At the beginning of 2019, WeWork was known for renting out co-working offices. With locations spanning from New York to London and even good old Johannesburg, many investors believed it was poised to become the Uber of pre-planned office spaces. Its CEO, the hippie-ish Adam Neumann was hailed as the latest business visionary, the Steve Jobs or Elon Musk of rental floor space. Strikingly tall, with luxuriant hair, he styled himself as the latest guru/rock star corporate ‘visionary’. However, by October, the wheels had come off. A failed IPO ( Initial Public Offering) revealed that the company was worth far less than imagined and was in fact, haemorrhaging money. This humiliated its major investor, the Japanese Softbank, and led to Neumann being forced to step down, however, not before securing a billion dollar exit package!
Photograph by Michael Kovac, Getty Images for WeWork
Most intriguing perhaps, were the details that emerged about the bizarre behaviour of Neumann and his family. He is said to have encouraged a cult-like attitude in the workplace, boldly proclaiming the desire to become both the ‘president of the world’ and its first ‘trillionaire’. WeWork employees have complained about a corporate culture of forcefully enforced joviality, with Neumann lurking barefoot through the office with a bottle of tequila. He even inserted himself into US foreign policy, consulting on the widly mocked Middle Peace Plan of White House advisor Jared Kushner. All this, while ‘accidentally’ smuggling marijuna on private jets. Neumann’s own hubris was nurtured by wife Rebekah, the chief brand officer at WeWork. The couple envisioned a future of “we living”, in which the company would own schools, gyms, apartments and ultimately a “WeWork Airline” and “WeWork Mars”. For her own part, Rebakah Neumann combined New Age beliefs with 1% percenter elite ruthlessness, allegedly firing staff because she didn’t like their auras.
Photograph sourced from Stevejobsok.
As one would imagine, this outrageous story is already being turned into a movie by Get Out producer Jason Blum. While the Neumann’s may seem bizarre, their story speaks to broader trends within the tech industry and capitalism more generally. In presenting himself as a guru-figure, with a utopian vision of world change, Adam Neumann was drawing on an established Silicon Valley business model. As Lizzie O’Shea writes:
Engineers and tech entrepreneurs are treated with quasi-religious awe. It would not be a stretch to describe Steve Jobs, for example, as wielding priest-like power when he presided over the minimalist temple of the Apple Store. Elon Musk has been profiled as having “the boyish air of a nascent superhero [who] says his ultimate aim is to save humanity….. Suffice to say there is a reverence for engineers and entrepreneurs who have presided over the rise of digital technology. They are looked to for guidance, for solace, for solutions to the problems plaguing humanity.
Photograph sourced from HBO Silicon Valley.
As brilliantly parodied on HBO’s Silicon Valley, the higher echelons of digital technology industries combine trust-fund spiritual pretension with all-consuming greed. Neumann’s innovation was to apply this model to rental spaces, thus convincing so-called ‘unicorn investors’ that he was launching the next Facebook or Spotify. In reality, he didn’t have the planning or capacity to back up his wild vision. But Neumann can console his embarrassment with a huge cash settlement, which will surely bring little joy to the thousands of employees laid off after its losses. Ultimately, Neumann was less a new age guru than a new school con artist. As the notorious case of Fyre Festival revealed, digital and influencer culture have created new territories for scamming, forgery and ripping off investors with fake products or schemes. Unlike Fyre Festival’s infamous founder Billy MacFarland (who himself was a WeWork tenant), Neumann isn’t going to jail. As his ignominious career shows, the super-rich truly do fail upwards.