The story of a fiasco of monumental proportions that deserves to be told
WeWork, from the fabled insanity of the SoftBank funding to the crash and burn of founder and then CEO Adam Neumann would, in any other epoch, perhaps, be the most spectacular and outrageous failure of our time.
However, competing with stories like the Theranos / Elizabeth Holmes saga and more recently wild tales from WallStreetBets, GameStop and various manias-in-the-making (NFTs anyone?) it doesn’t seem as remarkable.
That is until one takes a closer look. With a ‘valuation” ( a term that had little actual meaning in the case of WeWork) of $47 billion at its peak, just a month-and-a-half from near bankruptcy, is one way to try and put the absurdity into context.
In the end, after perhaps a feature film and a couple of more documentaries such as “WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn” it will be brought out how venture capital excesses and ideas like those of SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son, who was primarily responsible for WeWork’s meteoric rise that will be seen as the real madness of the age.
According to an oft told anecdote, in 2017, Mr. Neumann needed only 12 minutes of walking Mr. Son around WeWork’s headquarters to convince the SoftBank mogul to shell out an investment of $4.4 billion.
Complex and even more insane ideas motivated the $billions in funding
It was, after all, Masayoshi Son who chose to invest billions based on this “elevator pitch” and who, according to many accounts, egged on the young founder to think bigger, faster and “crazier”. And that advice was taken seriously, by all means.
However, during an era where it is a truism in VC culture, particularly in Silicon Valley, that it’s “harder to get a $100,000 investment than it is to get 100 million, it was ultimately more about systemic excesses, which inexorably lead to the enabling of a megalomaniacal start-up personality like Neumann and give him enough funds to turn him into a madman of nearly historical proportions.
Directed by Jed Rothstein’s (The China Hustle) the new Hulu documentary (trailer below) is a good first draft of an account trying to depict Neumann’s extravagant rise and fall. However the sheer scope and depth of the hubris that underlie, not just the WeWork saga, but the corrupt age itself, that makes the treatment here somehow less successful than a deeper, more insightful look at what brought about this tragic farce could have been.
Making Neumann the center of the madness is an easy way out of asking, and answering, deeper questions
For all his “reincarnated hippie” talk of uniting the world around an idea – after charged his own company $5.9 million for his absurd trademark of the word “we” (which he was forced to pay back when the details leaked)- and how he would unite the world (and be the first world president and trillionaire ), the actual “idea” and the company was based on little more than infantile greed run amok.
Unfortunately, it’s the complex back room mathematics made his “dream” a reality and now this documentary look into it and the real estate “empire of cards” that sill exists after Neumann has long departed. I fear it will require a more revelatory and analytical treatment than this credible and watchable first look can provide. Still worth checking out for the thrill and nonsense of the waning days of pre-2020 excesses nearly beyond imagination. On Hulu now.
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