WeWork can’t seem to get out from under Adam Neumann’s shadow. The former CEO with unkempt hair and “messianic” charisma may have stepped down in 2019, but that hasn’t created enough disassociation between the company and the man who crashed it into near-bankruptcy. WeWork tried to rebuild its battered image by reverting to its original name from “The We Company,” but that’s only shown to have backfired as it continues to be lumped in with Neumann’s infamy. Between the books, the Hulu documentary that debuted last spring, and the upcoming miniseries WeCrashed (based on a ten-episode podcast of the same name), Neumann and WeWork have become inseparable in the cultural zeitgeist. Neumann’s social capital hinges on his reputation as WeWork’s eccentric co-founder, even though it ultimately led to the company’s implosion. As long as Neumann retains any cultural relevance (which he will for the foreseeable future), WeWork will always be known as a deluded man’s pet project instead of a commercial real estate company that offers shared workspaces for startups and freelancers. If WeWork wants to shed its reputation as a startup cautionary tale and get serious about its business, it’s long overdue for a full rebrand.
For many years, the company’s aggressive expansion and cultural hype, driven by Neumann’s overblown vision and erratic metrics, drew a lot of attention and curiosity, which ultimately generated a lot of interest in the company’s mission and operating methods. At that time, WeWork was understood as a high-risk arbitrage play: the company would lease a building (many of which Neumann himself owned) long-term at a low rate, then it would create a swanky workspace and charge people to work there. The spaces themselves were often chicly designed to strike a creative tone, branching from the boring “normal” workspace so much that the phrase “I want my space to look like a WeWork” became a popular request for office designers. But in reality, they were a bohemian decor siren song for startup entrepreneurs and dot-com freelancers.
Neumann also sang the praises of “We” to twist the definition of “community” in order to inspire his already-overworked staff to keep at the grind and convince investors to continue emptying their pockets. Because of that, “WeWork” and “cult” became synonymous. Comparisons between the two warranted a cheeky eye-roll at the height of WeWork’s popularity, but it wasn’t until they chose to go public that some of the skeletons in the closet began to surface.
After WeWork’s aborted IPO under Neumann, Neumann
was kicked out decided to step down as CEO. Sandeep Mathrani, the former CEO of General Group Properties as well as the retail group of their parent company Brookfield Property Partners, was ushered in to salvage WeWork and pilot it forward. Under Mathrani, WeWork cut $400 million in operational expenses and over a billion dollars in overhead costs, which resulted in a $1.6 billion increase in free cash flow. Mathrani also closed 106 locations and renegotiated 100 leases, saving WeWork around $4 billion in future lease payments. By the end of 2019, it seemed that WeWork had gotten its bearings, just in time for the pandemic to hit and change the way people worked.
The demand for flexible office space during the pandemic gave WeWork the capital to “reinvent” itself… to a point. WeWork still promoted their snazzily-designed shared workspaces, but they also took a few steps to adapt. The 2020 drop in membership caused by COVID-19 prompted WeWork to realize that its membership-only model was no longer viable. As a result, it tried to make its buildings more accessible to the public by introducing new On-Demand and All Access alternatives. The idea was to provide a venue for folks who were tired of working from home, say one day a week, to work in an office. The company also launched the ability to book space on weekends or off-hours.
There hasn’t been much of an attempt for the company to make itself over beyond that. In fact, WeWork’s mission statement still hits the “community” note hard, the very motif that Neumann rhapsodized over in a cult-like fashion. Because of that, there are traces of Neumann (and therefore WeWork’s embarrassment) still ingrained in WeWork. Unless the company rebrands, its association with Neumann won’t go away, especially because of a rising trend in entertainment.
The elephant ego in the room
From Harold Hill in The Music Man to Roy Waller in Matchstick Men, American audiences have traditionally had a soft spot for con artists. The slick smooth-talker that can sell you on a dream became, as James Surowiecki of The New Yorker put it, “the classic American antihero.” However, the “confidence man” is the exact same character as the entrepreneurial Icarus, which is probably why Hollywood has become obsessed with disgraced startup moguls as of late. Movies and TV shows about charismatic company leaders who were deluded on their own buzzword salad have shown to be popular in the last few years, so much so that the genre is beginning to dominate streaming services. In the next two months alone, shows about chaotic CEOs like Travis Kalanick of Uber, Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, and, of course, Adam Neumann of WeWork will premiere.
It’s possible that WeWork thinks any publicity or potential scrutiny from WeCrashed could blow over quickly—after all, the show will only be six episodes long and old news in a matter of months. However, that’s not likely to be the case. Again, Americans love con man narratives, and the startup snake-oil salesman is the modern version of that character archetype. “Far from despising [con] artists as parasites or worse, American popular culture habitually celebrates rascals as comedic figures,” wrote University of Pennsylvania historian Walter McDougall.
It’s incredibly unlikely that WeCrashed will be the only dramatic re-telling of how WeWork crashed into financial ruin because of Neumann’s hubris. Remember Elizabeth Holmes? The disgraced Theranos founder who was found guilty on 11 charges of fraud and conspiracy? She’s the subject of a Hulu series starring Amanda Seyfried and a feature film starring Jennifer Lawrence. It’s not a stretch to believe that another project involving WeWorks’ meteoric rise and fall will be in development soon, especially because Neumann’s identical likeness to actor Ben Barnes has been pointed out multiple times on social media. As much as WeWork would like to believe that they are no longer Neumann’s company, the echo chamber will ensure otherwise.
Even though Neumann officially stepped away (with a hefty $445 million severance package in tow), WeWork is still grappling with the cluttered psychological makeup that Neumann gave it. Despite Mathrani’s best efforts to refocus WeWork, it’ll still be known as a real-estate-startup-disguised-as-a-tech-startup-disguised-as-an-egomaniac’s-vision, and Adam Neumann isn’t going away. Though time may heal all wounds, it’s difficult when that wound is an embarrassing reputation that can’t easily be forgotten because the person responsible for that reputation keeps popping up in the limelight. Then again, maybe that’s the point. Perhaps the lack of any significant rebranding while their former CEO relies on his martyrdom for social currency is how WeWork subsequently gets free advertising. Every time Neumann shows up in the news and cinematic re-tellings, WeWork becomes more of a household name, in spite of the connotation.