Adam Neumann had a vision.
The WeWork co-founder wasn’t just renting temporary office space. He was reconstructing the sense of community that had been lost by remote working and email and the other technological advances that had left people feeling more disconnected from their neighbors and colleagues. Initially, financiers bought what Neumann was selling, with the likes of SoftBank bankrolling the company’s global expansion and sending WeWork’s valuation into the stratosphere.
But as a new documentary, “WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn,” illustrates, Neumann was undone by the punishing reality of a bottom line. At some point, companies need to have a viable way to make a profit. After WeWork’s planned initial public offering imploded in 2019 under the withering scrutiny of investors who were unimpressed with the company’s financial disclosures and its creative accounting, Neumann was pushed out. However, he was able to make a soft landing thanks to a golden parachute that gave him a reported $1.7 billion to walk away. “WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn” premieres on Hulu on April 2. Jed Rothstein, the documentary’s director, spoke with Variety about what made Neumann an effective salesman, but a fatally flawed leader.
How did Adam get so many people, including some very sophisticated investors, to buy into his vision?
He’s very charismatic. The younger people and the people who worked for him bought into the idea that they were part of something that was bigger than themselves and that they were going to do things differently and change the world. In terms of more sophisticated investors, he offered some excitement to a pretty staid business. If you’re in the real estate business, you have a steady business. It’s a tough business and it’s usually populated by guys in gray suits. And Adam was able to offer something different and position WeWork as part of this cultural disruption and revolution that was going on in Silicon Valley.
What role did the media play in hyping Adam as some sort of messianic figure?
They played a big part. We as a society like to create these mythic superheroes who are going to come in and do everything better than any other human can. That’s part of the American story and it’s reflected in the stories that the media chases. It’s much more interesting to follow somebody who is having a meteoric rise. The media builds that up and some reporters that I spoke with in hindsight regret not asking tougher questions at the time, but it’s something ingrained in our culture. We want people to swoop in and show us all the things we’re not doing right and save us from ourselves. Adam definitely fits into that mold.
Shouldn’t people have been more skeptical. You watch interviews that Adam did and he’s just spouting off buzzy terms. It’s word salad without any substance.
He had a patter or schtick. It was heavily influenced by his wife Rebekah and her GOOP-y style [editor’s note: Rebekah Neumann was WeWork’s chief brand and impact officer. She is also Gwyneth Paltrow’s cousin]. Those ideals are easy to talk about, but it’s harder to walk the walk. We should all remember: don’t watch what people say, watch what they do. If someone is talking about sharing and helping, do their actions match those lofty phrases? It became clear to other workers that Adam and Rebekah weren’t really behaving like that. There’d be these all-hands meetings where people remember Adam talking about you don’t need your own corner office and we are all in it together. But even while he was saying that he was flying around in a private jet and he had an enormous office.
Watching the film it’s impossible not to be reminded of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Do you see parallels between Holmes and Adam?
There are certainly parallels in that they are both charismatic people who offered a revolutionary approach to old businesses. Renting office space or doing lab work are not things that people typically think of when they think of modern tech disruption. But they are important to our lives, we need medical results and we need places to work. Elizabeth Holmes was clearly a fraud, who said she had developed technology that she had not developed. Her product did not work. Adam’s case departs from that. He clearly overhyped the business and got out over his skis, but he did change the way that offices operate. Many WeWorks are pretty nice places. They’re a lot nicer than the competitors who were there before. Adam sold people a story and at the end of the day when the chips were down he wasn’t willing to live by the tenets of the actual future he had hyped to everybody. He took the money and took off. Elizabeth Holmes was lying in ways that are incredibly dangerous. Her story is darker.
What does WeWork deserve credit for?
They created temporary office space that’s enjoyable to be in and that people like to spend time in. They brought light into spaces that traditionally had been very dark and drab. They made it much easier for small businesses to go in and out of offices. It made it more flexible to do that and more cost-effective. I think some of those changes are going to accelerate as we reimagine our workplaces in a post-COVID world.
The original core customers came to WeWork because they had developed a sense of being alone or being isolated. Maybe they were working from a coffee shop or their living room or they were trying to make a go of a business but wanted to have other people you could sit down with on a collegial basis and shoot the breeze. Adam and his cofounder Miguel McKelvey saw this was a phenomenon and they were able to imagine a space where people could come together and form a sort of loose community. That kind of community had been stripped away as things became more atomized and people worked from home or jumped from job to job more often. They played on that, but at the end of the day when the conflict between the “we” and the “me” came to a head for Adam, he chose the “me.” He chose the selfish side and not the communitarian side.