In August 2018, workspace-sharing company WeWork hosted its seventh annual “summer camp,” a corporate retreat with a bacchanalian vibe. They had plenty to celebrate — the 8-year-old startup had just been valued at $35 billion, putting it ahead of Airbnb and SpaceX.
The founders spared no expense in making the three-day London-based festivities something to remember. About 8,000 WeWork employees and their families from around the globe were treated to a performance by Lorde, motivational speeches by Deepak Chopra and perks such as lakeside meditation, beatboxing workshops and a staggering amount of booze.
But the real money was spent on making sure the founders were pampered. Co-founder Miguel McKelvey had a one-page list of requests for his campsite, including a fire pit, Popchips and a weekend’s supply of beer, wine and coconut water.
Adam Neumann, WeWork’s eccentric CEO and co-founder, had a slightly more elaborate list: a 3 ½-page rider that made most rock star demands seem quaint.
According to “Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Fall of WeWork” by Reeves Wiedeman (Little, Brown), while every other attendee slept on an air mattress in a tent, Neumann and his wife, Rebekah, slept in a tent-house suite that came with A/C and heating, a king bed and four twin beds, several fridges, fire bowls and eight picnic tables.
Their list of requirements also included a shuttle bus (for guests), a Range Rover and a Mercedes, two “dedicated” bartenders, and supplies ranging from 400 plastic shot glasses to two platters of fresh sliced fruit per day.
The cost of their alcohol supply “could have covered most of an entry-level WeWork salary,” writes Wiedeman. It included 12 cases of Don Julio 1942 premium tequila, 48 bottles of kosher red and white wine, 216 bottles of beer and two bottles of Highland Park’s 30-year-old single-malt Scotch whisky, retailing at $1,000 each.
Neumann wasn’t just living in rock ’n’ roll excess one weekend a year. Drinking and partying had been ingrained in WeWork’s culture from the beginning, writes Wiedeman, with Neumann “serving as partyer in chief.”
He was known for outrageous outbursts, from spraying new investors with fire extinguishers to throwing picnic furniture into a bonfire at a WeWork employee’s house, according to the book. During a company ski trip, Neumann and several executives grabbed waiter trays from the hotel bar to go sledding.
“When a hotel employee asked them to stop,” Wiedeman writes, “Neumann yelled, ‘F–k that — I could buy this hotel!’ ” WeWork — the company, not just Neumann — was told to never return.
Neumann’s rock-star-on-a-bender behavior also caused headaches among his own staff. In 2014, a WeWork employee arrived at the Washington, DC, office to find its game room trashed, strewn with garbage and smelling of weed. When they reviewed security footage, expecting to catch a rogue employee gone wild, they instead discovered that the damage had been done by Neumann, who’d stayed up all night drinking and playing video games with another executive. “Their employees were left to pick up the mess,” Wiedeman writes.
Neumann’s booze-fueled antics weren’t the reason he became one of the most famous CEOs of the last decade. He built his empire by attaching his company “to the fire hose of cheap capital that washed over entrepreneurs (claiming to) harness the power of technology — no need to say exactly which one — to disrupt a new industry,” Wiedeman writes.
The problem was, Neumann wasn’t much of a tech entrepreneur, according to the book. “He didn’t know how to code,” Wiedeman says. “In fact, he barely used a computer at all.”
When an assistant in 2011 told him he’d received an e-mail from a partner at Benchmark — one of Silicon Valley’s premier venture-capital firms — Neumann asked, “Is that supposed to mean something to me?”
But what he lacked in industry knowledge he more than made up for with personality.
He presented himself, Wiedeman writes, as a “millennial prophet for a new way of working and living.” WeWork wasn’t just a real-estate-leasing company, Neumann argued. It was “a feeling … It can’t exactly be touched.”
When asked what separated WeWork from other office-space operators, Neumann mentioned a Halloween party hosted for “members” — the company’s fancy term for customers — that featured a performance by Busta Rhymes.
WeWork’s competitive advantage, Wiedeman writes, “was knowing how to put on a good show.”
The child of two Israeli doctors, Neumann was born in the desert city of Beersheba and lived in 13 different places around the world before arriving in New York at the age of 22.
He was severely dyslexic, but it went largely unnoticed, as he had a talent for “fooling his teachers and coaxing others to do what he needed,” Wiedeman writes. It wasn’t until his grandmother took him to lunch and realized the 8-year-old couldn’t read the menu that he was finally diagnosed.
Neumann’s first business venture, inspired by a joke made by one of his friends during a night out, was Krawlers, a line of baby clothing with kneepads to make crawling less uncomfortable. Its tagline: “Just because they don’t tell you, doesn’t mean they don’t hurt.”
The idea tanked. As Neumann said later, “I was doing about $2 million in sales and $3 million in expenses.”
In 2008, at age 29, Neumann and business partner McKelvey launched Greendesk, a company that subleases cubicles.
The concept took off largely due to Neumann’s charisma. During a 2010 meeting with Brooklyn real-estate developer Joel Schreiber, Neumann wowed him with a pitch for WeWork, their larger-scale vision of a communal workspace. Schreiber committed $15 million, writes Wiedeman, “in exchange for a third of a company that did not yet exist.”
Neumann’s ambitions weren’t always connected to reality — he told his wife’s cousin during a wedding that he intended to buy the Woolworth Building before admitting, “Well, I have no equity, I have no idea what I’m doing” — but he talked a good game.
“The ’90s and early 2000s were the ‘I’ decade — iPhone, the iPod,” Neumann told the Daily News in 2011. “The next decade is the ‘We’ decade. If you look closely, we’re already in a revolution.”
WeWork’s first employees were bewildered by Neumann’s bombast — the offices were nice, but “a revolution”? Before long, though, his over-the-top personality and vague promises of changing the world became the company’s “primary recruiting tool,” writes Wiedeman.
It certainly wasn’t the salaries. “Adam bragged openly about the fact that WeWork underpaid its employees,” Wiedeman says. The benefits of working for the company were less quantifiable: “a sense of purpose, fun parties, free beer.”
The job wasn’t always romantic. It sometimes involved Googling “How to fix a pinball machine” when Neumann didn’t feel like paying a professional, or being available for meetings at all hours of the day and night. “We had meetings at 2 a.m. where he joined us 45 minutes late,” Francis Lobo, the former chief revenue officer, told the author.
For a tech company, their operations were “held up with chewing gum and prayers,” according to one software engineer. The day-to-day business “depended on a hodgepodge of Google Docs and disorganized spreadsheets,” writes Wiedeman. And for many years, the entire IT department was run by a high school student from Queens who went by the nickname Joey Cables.
When WeWork landed the British newspaper the Guardian as a tenant, they briefly had to share the same office space while renovations were completed on the publisher’s new home. The new arrivals soon learned that cohabitating with WeWork could be difficult.
“There were constant celebrations,” writes Wiedeman, “with Adam giving rousing speeches in the open atrium” and “WeWork employees fawning over their boss as if they were disciples pledging fealty to a fiery preacher.”
During one afternoon’s celebratory speech, “punctuated with shots of tequila and thumping music,” a Guardian reporter yelled at the WeWork employees to shut up. Neumann shouted back, “You shut up!” He then turned up the music and returned to dancing, “stacking his hands on top of each other as if he were building a tower of dollar bills,” writes Wiedeman.
Neumann’s delusions of grandeur became more irrational as the company expanded — they soon had WeWork locations in more than 110 cities in 29 countries — but the tequila-loving public face of WeWork was less concerned with profits than something more ephemeral.
“Our valuation and size today are much more based on our energy and spirituality than it is on a multiple of revenue,” he said in 2017, after Japanese firm SoftBank invested $4.4 billion in WeWork, one of the largest investments in a private company in history. “We are here in order to change the world — nothing less than that interests me.”
He once mused that he wouldn’t mind becoming president of the United States one day, and when an employee pointed out that only those born in the US could become president, he suggested an alternative. “President of the world, then!”
As often as employees left — the ex-WeWork staffers who spoke to Wiedeman “described their departure as if they had escaped Jonestown or Waco” — there was a constant influx of new devotees ready to take their place.
“From a business perspective,” one HR executive told the author, “the cult is working.”
Tony Bacigalupo, who ran WeWork competitor New Work City, recalled being initially excited about Neumann’s plans for a utopian future, “but it also felt like the villain in the movie telling you the whole plot before he kills you.”
Like any movie villain, Neumann’s plots soon fell apart. During the summer of 2019, WeWork filed for an initial public offering, which opened the company’s finances and leadership to scrutiny. Just six weeks later, Neumann stepped down as CEO and gave up majority control of WeWork’s stock, but the company’s value still dropped from $47 billion to $10 billion, and the public offering was delayed indefinitely.
Neumann may be gone from the Silicon Valley spotlight, but his cult of personality lives on. One former WeWork executive — who spoke to Wiedeman about Neumann’s “cult factor,” which “kept the machine going,” his unsustainable promises being “WeWork’s fuel” — wasn’t entirely free of the former CEO’s influence, according to the book.
“I couldn’t help but notice that [the former exec] still had a WeWork sticker on the back of his phone: ‘Do what you love,’ ” Wiedeman writes. “What could he say? Adam was very convincing.”
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