Jed Rothstein’s very entertaining documentary is another horror story from the tulip-feverish world of tech startups: its subject is WeWork, co-founded in 2010 by the (allegedly) charismatic entrepreneur Adam Neumann – part CEO, part cult leader. His business model was basically really simple: renting out cubicle-style office space to creatives and freelancers in buildings in which he’d bought short leases on borrowed money. But these tenants got shared facilities such as groovy hangout areas, table football, coffee and snack hubs and the feeling that they were part of a vital experiment in communal creativity, a vision of a new interrelated future.
Neumann waffled on like this endlessly, like Steve Jobs without an iPhone in his hand. The business took off, and the hype and the business journalism adoration took off, too. There were annual bacchanalian “summer camps” that WeWork laid on for its clients: “like Fyre festival gone right”, as someone puts it here. Neumann got a mind-bending multi-billion-dollar investment from credulous Japanese banker Masayoshi Son, which caused his megalomania to go over the edge, just as the business began to slide. Then in 2019 he made WeWork’s bizarre IPO (initial public offering), whose hippy-dippy prospectus was, in the words of one observer, like “a novel written by someone who’s shrooming”, and the emperor’s nudity was now impossible to ignore.
Like Chris Smith’s Netflix documentary Fyre, films like this are beginning to develop a house style for their sheepish interviewees: the people who worked for the crooked company without blowing the whistle and the journalists who went along with it, suppressing their worries. It’s a kind of wry, amused, eyebrow-raised, gee-what-was-I-thinking approach, with a self-exculpatory emphasis on how wildly charismatic and hypnotic the boss was.
Well, maybe all new businesses fake it till they make it, to some degree. I would have liked to hear more about Neumann’s partner and WeWork co-founder Miguel McKelvey (he is so absent I almost wondered if he had been giving some off-the-record guidance) and about Neumann’s formidable wife, Rebekah, who was the “chief brand and impact officer”. This was a workplace where they had a poster reading: “Punch today in the face.” It was the fired employees who felt that impact.
WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn is released on 13 August on digital platforms.