In The Blink of An Eye, Adam Neumann’s WeWork went from one of the most highly valued startups in history to losing three-quarters of its value.
Do you remember a certain chap from back in the nineties called Nicholas Lesson? No? Well, Nick Lesson was a young stock trader from London who basically collapsed an 800-year-old London bank, entirely on his own, in a matter of weeks.
Unlike his contemporaries, Nick did not hail from the posh schools of Eton or Rugby. He didn’t attend Oxford or Cambridge. He didn’t even attend college, period. He was a working-class London boy who happened to be extremely bright, great with figures and had a natural flair for the financial markets.
He was the star trader at Barings Bank, a stable, prosperous, private banking institution. A promotion followed a move to Singapore, heading up the trading floor. He and his wife got a fancy condo and a Porsche, which was arguably warranted because he excelled, making the bank lots of money.
The aristocratic board members loved this cheeky laugh-a-minute London boy, and they eventually just allowed him to do pretty much anything he wanted.
So he did. He made a risky trade for a few million and lost, so he doubled down but lost again. No one checked on him. He held his nerve and doubled down again and again and lost each time. No one checked. In no time, he was a couple hundred million down, and still, no one checked.
Beginning to panic a little, he started moving figures around into secret accounts to hide the losses temporarily. Soon, he thought, I will recover the losses, and no one will ever know. But it got worse, and he was soon gambling with wild abandon to recover losses. 50 million here. 100 million there. 200 million? Sure, why not. In for a penny, in for a pound, as they say.
Still, no one checked. Eventually, he gambled and lost everything, collapsing Bearings Bank to the tune of $1.3 Billion, and remember, this was way back in 1995.
Nick Leeson took all the blame, but I think that is unfair. If he had been watched more carefully and not allowed such free rein, he would have made the bank a lot of money, and the outcome would have been entirely different.
I feel sorry for Nick Lesson. His heart was in the right place, his intentions were on point, and he had the brains to deliver. But he wandered off-piste, and no one bothered to check.
I believe we have a modern-day equivalent of Nick Lesson, and his name is Adam Neumann. At least, there are glaring comparisons between these two controversial figures.
Adam Neumann. The WeWork guy. I am guessing the name rings a bell because, for a while, he was plastered all over the media, drawing initial attention for creating a huge, successful co-sharing business – then drawing even more attention for pretty much collapsing it in a heartbeat. That guy.
Born in Israel in 1979, Neumann was raised by a single Mother for most of his young life after his parents divorced. He spent much of his youth bouncing around different parts of the country before his mother eventually took a more permanent position as a doctor in a Gaza Strip hospital.
He lived in a Kibbutz through much of his teens, and by all accounts, he thrived. It is no coincidence that a kibbutz’s communal togetherness and collaborative nature would be the central theme of his future workspace empire, but more on that later.
He then served two more years than the compulsory three required with the Israeli Navy. As an officer, no less.
Returning to the Kibbutz was considered, but as much as he thrived in that environment, he had a deep thirst that no Kibbutz could ever possibly satisfy: Dollar bills. Lots of them. He decided instead to try his luck in a place famed for untold opportunities.
So at 22, he expatriated to the States, pitching up in a leased NYC apartment, hitting the business books at college, and later, inexplicably, missing out on graduation by just a handful of credits.
Make of that what you will. I believe anyone within touching distance of a degree after a couple of years of hard study – and then merrily scoots away at the very last stage – must have something of a screw loose.
Dropping out, however, was likely motivated less by mental health and more by his unreserved attention to a business he had launched called Krawlers, a baby clothing company he created with his wife (whom he had met at college), Rebekah Paltrow. Krawlers would later rebrand as Egg Baby.
Rebekah, for those who are interested – not many of you, probably – is the cousin of a certain Gwyneth.
Enter Miguel McKelvey, who, after forming a friendship with Neumann, would persuade him to move the Egg Baby offices into his New York workspace. The two bonded over a love of entrepreneurialism – they would regularly thrash out hypothetical business ideas together – and during one energetic conversation, they developed an idea for an eco-friendly, co-workspace business.
Pitching the idea to their mutual landlord, who had vacant office space at different premises, the trio formed Green Desk, an eco-themed co-working space.
For one reason or another, a decision to break from the landlord resulted in Neumann and McKelvey selling their stake in the company to him for $3 million, then using these funds to launch a similar business called WeWork in 2010, renting office space in its first Manhattan location.
The Rise Of WeWork
2010 was a perfect time to launch a co-working company. With the country still reeling from the 2008 mega-crash and with real estate hit the hardest, New York had a lot of empty office space available, and at a discount, too.
Venturing into office space rental when landlords scrambled to find tenants might have been considered a terrible idea to many. Still, Neumann spotted an opportunity, and we should probably give him credit for that. Launching any business around that time took nerves of steel but launching a business in real estate took both nerves and balls of steel combined.
His idea was to pitch landlords bereft of tenants for discounted rent, lease it from them, then break up the floor into a low-cost co-working space, all presented with a fun, playful, inclusive tone.
Then, brand the hell out of the company, develop a reputation for being quirky and off-beat, and use his natural charisma and charm – something he has an abundance of – to sell the dream of utopian office space through various media platforms.
It was not uncommon to see his looming 6-ft 5 frame appear in a multitude of network interviews and social media clips around this time. His personality lends itself to the camera, feeding off his natural pitching abilities and engaging demeanor.
You play the cards you are dealt, and Neuman had a royal flush of natural sales ability, so he used it. Brand messaging became second nature to him during this time, creating a very specific vision for his brand and how to convey it.
He was, very wisely, jumping on a new trend. Silicon Valley was evolving with unique workspaces offering a far more relaxed, vibrant, and playful nature. Various tech giants of the turtleneck-wearing ilk had begun radicalizing workspace for the better, and it wasn’t going unnoticed.
Office workers worldwide looked on in envy at Google’s giant open-plan floors filled with beanbags, table footballs, ping-pong, relaxation hubs, and hammocks. Yes, hammocks.
With its green eco-space, colorful furniture, and décor geared toward calm but creative energy , Apple was engulfed not with dreary cubicles but with giant ‘pods.’ People of every stature from juniors through to c-suite executives were lumped together, seemingly at random, encouraging democracy over authoritative hierarchy.
His idea was to capitalize on this new wave of office space theatrics by presenting it to the people.
But how do you incorporate similar themes and branding while going one step further? How can you appeal to the younger masses, the plethora of emerging self-employed tech workers, and small startups that America had a growing bounty of around this time? Simple. You give them access to this new silicon valley-style office space, plus free beer.
WeWork’s first few locations promoted not just a workspace environment but a community togetherness and a place of collaboration, all within an artsy, colorful space…offering free beer. Led by a quirky man of the people who smoked weed during meetings. Allegedly.
Of course, I am being slightly flippant with the free beer thing. But in doing so, I merely serve a point: WeWork dared to be different. Free beer is just one of many examples of their desire to draw attention to a quirky way of thinking.
Look at it this way: Regus was the largest and most successful serviced office space business for decades. Their premises were highly corporate in feel, with lots of beige tones in boxy offices. You know the type of thing: whiteboards, meeting tables, vertical blinds. All very neat and tidy but dull as dishwater.
Neumann probably looked at Regus as an opposing brand template or theme: whatever they do, we will do the opposite. WeWork premises offered a brighter alternative, with all internal walls built from glass without a hint of beige in sight. It’s all very see-through and transparent, with common spaces and a striking feeling of inclusion and community, a Kibbutz-like togetherness, almost.
They aimed to create a community of small business owners, bouncing and vibing off one another. Where Regus might be compared to a dentist’s office, occupied by well-heeled, polished professionals waiting for root canal treatment, WeWork might be compared to a trendy downtown bistro full of people in dungarees, sipping caramel macchiatos, generally acting quite millennial.
A Unicorn Takes Flight
It worked. It actually really worked. WeWork hit the ground running and began snapping up workspaces left, right, and center. Customers began flooding into WeWork premises as fast as Neumann could open up new locations throughout the States. A tsunami of investment came storming in, and you could see an empire emerging.
Neumann hit the phones, hunting for empty office space across the states and snapping up new locations at sometimes quite favorable leasing terms. More locations preceded more customers. In the UK alone, WeWork became the biggest tenant in the nation’s capital, just as it had in New York.
The media lapped him up – largely through his fresh, energetic approach to business but also because of his magnetizing personality: his tequila shot slamming, office corridor skateboarding persona was more befitting of the coolest guy at the BBQ than a corporate leader. After a few tough years post-2008, in which the general world narrative was all a bit doom and gloom, the public enjoyed reading about him and his ways.
Investors threw money at WeWork; Softbank alone contributed $8 billion at one point (they would eventually invest more than double that amount in total). The business footprint spread worldwide, eventually culminating with locations in 40 countries.
The years rolled by, the brand developed, and WeWork was the hottest ticket in town. 2014 produced a very healthy $75 million in revenue. A few short years later, the best part of $1.9 billion in revenue through 2018. The guy couldn’t put a foot wrong – he even managed to return to college and complete his degree.
Meteoric rise is a term that gets bandied around far too easily these days, but I can’t think of a more suitable description of Neumann’s journey during these years. He absolutely skyrocketed into the stratosphere. Weeeee.
Remarkably, Neumann endeavored to copyright “We” and began vertical brand expansions through ventures such as WeLive (budget, shared accommodation) and WeGrow (private schooling).
WeWork had become the absolute definition of a Unicorn business. Neumanns brand messaging was a stroke of genius, and the future was bright in a world of all things We.
And let’s not lose sight of how he accomplished this… Branding. There really is no other culprit to his incredible success other than branding, brand messaging, and an engaging demeanor that the media loved.
Remember, he didn’t own a single building (he later owned a few) and had become a multi-billion dollar business with almost no physical assets. WeWork simply leased buildings, threw in some jazzy furniture, and sub-leased the space.
Sadly, mistakes happened. I use the term mistakes in the loosest possible way: the same way a toddler might draw a permanent marker pen over an entire room of freshly hung Laura Ashley wallpaper, before realizing the error of his ways and declaring to the furious parents, oops, I made a mistake.
The same way a rock star might suddenly trash a Las Vegas hotel room and then call down to reception to say I think I might have gone a little over the top.
The mistakes were too many to list in this already lengthy article, but we can skirt over the trivialities and focus on the key errors, all of which centered around a rather cavalier approach to incredible success and investors with deep pockets. In other words, Mr. Neumann went a little batshit for want of a better term.
A desperate need to expand, dominate, and monopolize the co-work business resulted in breakneck speed growth, whatever the cost. New locations were being snapped up each year – that was fine for the first few post-crash years, but as the property market recovered, so did leasing costs. Neumann didn’t care, signing leases regardless of the bottom line. There are even whispers of Neumann cold calling established, smaller co-working companies and offering incredibly generous buyouts in order to expand.
At times, there was a sense that Neumann was buying his customers through under-market rents. Some of the brighter, more shrewd tenants would even jump around from location to location, taking advantage of 90-day free rent promotions, absconding after the trial period, and jumping into a new location with the same promotion.
Make no mistake about it – this was a business with staggering potential, but Neumann began to focus more on the brand instead of profits. As investments came flooding in, there was a seemingly endless supply of money to play around with, which Neumann began to take for granted.
The real batshit behavior came with his incredible spending. Summer camps were created for employees, which felt less like a bonding exercise and more like Coachella, with a vast array of artists, such as Red Hot Chilli Peppers, flown in by private jet to entertain the crowd. I guess that none of these expensive artists were appreciated too much – when you and five of your friends can hit the free bar and ask for a bottle of Moet each, you are likely too intoxicated to have the first clue what planet you are on in the first place.
Unnecessary last-minute meetings would take place on far distant shores. Neumann would hire a private jet for these occasions at a ghastly expense, fill the plane with his buddies and engage in one giant mid-flight party, usually arriving too hungover to string a sentence together, let alone conduct a meeting. On one occasion, a pilot left him ‘stranded’ after finding a cornflakes box full of drugs in the cabin and flying back without him out of protest.
So. What’s the logical solution to a private jet company taking issue with your wild antics? Simple. You buy your own private jet.
While the company was supposed to be reinvesting and growing, Neumann paid himself quite handsomely, purchasing extravagant property in various cities and going all in with renovations. One particular condo came resplendent with its very own waterfall.
Holiday excess new no bounds, either. For Neumanns 40th birthday, he flew the family down to the Maldives and rented out an entire resort for the best part of a month. He even rented a $500k per week mega-yacht for that whole holiday and barely used it.
The money no doubt went to his head. Diligent planning and astute accounting took a backseat to wild spending and garish extravagance. This was compounded when Neumann became an instant billionaire after acquiring Softbank funding; with his face proudly displayed on the front cover of Forbes, he probably felt unstoppable.
It’s easy to blame Neumann for his wild excess but let’s not forget – Neuman was relatively young and without any big business experience. He had a bunch of established, very wise, and esteemed business leaders investing in the company, but none of them bothered to encourage Neumann to reign in the wild ways.
Indeed, Masayoshi Son, the Softbank head and biggest investor by far, even encouraged the crazy behavior. The Japanese are not known for being a particularly wild bunch, and so, presumably enchanted by Neumann’s zany approach to business, he insisted that Neumann become even zanier, telling Neumann, “WeWork isn’t crazy enough.” Hold my beer, Neumann probably thought.
The walls came tumbling down when, in 2019, Neumann decided to go public with an IPO and reap the rewards of its not $47 billion valuation.
To do so, he would have to present detailed financial statements and provide logical explanations for how WeWork made its money. This process revealed to the world that WeWork, obviously having focused on revenue and image over actual profits, was losing money – by the truckload. Long-time supporters of Neumann began to turn, as did all media channels and most of Wall Street. The value tanked, worth a mere fraction of its previous valuation.
Neumann stepped down as CEO, the IPO was canceled, and WeWork was restructured, with JP Morgan stepping in to take over the company. To concede his voting shares, Neumann required a pay-off in the region of $100 million. And so he left WeWork with his pockets quite full.
There is much scorn for Neumann, which is understandable. He made a ton of mistakes, but the fact is, he created a colossal company in a short period using fundamental branding principles, and it worked.
Guess who isn’t hating on Neumann right now? Venture capitalists, who are flooding in once again because, unlike the internet and the general media, heavyweight investors see through the scorn and recognize a talented entrepreneur who has probably matured, learned from his mistakes, and will probably be successful again.
Yes, the guy went a little nuts with WeWork, and no, he didn’t do a great job of running the business in terms of accounts and profitability. But he has something, this guy, a flare for branding and a vision which, if controlled properly, could lead to pretty huge things.
His new venture, Flow, a real estate company geared towards low-cost housing, has been created to put a very real dent in the current U.S housing crisis. How that exactly will unfold is unclear. The model might be centered around a rent-to-own premise or something similar, delivering affordable properties to the huge percentage of mostly younger people struggling to get on the property ladder.
Currently, properties are being purchased throughout America at a refreshingly less intense rate, supported by a $350 million investment and a recent $1 billion valuation.
For now, we should put in a pin in Flow, keep an eye on how it develops, and report back with a further article once the company has more to assess. As it stands now, the company is in its early stages of development, and I, for one, believe Neumann deserves a chance to make Flow work.
We can be certain of one thing, though. If Flow is to become a profitable company whilst simultaneously solving the nation’s housing crisis, it’s going to take a lot more than clever branding. Hopefully, Neumann has learned from his previous mistakes and will use the WeWork debacle as an opportunity to guide Flow in a promising direction.
Either way, I feel more credit should be given to Adam Neumann. Regardless of how WeWork played out, he revolutionized the co-work business model and built a great company out of nothing. Mistakes were made, and hopefully, now, lessons can be learned.
The investors should share a fair portion of the blame, however. Neumann had the vision and drive, but he was completely unleashed into a world of billions without the slightest supervision. Had the investors been less focused on allowing an apparent unicorn to take flight of fancy and more focused on supervising growth, WeWork might have had a different ending altogether.
Just like poor old Nick.
So. What to take from the Adam Neumann story? You can really wrap it up like this: a bright spark from Israel landed in the states with a burning ambition and a desire to make things happen. He dabbled in a couple of businesses before landing on a gem of an idea. He took this idea and became a media darling and a cult figure for many aspiring entrepreneurs through clever branding and a natural ability to create a buzz. Investors threw money at him. The business took flight and was on course for incredible success.
Then he went a little batshit.
Huge wealth combined with a freshly inflated ego caused him to focus less on the finer points of business management. He had become the brand. He got carried away. No one bothered to check what he was doing with the gazillions thrown at him. The business began to fail inwardly, but it looked incredibly successful on the outside. Private jets, lavish holidays, and mega-condos in various cities became a regular staple, yet no one still checked.
Had the investors bothered to check, they might have reeled him in, and the outcome would have been entirely different. WeWork would have been one hell of a company to this day if only someone had bothered to check.
He has been gifted a second chance with Flow, and investors have a very keen eye on him this time. It’s too early to say, but I feel he is creating something quite remarkable, and, without the private jets, condos, and company staff retreats costing tens of millions, he will probably make it work.
Providing, of course, someone keeps an eye on him.