Neumann’s excesses, which would eventually bring his company down around him, would go unchecked for years, Brown and Farrell write. In 2010’s start-up culture, “innovation and disruption were ascendant and critical questions were often dismissed as obnoxious cynicism.” Investors looking for the next Steve Jobs saw founders as rock stars to be indulged, not rational-minded adults with balance sheets to scrutinize.
“The Cult of We” is both a ticktock of Neumann’s self-immolation and a primer on the ways and mores of a start-up culture populated by visionaries, grifters and moneymen. It charts the Israeli-born founder’s journey from struggling baby clothes salesman to messianic billionaire-on-paper.
In his 20s, Neumann founded Krawlers, which made baby clothes with knee pads. “Just because they don’t tell you, doesn’t mean they don’t hurt,” was its solemn motto, although babies are not generally known to keep things to themselves.
He eventually settled on the idea of subleasing office space, mostly to freelancers and smaller start-ups. The shared space, meant to foster a sense of community, would feature beer on tap and coffee bars. Neumann wanted to build a WeWork ecosphere that would one day pervade all aspects of society, the authors write. There would be WeLive apartment rentals and WeGrow schools, the latter a Montessori-like experiment overseen by Neumann’s wife, Rebekah Paltrow, cousin to Gwyneth.
At first, Neumann was weird in the usual way that newly rich boy geniuses are weird. He skateboarded to work, did tequila shots at meetings and hired Lorde to play the company’s annual Summer Camp gathering. (Attendance at Camp was mandatory, the tequila shots were encouraged.) By the end, he was increasingly grandiose, contemplating how he might end world hunger, broker peace in the Middle East and “elevate the world’s consciousness,” all while using WeWork as his personal piggy bank.
Employees and investors were in Neumann’s thrall. “Some people think he’s the Messiah,” Rebekah reportedly told an employee, which was part of the problem. Neumann was soon abetted by Masayoshi Son, billionaire head of the Japanese firm SoftBank, whose early bet on Chinese company Alibaba made him “the deepest-pocketed startup investor on the planet.”
The two brought out the worst in each other. At one pivotal meeting, Son told the CEO that he wasn’t crazy enough, that crazy would always beat smart. “To Neumann’s aides in the room, the words seemed foreboding,” Brown and Farrell write. “Neumann was already the craziest person most of them knew. Neumann even knew he was crazy.”
Although Brown and Farrell tell the tale of WeWork with great understatement — they mostly try to stay out of its way — they are merciless in their depiction of Neumann as a figure of endless hubris and cartoonish whims. He hung out with Ashton Kutcher, dabbled in Kabbalah and often traveled in a signature Range Rover with an entourage that included his personal hairdresser and surf coach. As the Neumanns’ personal real estate portfolio grew to include eight homes, they extolled the virtues of living “asset light.” “The couple seemed oblivious to the contradictions inherent to their lifestyle,” the authors write, somewhat politely.
WeWork never figured out what it was selling, or a business model for selling it. Neumann saw WeWork as a disruptive, purpose-driven tech start-up on par with Facebook and Twitter, instead of the unglamorous real-estate-subleasing company that it was. But there was always another incurious investor, afraid of missing out on the next Amazon or Uber, who was ready to buy into the myth.
As WeWork’s valuation grew, so did the company’s losses. In 2018, according to the authors, WeWork lost more than $3,000 every minute. Even in the Wild West of start-up land, this was considered a lot.
In the end, it was an impending IPO that did Neumann in. Private investors may have been willing to ignore the company’s “cocktail of giant losses and bad governance,” say Brown and Farrell, but the public markets were not. Things went downhill fast. The IPO was canceled, Neumann was pushed out by his formerly pliant board of directors, and WeWork, once valued at $47 billion, couldn’t even lay off employees because it couldn’t afford severance packages.
Like “Bad Blood,” John Carreyrou’s tale of CEO Elizabeth Holmes and the blood-testing company Theranos, which will forever be the gold standard of books about Silicon Valley flimflam artists, “The Cult of We” is novelistic in detail and often thrilling, though its ending is never in doubt: It’s like watching a car careening toward a wall at 90 miles an hour.
“Bad Blood” benefited from an antiheroine who cloaked herself and her motives in mystery; it read like a whodunit. But Neumann isn’t enigmatic, he’s just awful in a way that is unfailingly interesting but never surprising — charismatic White men with good hair have always been able to get away with a lot.
And, unlike most whodunits, no one gets what they deserve in the end. Everyone who is already rich gets richer, the long-suffering employees who are counting on the eventual vesting of their stock options watch their paper fortunes evaporate, and Neumann, temporarily disgraced but seemingly unbowed, walks away with a settlement of roughly a billion dollars.
Allison Stewart writes about pop culture, music and politics for The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. She is working on a book about the history of the space program.
The Cult of We
WeWork, Adam Neumann, and the Great Startup Delusion
By Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell
Crown. 464 pp. $28.00