WeWork documentary deftly chronicles the fall of the $47 billion startup

March 18, 2021 0 By boss

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WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann. 


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If there were a hall of fame for corporate implosions, one of the most stunning recent inductees would be WeWork. The co-working startup — once valued at $47 billion — seemingly crumbled in front of everyone’s eyes in 2019 as it approached an IPO. 

Offering not just a place to plug in your laptop but also a statement on the power of community, preached by charismatic founder Adam Neumann, WeWork is now the subject of a documentary called WeWork, or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn. The film is a thorough look at WeWork’s rise and fall that does a good job explaining the business side of the ride and the emotional toll it took. The film is making its debut virtually at SXSW, with plans to hit Hulu in April. 

“[There’s] this fine line between faking it till you make it and just lying to people,” says director Jed Rothstein, of the complicated figure at the center of WeWork’s lore. I spoke with Rothstein about startup culture, millennials in search of purpose, and finding the gray areas in Neumann’s story. Here’s our interview, lightly edited for clarity. WeWork didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

Q: How did you get interested in telling WeWork’s story?
A: I got interested in it initially because I thought it was a financial mystery, with a charismatic leader at the heart of it. I like financial mysteries, because for better or worse, we live in a capitalist society and so it’s the language through which a lot of the drama of our lives plays out, and it’s a good way to understand how we treat one another. 

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Director Jed Rothstein.


Hulu

As I dove into it, I realized there was actually a much deeper vein to it, which is that the story focused on how we can try to live with one another and how we can create communities, and how we try and do that within a context that is not always friendly. [It’s this] isolating, eat-what-you-kill culture of self-realization and capitalism. Especially for the millennial generation that’s at the heart of the WeWork story. It’s really interesting to see how they were able to try and come together in a world where so many things were seemingly tearing them apart. 

The bonds of civic life that used to exist don’t really exist anymore. People don’t stay at companies for that long, and people aren’t members of the same types of civic groups or religious groups that they used to be. And so this idea of thinking about how people came together [and were torn apart] raises the stakes of Adam’s betrayal of that at the end.

Q: You mentioned millennials. A lot of hay’s been made over the idea that millennials tend to look for jobs with purpose, and we see that crop up in startup culture. Can you talk about how that played out for WeWork?
Adam’s idea was this capitalist kibbutz, which in his mind took the best elements of a kibbutz and this thing where you eat what you kill and you’re on your own. Clearly, at the end, when the chips were down, the suffering was not spread equally. 

He really didn’t do anything illegal, at least not major and certainly nothing that I uncovered, and he’s not been indicted or accused of anything. But people who worked with him, especially, felt like he violated the spirit of what they were doing, because he walked away with so much money and so many of them came out of it having worked really hard without much to show for it.

Q: In tech, we’re not unfamiliar with seemingly messianic figures like Adam Neumann. How did you approach telling his story?
A:  Adam is, like so many things nowadays, a prism through which we can see many things. We can see the classic story of New York hustle. That’s an old story, and it’s a good story. There’s a messianic tech story, where this guy is renting office space like nobody’s ever rented it before — he’s a disrupter, he’s part of the internet revolution. Something that was really interesting to me about Adam is this fine line between faking it till you make it and just lying to people. 

You want to talk positively about your company … about the great frontiers that it can conquer. But at what point are you kind of crossing over into manipulating people, younger people or people who are less sophisticated in the intricate financial backs-and-forths of the startup world? He wasn’t Elizabeth Holmes, he wasn’t Bernie Madoff, he didn’t just scam people and do these terrible things. He was close to building something really good, but then he didn’t. 

Whether it’s his own greed or the system pushing him to make this company worth 10 times more than it probably was at that point, or some combination of those things, I think Adam is a more complicated figure than some of these others. 

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