New Documentary About WeWork Debunks the Messianic Streak in Startups
"Is this a cult?"
What's a unicorn? A mythical horse with a horn on its head. What's a unicorn business? That's a software startup valued at over $1 billion. What do they have in common? If you see them, you should be more worried about how much damage that big spike can do.
WeWork was the definitional unicorn business, and the kind investors crowded around. It started as a co-working business that took hot-desking to a new level, made it cool, made it fun, filled tenants with booze and promised employees fortunes. Then, in 2019, it tried to go public, and the idea that it was an unstoppable business model turned out to be just as mythical as a horned horse.
In new SXSW documentary WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn, director Jed Rothstein uncovers exactly what went wrong, and how much of it was traceable back to its founders and, most especially, the messianic tendencies of CEO Adam Neumann. "It's a great millennial whodunit," he said, "but it's really a story about how people can find a way to come together and be with one another, and do that in the context of the hypercapitalist and isolating world that we live in."
Rothstein wasn't interested in making the documentary (which debuts on Hulu on April 2) a story about balance sheets. Instead, he wanted to follow on from his last film, The China Hustle, which uncovered the shell game of trans-Pacific investment. "For better or worse, we live in a capitalist society, so a lot of insight into how we treat one another can be played out in these business dramas." That's where his background as an anthropologist came into play: What he really looked for was why so many people ended up following Neumann, and that's where he saw the impact of increasing social estrangement. "The old structures that bound people together have fallen apart. People rarely work at the same company for any length of time. Some of the civic structures that used to exist don't exist, and many people aren't religious anymore."
WeWork was a deliberate attempt to fill that gap, and to get rich doing it. However, it also was just another startup, powered by the common conviction that the founders know better than everyone else, and by employees desperate to be part of the next big thing. "They work people to the bone, they promise the destruction and reinvention of everything, and in some cases they deliver, but in a lot of cases they're doing something that's a very old business and putting some new lipstick on it." In the case of Neumann and WeWork, the business model was about taking the communal life of the kibbutz on which he grew up, merging it with real estate arbitrage, and making both better (shorthand for "profitable"). A few billion in losses later, he instead became a cautionary figure. Rothstein said, "Adam has an Icarus quality of soaring very high, getting too high on his own supply, and the wings melting pretty quickly."
WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn
Available from 10am, March 17
A Conversation With the Filmmakers, March 17, 7pm