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‘WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn’

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One of the realities of big business these days is that so much of what the money is buying doesn’t actually exist yet. Millions of dollars thrown at ideas that may or may not come to some sort of fruition, a quest to find the next big thing – the next “unicorn,” VC speak for a company worth a billion dollars. And when you’re operating in a world where ideas can be everything, there will be people who prove capable of talking their way to the top.

“WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn,” currently streaming on Hulu, tells the story of the bright burnout of the ostensible tech company WeWork and its CEO Adam Neumann. Directed by Jed Rothstein, the film depicts the company’s rapid rise and fall, from a peak value of $47 billion to near bankruptcy in a matter of weeks – illustrative of some of the dangers that come with investing in opportunities that seem too good to be true.

Neumann was the kind of iconoclast that thrives in an environment where talk is everything. He was charismatic and charming, with an inviting energy that drew people to him. He inspired loyalty through sheer force of personality. But even with so many circumstances where he could talk his way to the top, eventually, he’d have to deliver.

WeWork was one of the major financial stories of the 2010s, a rapidly growing company that, like so many of its startup peers, sought to change the world – or at least, a small part of it – while also making an absolute boatload of money. Adam Neumann (and co-founder Miguel McKelvey, although you’d be forgiven for forgetting, since the doc treats him as a bit of an afterthought) wanted to redefine the way we work, hence the name of his company.

The basic notion was simple. It was all about finding ways to give the burgeoning Millennial and post-Millennial workforce access to spaces more conducive to the smaller, more entrepreneurially-driven businesses and business models they were developing (at one point in the doc, there’s a hilarious montage of WeWork folks rattling off the portmanteau-and-buzzword-laden names of their various companies). The aim was to do away with conventional office layouts by renting and redeveloping buildings into something that more readily matched the wants and needs of a new and different workforce. Honestly, not a terrible idea as far as that goes.

But when you’ve got a wildly ambitious narcissist in charge, well … things can get out of hand.

While Neumann declined to participate in the film, there’s certainly plenty of available footage that shows us precisely what he was about. In many ways, this doc serves to tell not only the story of WeWork’s rise and fall as a company, but of Neumann’s steady ascent from a charming wannabe to an almost messianic figure; what started as a real estate company disguised as a tech company grew to become almost a cult disguised as a company.

All you need to do is watch the footage of the various WeWork campouts, lavish parties thrown by the company for all employees and participants, to get a sense of that weird undercurrent. Sure, you spend the day going to panels and whatnot, but at night, you’re basically at a rave. And through it all, Neumann keeps taking the stage, throwing out jargon and relying on his considerable charisma to carry the day.

And all the while, WeWork was raking in massive amounts of cash from investors, yet still managing to spend even more. This unmitigated and unfocused growth led to an explosive jump in value for the company, with even Japanese financial giant SoftBank drawn in by the many promises made by Adam Neumann. Plus, as WeWork was growing, so too was the influence of Neumann’s wife Rebecca, who helped push WeWork evolutions such as WeLive (where they basically invented dorms) and promised to redefine the world of education.

But it was all a house of cards. That flashy $47 billion valuation – the peak of the company, just a few short weeks before WeWork finally planned to go public – was built almost entirely upon Neumann’s ability to talk a good game. But when you start venturing into SEC territory, you have to put things down on paper, and when that happened, well … you can probably guess.

“WeWork” is a solid work of documentary filmmaking, particularly in terms of charting the rise and fall of the company itself, even going so far as to use the company’s valuations at various times as de facto chapter headings in the story. By bringing in people who engaged with company at various times and to various extents, there’s a well-rounded sense of what it was like to work there.

We also get plenty of looks at the more unsettling aspects of the WeWork story. No matter how progressive a group or organization seeks to be, if it is led by a single person, that person’s biases and faults will almost inevitably cause a souring even as devotion increases.

Unfortunately, where the doc misses the mark is in getting us to understand just how Neumann was able to convince so many people that he was not just a savvy businessman, but some sort of game-changing guru. What made people so willing to ignore the myriad red flags and commit to following a guy engaged in what in retrospect appears to be an obvious grift? We get hints of that from the interviewees, but without Neumann speaking for himself, it’s tough to figure out how so many smart, capable people got taken for a ride.

In the relentless pursuit of great wealth, everything else falls by the wayside. What a documentary like “WeWork” shows us is that so much of that pursuit is built upon a willingness to believe in a product and a person … and that said willingness often leaves us with little more than snake oil and one man’s golden parachute. Most of the time, talk is cheap, but in cases like this, talk is VERY expensive.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 05 April 2021 11:07

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