Not even two years after WeWork’s spectacular collapse, its story has been told numerous times. In January of last year—only three months after the company’s disgraced founder and former CEO, Adam Neumann, was ousted—there was a podcast series on the debacle hosted by former Marketplace host David Brown. In October 2020, New York Magazine reporter Reeves Wiedeman published his book, Billion Dollar Loser, an engaging profile of Neumann and the company. And this March, Hulu released a dreadful documentary, WeWork: Or The Making And Breaking Of A $47 Billion Unicorn. Into this saturated market, Wall Street Journal reporters Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell, who cover start-ups and IPOs respectively, are publishing The Cult Of We: WeWork, Adam Neumann, And The Great Startup Delusion. Thankfully, being first isn’t always better.
The coverage of many Silicon Valley companies, even (and especially) in their demise, tends to center on the personalities of their founders. This makes a certain amount of sense and coincides with such leaders often being given too much power despite not being very good at their jobs. In this regard, Neumann is as desirable a figure as they come. He turned a successful office rental business into a massive, directionless corporation. He is married to Gwyneth Paltrow’s cousin. He got a sizable investment from Ashton Kutcher, who he met through The Kabbalah Centre. He really loves smoking weed. Even in the context of the young Silicon Valley elite, he sticks out as a uniquely entitled, uniquely childish, uniquely stupid man. Most importantly, maybe, he’s tall. (All books about start-ups, including this one, love mentioning how tall people are.)
There’s plenty of information about Neumann’s exploits in The Cult Of We, but what’s included is not merely titillating trivia. It’s not immaterial, for example, that Neumann once told the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, that the two of them, along with Jared Kushner, were going to remake the Middle East, or that he said a Middle East peace treaty would be signed in a WeWork office space. Brown and Farrell also detail reports from those who managed Neumann’s private flights, which included one trip where passengers spit tequila on each other and another where “there was so much Marijuana smoke in the cabin that the crew was forced to pull out the jet’s oxygen masks and put them on.” A fine-in-theory ban on meat at WeWork was a hard sell, as Neumann barely talked to anyone who would be tasked with managing the initiative before he made the announcement; what’s more, his constant use of private jets and multiple cars undermined the environmental commitment that originally allegedly motivated the ban.
But the real meat of The Cult Of We, and what sets it apart from previous recitations of this story, is the skill and clarity with which Brown and Farrell describe the economic and financial environment that made WeWork’s absurd peak valuation of $47 billion possible in the first place. Prior accounts tend to zero in on the head of Softbank, Masayoshi Son, the man famous for losing more money than anybody ever had (approximately $70 billion in the dot-com bubble) and who remade his fortune via an early investment in Alibaba. Son invested $2 billion at WeWork’s top valuation. One frequently repeated anecdote goes that Son asked Neumann, “In a fight, who wins—the smart guy or the crazy guy?” Neumann, to Son’s satisfaction, said “the crazy guy.” But, Son explained, Neumann and his cofounder Miguel McKelvey, “are not crazy enough.”
A lot of blame for WeWork’s unfocused, overly aggressive strategy lies at Son’s feet. But what Brown and Farrell crystallize are how the distorted incentives and reckless decision-making by numerous well-monied people set WeWork on its doomed path. They highlight the disconnect between the venture funds that historically paid for start-ups’ private periods and the mutual funds at firms like Fidelity and T. Rowe Price that supercharged WeWork. The financial corporations doled out sums that dwarfed what many venture firms would consider, and their eagerness to not get left behind in the start-up bonanza clouded their judgment. Banks like J.P. Morgan Chase were so avid to get WeWork’s IPO business—which would lead to a windfall in fees—that they were willing to lend both WeWork and Neumann absurd amounts of money, spurring on the company’s absurd behavior. The board, the people whose responsibility it should have been to rein the company in, was more focused on getting a gigantic injection of cash from Softbank that would have allowed its members to cash out their shares at a huge profit; when that failed, they pushed for an IPO to get themselves the same.
Brown and Farrell’s big-picture view charting the arc of the company serves them well but lost is any real impression of what it might have been like to work there, especially at a level lower than an executive. Some examples, like a lament that high-ranking officials sometimes had to fly coach, elicit scoffs. The glimpses one gets of those below the C-suite, including a manager who was fired because they left one of WeWork’s mandatory hard-charging festivals early, suggest a disturbing situation, but The Cult Of We only scratches the surface.
Still, Brown and Farrell’s book provides essential insight into the opaque mechanics of how a private company builds astronomical valuation, and the twisted feedback loop that motivates people not to solve obvious problems. There is little indication that any powerful players have actually learned their lesson here, but at least we’re now better equipped to understand their mistakes.
Author photos: Eliot Brown (Photo: Andrew Kwok) and Maureen Farrell (Photo: Brie Anderson)