Even if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, WeWork isn’t impressed. Last week, the US co-working space company filed a civil lawsuit in New York over the “deceptively similar name” of its Chinese rival UrWork, saying that it wants an injunction to stop the Beijing-based firm from using the English name in the United States.
“WeWork has invested substantial time and money building a superior brand to ensure that our brand name is uniquely associated with WeWork and its offerings. UrWork has no physical presence and no brand equity in the US, so there is no reason for them to enter our home market with such a confusingly similar name,” WeWork said in an emailed statement to China Daily.
It isn’t the first time WeWork has taken legal action against UrWork over trademark issues. In July, it filed a similar lawsuit against the Chinese shared-office operator in London. UrWork has rejected the trademark infringement claims, saying it will defend its intellectual property.
Nevertheless, in a previous interview, Mao Daqing, the founder and chief executive of the Chinese start-up, admitted that he likes to look to competitors for inspiration: “You analyse your competitor, see what good points they have and learn from that.”
Still, why only target UrWork? After all, UrWork is hardly the only shared office operator to share a similar-sounding name. Also from China there’s COWORK and SimplyWork. By Mao’s own estimate, there are “hundreds” of start-ups in China with a two-letter prefix attached to the word “work”.
Industry observers say the trademark dispute signals an intensifying battle across the co-working market. While WeWork is ramping up its presence in Asia-Pacific, UrWork – an undisputed market leader in China – aims to take on its $20 billion American rival by rolling out its own co-working office platform in the US. UrWork recently announced plans to open its first location in New York and a second location in Los Angeles later this year.
It’s not just in the US: UrWork will also face off against the American giant in other countries soon. It says its plan is to open at 160 locations in 32 cities worldwide over the coming three years, including Singapore and London. For comparison, WeWork currently has 164 open locations in 17 countries.
Mao maintains that his global expansion plan isn’t focused on toppling WeWork. “We enter the markets not to become the largest shared office space operator or compete with local competitors. We are here to help Chinese enterprises that want to go abroad and other overseas enterprises that want to enter into China,” he claims.
Founded in 2015 by Mao, formerly a senior executive at property developer Vanke, UrWork raised $58 million recently, valuing the start-up at $1.3 billion. It now has a network of nearly 100 office centres across China, compared to WeWork’s six locations in Shanghai and Beijing,
Getting a desk in UrWork’s underground space in Beijing costs Rmb2,200 ($320) to Rmb2,600 a month – slightly cheaper than WeWork in the capital city. That said, an industry insider told WiC that WeWork offices are generally more “tasteful” than its Chinese rivals.
As China’s shared office market matures, branding becomes increasingly important in grabbing market share, says Securities Daily. Competition for customers is fierce, not just from small and medium-size enterprises eyeing the potential market, but also from larger companies and tech firms expressing interest in the sector. Recently, developer SOHO China announced that it will step up the expansion of 3Q, its shared office operation, into lower-tier cities, says Hubei Daily.
UrWork’s backers are confident that it has a significant edge over its rivals thanks to Mao’s connections in the property industry. “Many other copycats just try to get cheap rents from the government,” says Lee Kai-fu, founder of Sinovation Ventures, one of the participants in UrWork’s latest fundraising round. “[Mao] is a real estate expert so he knows how to find the locations, how to negotiate and how to get the costs down.”
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