equipment. WeWork’s customers, on the other hand, will still be sitting in their offices. He described Peloton as a fitness company that sells tech-enabled equipment.
“If they want to call themselves a tech company, it’s an exaggeration but not an outright lie,” he said.
Peloton declined multiple requests for comment.
Spinning became a trendy fitness activity about a decade ago when SoulCycle began opening studios with stationary bikes. Peloton debuted a few years later, centered on an in-home experience. When SoulCycle filed for an IPO in 2015, it was valued at around $900 million, according to the Wall Street Journal. Three years later, Peloton was valued at $4 billion, according to Pitchbook, during a funding round led by TCV. Around the time Peloton was raising that money, SoulCycle withdrew its IPO citing market conditions.
Peloton says it has 1.4 million members and has sold 577,000 machines, mostly in the United States. In fiscal 2019, revenue was more than $900 million, but the company also racked up $196 million in losses, according to its prospectus.
Peloton in its prospective says that it invests “substantial resources” in research and development with its engineering, product and design teams. It frequently updates its software and uses data to understand how members interact with its programs.
Now Equinox, the luxury fitness company that gained full control of SoulCycle in 2016, is getting into the tech game as well. The company recently announced that it is launching a line of at-home exercise equipment paired with streaming workouts, slated for release this fall. Jason LaRose, the new CEO of Equinox Media, said in a news release that customers want “a hybrid of digital and in-person experiences.” Equinox declined to comment.