The rise, fall and further fall of the massively popular purveyor of shared office space is already being spun into narratives about Silicon Valley speculation, or venture capital, more generally. Companies achieve dizzying valuations while they’re private, and then an unenthusiastic stock market knocks them over.
But WeWork might be less a harbinger of a collapse to come than it is a warning about a company that trapped itself between our brave new world and the old one we haven’t quite left behind.
WeWork worked because it injected the digital ethos into what was essentially an analog experience. It offered office space but sexier — if sexy looks like coffee and kombucha and beer all on tap, all (at least at first) unlimited. The company’s very name radiates everything the Internet era has to give; not the “i” that Apple sticks in front of everything to make it sound sleek and shiny, but a “we” instead, because this is supposedly the age of connection.
The product was useful. Businesses need somewhere to base themselves, and smaller businesses need smaller spaces. But it was also compelling. “Digital juggernaut revolutionizing our 9 to 5s” sounds a hell of a lot better than “office subleasing company.”
The problem is, WeWork took it too far.
The tech ethos, to Neumann, couldn’t only be an ethos. WeWork had to dramatically alter people’s lives, much like the rest of Silicon Valley was altering lives — and the lives of its employees, and especially its leader, had to match the high-rolling habits of the Bay Area’s best.
So WeWork bought a marketing platform, and a meetups platform, and a coding academy, and an app for construction worker communications, and — a hefty chunk of a manufacturer of wave pools? Revenue was doubling annually, but expenses were doing one better, which meant one worse. WeWork seemed to light every incoming dollar on fire.
Vanity Fair reported that Neumann claimed he had cajoled Rahm Emanuel into running for president on “the WeWork agenda,” whatever that is. He claimed he was partnering with Mohammed bin Salman to save Saudi Arabian women by teaching them to code; he claimed Jamie Dimon might leave JPMorgan Chase to run Neumann’s family investment fund. The Wall Street Journal reported that he wanted to be a trillionaire! He wanted to run the world, literally! He wanted to live, baby — forever!
When you’re a tech company, you can sometimes get away with all this. Network effects can eventually win you back the money you spent to build your network in the first place. Growth costs are low. Oh, and haven’t you heard data is the new oil? All these new truths at least present the possibility of sustainability for tech titans-to-be. But for a real estate business dealing almost exclusively in physical space, they’re not really part of the equation.
When you’re a tech company, you can sometimes get away with an erratic chief executive, too, because in Silicon Valley, erratic equals eccentric, and eccentric often equals genius. Neumann reportedly joked recently that dealing with the Securities and Exchange Commission had made him sympathize with Elon Musk — as if he weren’t flying at Muskian altitudes already, gliding on a Gulfstream G650 above the Atlantic Ocean and smoking marijuana contra transnational rules. But Elon Musk makes electric cars.
And when you’re a tech company, you can almost always get away with carrying off a jaw-dropping initial public offering. WeWork hooked nearly 11 billion of SoftBank’s dollars by selling fund manager Masayoshi Son on its far-reaching vision, but the Silicon Valley venture-capital market was reluctant to bite. Investors weren’t convinced WeWork was a tech company. And here’s the rub: The tried-and-true property industry wasn’t interested either, because WeWork had so thoroughly convinced enough people that it was a tech company that its price-tag had spiked too high.
Adam Neumann wanted to “elevate the world’s consciousness.” Now, if a friend of mine spending his days in one of its spaces is to be believed, his landlord has been reducing the amount of fruit in the complimentary fruit water. WeWork’s quest to be something more ended up making it a whole lot less.