The Cult of We, the tale of the ‘great startup delusion’ that engulfed the serviced office corporation WeWork, is a thriller without thrills, at least of the happy kind. That sounds more critical than I mean, so let’s explain. Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell serve up a meticulously-researched account of how WeWork came to be overvalued, until it wasn’t. It isn’t that the details of the excess of Adam Neumann’s family, entourage and business partners aren’t shocking. It’s more that the whole thing is utterly exhausting. The greed and the waste is all-consuming, and the consumption is extreme and joyless. I read this book around the time that the UK Johnson government was seeking to rewrite the system of parliamentary scrutiny seemingly to clear a Johnson ally, Owen Paterson, from facing censure. This manoeuvre led to outrage, Paterson’s resignation and the subsequent loss of his seat, historically safe for the Conservatives. The parallels between Neumann and Johnson’s sense of entitlement seemed obvious. Both men have had their wings clipped but the public square seems coarser and baser for the events.
WeWork under Neumann was a car crash waiting to happen. The company provided a slightly fresher take on the serviced office concept. Somehow, it convinced itself and tech financiers that it had skipped sectors and deserved to be thought of as a tech disruptor. Its leadership – specifically, Neumann – managed to distort governance models and to tell a story that too many people wanted to believe. He got all kinds of funding based on a ridiculous valuation of the company. Time and again, Brown and Farrell make statements like: ‘The rise and fall of WeWork was enabled by a collision of forces: a man characterised by charisma, unbridled optimism, and astute salesmanship met an entire financial system primed to fall under his spell [with] a frothy venture capital sector…obsessed with the search for eccentric and visionary founders’.
Brown and Farrell don’t pull any punches when it comes to the behaviour of both Adam and Rebekah Neumann: Rebekah Neumann is portrayed as a destructive and parasitic influence more concerned with her own status and crazy ideas. Adam Neumann sabotages a huge deal with SoftBank and then wrecks the IPO: in both cases it’s because he’s more interested in lodging outrageous personal demands than in the wellbeing of the company he’s trousering unthinkable sums for leading.
But by the end the outrage and the greed and the decadence are among the less interesting details. Personally I would have liked to have understood more about the web that Adam Neumann spun. We see that he was a man who made knee-jerk strategic decisions when under the influence of drink or drugs, that his leadership style was more attuned to a court than a well-run business, that there was hypocrisy galore: the culture of WeWork seems not dissimilar at times to Orwell’s eponymous Animal Farm – the minions are expected to live various values (such as pescatarianism) that the special people would scoff at. But there are moments when Neumann is described as having a huge work ethic and perhaps attention to detail. Could better governance have forced WeWork into a more sustainable direction?
And we must return to the title of the book: WeWork was a cult. But Neumann was egged on by men like Masayoshi Son at SoftBank, and by others, who seem to be drawn to cults. If your founder isn’t a charismatic disruptor and visionary, your company may not get the funding it needs. Brown and Farrell are quite clear that Son’s predilection for a certain kind of chief executive causes him to make bad investment calls. I can’t really take comfort that the system kind-of worked because the discipline of the IPO process caused Neumann’s tall tales to be questioned properly. Money was wasted, value was destroyed, lives were blighted because the system favours ‘brash, even arrogant [men] with an extraordinarily bold vision’. Brown and Farrell are clearly appalled that the financial community did so little to reflect on the lessons of the WeWork fiasco. The next Adam Neumann is likely to be courted just the same way.
Let’s not be too wide-eyed here. Hucksters hustle, spinners spin, companies get formed or go bust every day. But the sums involved get bigger and bigger. The Cult of We, well-written and detailed as it is, is so tiring. I think the next business biography I read may have to be focused on vigilance, probity and healthy scepticism.
Thanks to HarperCollins for the review copy.