If we know we’re living in the golden age of scams, then why do people keep falling for the same old tricks? It’s a question to be pondered while watching the newest expose of a hyped business, this time focusing on co-working start-up WeWork and its founder, Adam Neumann, in the Hulu documentary, WeWork: Or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn.
Over the past few years, documentary films and series have exposed the fraudulent dealings of everything from Fyre Festival and Theranos to the extremely ill-fated NXIVM cult – which started life offering executive personal and professional development, before veering off into a sex cult – but they all repeat essentially the same story: a messianic-like leader sells their flawed vision to a group of susceptible believers, dupe investors into funnelling millions into the product or service, then it all comes crashing down, most often to the detriment of the people along for the ride. Rarely do the perpetrators face true justice for their actions.
It’s another case in point for Neumann, a messianic tech-bro who capitalised on the post-financial crash era in which venture capitalists, hopeful of getting in on the ground floor of the next Facebook, poured billions of dollars into every tech startup that sent them an investment deck. His vision was what he called “The We revolution”, a new way for living that was based around large co-sharing workspaces; real estate management, branded with cutesy empowerment slogans and with artisan craft ale on tap.
From its creation in 2010 and in the space of just nine years, WeWork dropped from “tech unicorn” figures of a $47 billion valuation, to just $8 billion, once all the bluster and hyperbole was stripped out. All the numbers and predicted profit had been inflated and ironically, it was first highlighted by a tech-data company working from inside one of WeWork’s buildings.
In the documentary, directed by Jed Rothstein, it’s said that the Israeli entrepreneur set out to “capitalise on the kibbutz”, the commune-like community where Neumann grew up. Even having just the slightest knowledge of world history would have suggested that monetising socialism rarely ends well, but that didn’t stop Neumann.
He partnered with Miguel McKelvey to launch WeWork's first office in Soho, New York, in 2010, luring hip, young freelancers who often worked in the tech industries into the modern buildings with snack areas, oat-milk coffees and “do what you love” scrawled all over the walls. Millennials, Neumann had surmised, weren’t just looking “for a job or a career, they wanted a calling”, something which the WeWorkers interviewed in the documentary attest to. They were looking for a purpose, and Neumann was selling them the dream, telling them in evangelical tones in endless lectures that they were “creators” - massaging their egos so that they could play a small part in something much, much bigger as part of this exclusive club, or “family” as he constantly referred to his company.
Alarm bells should have started ringing when WeWork pivoted to WeLive, in which members were invited to live in student dorm-type accommodation, a set-up perfectly skewered in 2018’s satire film Sorry to Bother You. The fictional company WorryFree – which almost certainly is a riff on WeWork – signs up the working class in what are effectively life-long slave contracts, promising them work in exchange for free lodgings and food. “This is where the magic happens, baby,” a beaming hole-puncher man called Jim tells TV cameras, pointing to an over-crowded but brightly coloured bunk-bedded dorm room. This depressing point in late capitalism seems farcical, but in real life was playing out in the communal frat-like spaces of WeLive, as the members admitted their lifestyle choice had led them to become “alienated” from their friends outside of the company, and it was considered “weird if someone left the building”. The annual WeWork summer camp – a riot of tequila and EDM raves – turned into an altogether different type of camp when workers were told it was mandatory to attend, and they had tracker bands placed on their wrists, monitoring their every movement.
Meanwhile, Neumann was drastically seeking investments for his ever-expanding business and he focused in on Softbank, and its elusive CEO, Masayoshi Son. In a 12-minute meeting with Neumann, he held back any funding, but set him a riddle: “Who wins in a fight between a smart guy or a crazy guy?” In his view, it was the crazy guy, someone who was willing to take bigger, crazier risks, which apparently then ignited Neumann into taking on as many old, distressed buildings as he could across the world, flipping them and opening up as any hope of any profits went further and further into the red. Of course, all the time Neumann was giving interviews to financial and business TV networks blowing his trumpet about invented profit projections and possible floatings on the stock market.
As Neumann physically took on more of the appearance of a guru-type leader – long, flowing locks, bare-footed semi-spiritual presentations – things started to move into a cultish arena. As one person in the film says: “If you tell a 30-something man that he’s Jesus Christ, he’s likely to believe you”. With the company facing larger and larger losses, his behaviour became more erratic in 2018, especially around the time of the mooted IPO flotation, which, combined with Softbank pulling out of their rumoured $200 billion investment, led to Neumann’s downfall, of sorts. He was busted transporting weed from Israel on a private jet, and while Elon Musk smoking a joint on a televised podcast is one thing, a CEO who answers to a board of directors accused of drug smuggling is another thing entirely and he was forced to step down from WeWork in 2019.
But like the financial crash of 2008, prompted by dodgy dealings in the credit and mortgages industry, there were barely any repercussions felt by the people who caused the chaos. Neumann tried to trademark the word “We” to sell back to the company for $6 million – those two letters doing serious heavy lifting – while he also cashed out $700 million of company funds before the potential IPO.
As WeWork still ticks on under new management, Neumann, we’re informed at the end of the documentary, will still reportedly earn $580 million in stock sales. He and his spiritual leader and actor wife, Rebekah Neumann, also plan to open his own private school, Students Of Life For Life, or SOLFL – pronounced “Soulful” but with fees a soul-crushing $42,000 a year – which suggests there are always more wealthy people willing to invest in the visions of a self-help tech bro, if the marketing hits just right.
As we wait for the dramatised version of this story to hit the big screen – not a joke, WeCrashed: The Rise and Fall of WeWork featuring Jared Leto and Anne Hathaway as Adam and Rebekah Neumann is currently in production – people would perhaps be wise to follow the old adage: “If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is”. Communities can be forged by the people themselves – and nobody should be profiting from their creation.
WeWork: Or The Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn is available in the US on Hulu and will be released in the UK soon
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