The rise and fall of WeWork - a company offering flexible shared office space - has inspired countless magazine articles, books, a podcast and this documentary from director Jed Rothstein. You may well wonder why. Since when was the real estate business so compelling?
WeWork's journey is fascinating because, much like Alex Gibney's The Inventor Out For Blood In Silicon Valley, it is an “emperor's new clothes” style tale that explores the dark side of entrepreneurship and financial FOMO. In addition, while watching this story you can't help but wonder - would I have been taken in by the dreams and promises of the WeWork’s co-founder Adam Neumann? Would I have bought into his Kabbalah-style culture and his lofty, world changing ideas?
Without having been there from the start and experienced Neumann’s charisma and passion for the potential of WeWork first hand, it is hard to tell. However, Rothstein’s film does all it can to convey the power of the eccentric CEO’s personality. The documentary makes full use of archive footage showing Neumann in full shaman mode (full disclosure, I was rather sick of his face by the end of the film).
WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn explores just how Neumann managed to convince so many people to invest their time, money (astounding amounts of money), careers and lives in his WeWork concept. Was he simply a conman? Was he a genius? Was he faking it til he made it? Is he the villain of this piece?
The answer is not simple exactly but it is not anything particularly new either. Indeed, just look at any cult leader and you will find a similar MO. A charismatic individual offering people the opportunity to be part of something greater than themselves. A chance to join a community that is about to change the world and be part of something truly revolutionary and meaningful. Oh and a chance to make a huge amount of money.
And it seems, at first, to be a lot of fun too. Beautiful office spaces and tempting investment opportunities. Sought after living accommodation to share with fellow WeWork employees. Company wide festival-style events with music, activities and free flowing alcohol. A celebration of “We” culture.
However, despite the inspirational/world salad speeches (and the free beer), the “revolution” turned out to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors. WeWork employees soon realised that they have been manipulated by their controlling ‘leader’ who - like pretty much every cult leader in history - had isolated them from the ‘real world’ in order to continue his deception.
Yes, WeWork under Neumann was a cult - it looked like a cult, it sounded like a cult and it destroyed lives like a cult. Many people lost vast sums of money as a result of their investment, while others lost careers and, in the aftermath of the company’s decline, were left to process the crushing weight of betrayal.
The story behind WeWork is told in a relatively concise and straightforward style in Rothstein’s documentary. Having read about the company (and listened to the WeCrashed: The Rise and Fall of WeWork podcast), I didn’t find anything particularly new here. Nonetheless, I enjoyed my time watching this film and appreciated the way it combined WeWork’s incredible growth with the human experiences of many of its employees.
It is also fascinating to hear the story told from the point of view of journalists, academics and financial experts. They add much needed context to WeWork’s journey - explaining how the company went from being valued / overvalued at $47 billion to facing near bankruptcy in just six weeks.
While it is hard to feel sorry for the multi (multi, multi) millionaires who believed Neumann's propaganda, it is also hard to point and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all because of the many WeWork employees who were caught in the crossfire. As we hear in the documentary, it was “we” for everybody except Adam.