Miguel McKelvey may be the co-leader of a multibillion dollar venture, but at heart -- and if his beard is any indication -- he says he's still the scrappy businessman he was in the late nineties.

"We [at WeWork] are a big company because we've raised, like, a billion dollars, which is a lot," he quips during a keynote address at the Korean Startup Summit in New York City. "We have a valuation of $10 billion, which is a lot more. That's an awesome thing, but the reality is that we're still a startup."

The summit brought together prominent venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in the Korean and Korean-American startup ecosystem, including Charlie Kim, founder of
e-commerce startup Next Jump. Kim's company hasn't quite hit a billion in investment but, since launching in 1994, it has socked away a sizable $45 million in VC funding.

While Kim's company doesn't fit the technical description of startup anymore, WeWork surely does -- even if it is one of the most valuable private companies in the world. The co-working landlord launched five years ago, and today, it operates in 17 cities worldwide, and counts more than 20,000 members, with 800 total employees.

It has broad goals that extend beyond real estate, too. "We're looking to provide services through our membership that add value to their [companies'] experience while they're at WeWork," said the company's global head of business development, Eric Gross, in a recent interview with Inc.com. To that end, WeWork has launched partnerships with companies including inDinero and Bond Street, offering discounted financing and accounting services for its clients.

For McKelvey, however, the path to creating WeWork was rocky at best. And at its most colorful, it involved a TLC song -- and several trips to the hardware store.

What is a scrub?

After graduating from college in 1998, McKelvey moved to Tokyo with a grand total of $1,500 in his bank account. He spent two weeks eating sushi, clubbing around town, and explaining American pop lyrics to confused, native Japanese speakers.

"There was this one song that was really popular at the time, called 'No Scrubs,'" he says. (Well, and then he proceeded to recite the lyrics.) "[A scrub] is a really complicated thing to understand. It became an entry point that allowed us to connect with the local community."

The experience motivated McKelvey to start his first company, English baby!, a web portal connecting students around the world to language courses from their peers. The ever-so-apt tagline: "Learn English. Find friends. It's cool." But while the company became moderately successful and had a staff of 25, it wasn't enough for McKelvey.

The fixer-upper.

McKelvey decided to move to New York City to pursue his first true passion: architecture. That's when he took a job that could only be described as a glorified handyman.

"I was at the bottom of the totem pole of a three-person firm," he explains to the audience. The higher-ups had him fetching brackets to build bookshelves, or investigating their rat problem.

McKelvey contends that the hands-on experience of working for a startup, and facing those infrastructural challenges head on, actually led him to building WeWork: A space made by and for entrepreneurs.

The key takeaway from McKelvey's experience? Embrace every apparent roadblock as a stepping stone. "I felt like everything I was doing was preparation for the next thing," he says.

Today, it's not access to WiFi or air conditioning that makes WeWork an asset to business owners. Rather, he says, it's the resulting support system -- and the aha moments that networking with fellow dreamers inevitably facilitates.

Published on: Oct 16, 2015