WEWORK: OR THE MAKING AND BREAKING OF A $47 BILLION UNICORN
(The 2021 SXSW Film Festival kicks off March 16 and runs through the 20th, all online. Hammer to Nail has tons of coverage coming your way so stay tuned! Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not give just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)
I knew the WeWork story before watching Jed Rothstein’s new documentary WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn. Or at least I thought I did. A few years ago I almost leased one. When my digital marketing agency began to grow, I looked at about 6 or 7 different WeWorks in Manhattan and Brooklyn. At first, I admit, I was enchanted by them. Serendipitously, I ended up leasing an office at Green Desk, which was the precursor to WeWork, in the same building in Dumbo where founder Adam Neumann got his start. Green Desk similarly chops up buildings into many individual office spaces with glass barriers, and our 2 desk soon grew to a 4 desk. We loved our neighbors, but there was no forced community aspect that the ‘We’ brand became famous for. Thank goodness I landed at Green Desk, because what I didn’t realize at the time, and what this doc makes clear, is that WeWork is a cult, and Adam Neumann was its leader.
The story of WeWork is actually a Horror story. No amount of corporate b-roll could prevent this conventional doc from being wincingly entertaining to anyone remotely interested in entrepreneurship, real estate, tech or cult mentality. The specifics of the meteoric rise and subsequent collapse are detailed by journalists, former employees and members who paint a vivid picture of a company and its messianic leader. The resulting portrait makes Fyre Fest look like a bad college frat party by comparison. I was reminded moreso of Wild Wild Country, the docuseries about an Indian guru who brought his community of followers to a small town in Oregon. Like every cult leader, Adam had charisma, confidence and charm, and was able to talk the biggest sugar daddy of them all – Masayoshi Son of Softbank – to bankroll him. Masa created the world’s largest hedge fund ($50 billion), and was looking for a vision of the future that he could invest in. Adam provided that vision, but he failed to deliver on it. In footage of Adam that cleverly bookends the film, he is attempting to read pre-written lines for a video that is to be used on a ‘roadshow’ leading up to WeWork’s big IPO that never happened. Day turns to night turns to next morning, as Adam struggles to make his pitch. It’s ironic seeing a man who is so good at speaking off the top of his head (i.e. bullshitting), completely fall apart when asked to read a few simple lines off a teleprompter.
Rothstein gets his hands on a lot of internal footage, similar to footage recovered for The Vow, that reveals the inside workings of the company and specifically their party atmosphere. Just like Keith Raniere’s volleyball games, Adam was insistent on WeWork members attending a ‘summer camp’ upstate where members could party and Adam and his wife Rebekah would preach to them the value of ‘We’ and how together, they were going to change the world. The found footage often conveys a queasiness that you don’t get from reading an article or listening to a podcast. However, the b-roll shots in between the talking heads gets pretty repetitive and boring to look at, and I wish there had been a more artistic rendering of the events.
What is most prescient about the film is the ambiguity that seeps in towards the end. WeWork was almost great, it was just corrupted by a young entrepreneur who wanted to grow too big too fast and couldn’t be convinced otherwise. As Adam’s former assistant points out, “Yes we do need communal spaces.” It’s been part of human nature since the beginning of mankind. We can’t all work from home forever. There are many benefits to seeing other people every day in person and socializing. I miss my Green Desk. I’m excited to go back, or somewhere else. I, like many others, am yearning to return to the office. It just won’t be a WeWork.
WEWORK: OR THE MAKING AND BREAKING OF A $47 BILLION UNICORN premieres on Hulu Friday, April 2
– Matthew Delman (@ItsTheRealDel)