Nathan Abrams reviews a remarkable book about the spectacular rise and fall of the co-working start-up WeWork and its Jewish founder, Adam Neumann.
In 2005, software engineer Brad Neuberg coined the term ‘co-working’. He wanted to find a balance between the grind of office life and the solitude of freelancing but without having to fight for a seat and plug socket at the local coffee shop. He envisaged a blend between an anarchist and an Enlightenment coffeehouse where ideas and news could be exchanged. Not long thereafter, shared coworking spaces with a DIY aesthetic began popping up in major US cities where freelancers – armed only with their laptop – could rent desks.
Tapping into the co-working trend, WeWork rose from nothing to become a multibillion-dollar company in half a decade. At its height, WeWork operated in some thirty countries with 400 locations dotted around six continents. It became the largest office tenant in New York City, and second in London only to the UK Government. Its revenue doubled, give or take, annually over a decade, and it raised over $11 billion of investment capital.
What made WeWork so special?
It certainly wasn’t the cheapest office space in Manhattan. Its USP was simple: it leased space, divided it up and then rented out each segment with a premium for hip design, flexibility, and regular happy hours. The company exploited a desire, especially strong among younger office workers, for a vibrant experience more fun, fulfilling and fresher than their parents’ cubicles had offered. Millennial workers were increasingly disillusioned by corporate America and looking for physical connection in the digital age. ‘The company promised community to post-recession millennials entering the workforce with Obama-era ideals—Yes, we can’, writes Reeves Wiedeman, author of Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork.
WeWork offered thoughtful design, flexible terms, and a sense of community with a proximity to other professionals. With its exposed brick and creaky hundred-year-old floorboards, its spaces felt less like an office and more like a boutique hotel. Wiedeman describes it as ‘aesthetic kitty litter for a newly displaced workforce skeptical of artifice and craving authenticity.’ In the kitchen one might find a canopy draped with hanging plants, beneath which several water coolers are stuffed with a rotating orchard of fruit—watermelon, pineapple, cantaloupe—and a dozen taps serving beer, cider, cold brew, seltzer, Merlot, Pinot Grigio, and kombuchas alongside fridges stocked with other fancy snacks. In the foyer there would be couches and low-slung lounge chairs upholstered in bright primary colours, table football and bumper-pool tables.
But it offered something more. ‘WeWork was at the leading edge of a growing movement among American companies to commingle spirituality and mindfulness with the pursuit of profit’.
Neumann had built the perfect business for the 2010s: filling acres of vacated real estate with armies of newly minted freelancers, then convincing big companies that they wanted in on this communitarian spirit while embracing the glut of global capital that allowed anyone with a dream and some guts to make a go at building a behemoth.
A Start-Up Rock Star
Adam Neumann, a ‘start-up rock star’, was WeWork’s founder and CEO. One former employee described him as ‘He’s one-quarter crazy, one-quarter brilliant, and the other half is a fight between his ego and genuinely caring for people.’ He was equal parts charismatic, convincing, energetic, eccentric and erratic. He was WeWork’s USP. Everything revolved around him. He was its greatest asset but also its greatest liability.
To many, Adam was ‘a millennial prophet for a new way of working and living, brushing back his flowing dark hair as he dispensed koans and made bombastic proclamations that somehow came true.’ One of his mantras was: ‘The past ten years was the decade of “I”. This decade is the decade of “We”’. When he spoke at videoconferences, the effect on the audience was described as ‘very much like the big 1984 head was up on a screen with a bunch of people blindly ogling at this messianic message’. Adam often gave rousing speeches at work as his employees grovelled over their boss ‘as if they were disciples pledging fealty to a fiery preacher.’ A cult of personality enveloped him.
At over six feet, Adam was a striking figure. People literally had to look up to him. His hair flowed down to his shoulders; he was brash and kinetic, growing taller as he spoke. He was the kind of person you found a reason to keep talking to. He also ‘mixed spirituality and business more intimately than any other entrepreneur, at a time when the line separating the two became especially blurry, and the world was embracing a new generation of messianic start-up founders who emerged in the wake of Steve Jobs’s death, in 2011’. Millennials wanted to work for Adam, he had created a ‘capitalist cult’.
How did Neumann go from Israeli naval academy graduate, to college dropout and immigrant on the verge of deportation, to one of the world’s wealthiest billion-dollar entrepreneurs? And from there to walking the streets of New York barefoot while trying to maintain control of his company in the middle of what the author describes as ‘the most humiliating attempt at a public offering in American business history?’
That is the story of this remarkable book. And the answer is a ‘mix of grit, luck, charm, ruthlessness, impeccable timing, and chutzpah’ – and Kabbalah.
Adam’s great-grandfather had emigrated from Poland to Israel in 1934. His ten brothers and sisters were murdered in the Holocaust. Neumann was born in 1979, in Beersheba, southern Israel, where he grew up. He found his hometown so unremarkable that, years later, when WeWork employees suggested the company open one of its offices there, he resisted on the grounds that it was ‘a dump.’
He was the son of an oncologist and ophthalmologist who led an unsettled nomadic lifestyle. Neumann was an indifferent student and dyslexic, but nobody noticed because, in a sign of his future career, he was proficient at ‘fooling his teachers and coaxing others to do what he needed.’
Neumann spent time on a kibbutz as a teenager and this had a fundamental influence on his concept of WeWork. He referred to it a ‘a capitalist kibbutz’: ‘On the one hand, community. On the other hand, you eat what you kill.’ Like a kibbutz, he built his back-office staff from his friends and family. He even paid for his friends to fly from Israel for a holiday only to put them to work when they arrived.
After high school, Neumann enrolled in the Israeli Naval Academy officer training programme. He graduated and served on a missile boat stationed at Haifa. He later told employees that he had applied for submarine duty (despite his height) and that he had been in command of a warship in the Persian Gulf. One wonders what he learned in officer school and whether it influenced his later career.
Moving to New York, he studied entrepreneurship at Baruch College in Manhattan. His initial idea was high-heeled women’s shoes that transformed into flats. Then it was ‘Krawlers’, baby clothes with knee pads. One of his early investors in Krawlers was Nathaniel Rothschild, an heir to his family’s fortune who was also a partner at a hedge fund, whom his sister had started dating.
It was when he met and married aspiring actor Rebekah Paltrow (cousin of Gwyneth in whose shadow she lived up until she met Adam) in 2008 that he decided he wanted something more. In February 2010, WeWork opened with seventeen tenants. Rebekah invested her $1m nest egg into the company. Within six years Adam and Rebekah were billionaires.
At Rebekah’s behest, Adam became increasingly religious. Before meeting her, he had never practiced much Judaism. Growing up in Israel, the Neumann family didn’t observe Shabbat or the Jewish festivals. Judaism mostly got in the way (they couldn’t go to the beach on Saturdays because there was no public transport). When he moved to New York, he joined the SoHo Synagogue, but this seemed to be more for networking than spiritual reasons as its aim was to become ‘the world’s first-ever lounge-themed sanctuary’ by catering to a young and hip crowd. The synagogue augured what Adam would do with WeWork.
For her part, Rebekah’s great-great-great-grandfather was a Polish rabbi named Paltrowicz who studied Kabbalah and was said to possess mystical powers (when a fire erupted outside his Polish town, he supposedly walked onto a balcony, waved a handkerchief, and extinguished the flames).
Following in his footsteps, the Neumanns embraced Jewish mysticism as they began taking classes at the Kabbalah Center in Manhattan. Kabbalah offered structure, meaning, a sense of purpose, and a way of seeing the world for Adam who began wearing a red string bracelet. Changing, or adding to, his kibbutz story, he even claimed that Kabbalah had inspired WeWork.
Kabbalah did play a direct role at WeWork, as Adam turned more toward religion. ‘I noticed that in the Kabbalah community, people were really helping each other,’ he said. ‘I wanted to translate that into business.’ The language and teachings – especially talk of ‘energy’ – of the Kabbalah Center began to seep into the everyday life at the company.
Adam often consulted with Eitan Yardeni, the rabbi from the Kabbalah Centre about business decisions. He encouraged his employees to take Kabbalah classes and held regular meetings with Yardeni at WeWork headquarters that senior employees were urged to attend. Yardeni even addressed WeWork’s employees at the company’s first annual Summit wintertime retreat in 2015.
More practically, through the Center, Adam was elevated into a new caste of wealthy Manhattanites who became WeWork’s initial financial supporters. The way that the Bergs ran the Center was also an instruction manual on how to successfully manage an organization with devoted adherents. One WeWork executive explained ‘Through Kabbalah, Adam became like a prophet. It was like putting a basketball in Michael Jordan’s hands’.
On the advice of one of his investors, Adam stopped describing Kabbalah as the inspiration for WeWork as it wasn’t marketable (‘Wear your bracelet if you want, just don’t talk about it’). But he still described the company’s appeal as stemming from an ephemeral ‘energy’ in the air. ‘It can’t exactly be touched,’ he said. ‘It’s a feeling.’
At a keynote address at a Wall Street fundraiser for a Jewish charity, Adam wore a kippah and talked about how ‘if each one of us allowed ourselves to be our fullest, there would be no stopping us, there would be peace in the world, and Moshiach would be here’.
Sex, Drugs and WeWork ‘n’ Roll
‘Drinking and partying were ingrained in WeWork’s culture from the beginning’, writes Weideman, ‘with Neumann serving as partyer in chief’. There was a raucous atmosphere with constant celebrations, speechifying, alcohol and loud, thumping music. Adam would strut around his empire’s headquarters (fittingly located in the Empire State building) offering shares and a tequila shot to anyone working late on a weeknight.
As the company grew and became more successful, the parties became more lavish and elaborate. As did the antics. During one meeting with potential investors, Adam violated safety regulations by taking them up to the roof of his building, necking tequila shots and spraying them with a fire extinguisher. Bizarrely, he sealed the deal. But such pranks were not unusual and were overlooked by the company’s backers so long as his charm also continued to push WeWork’s fortunes higher.
How did this tally with the spiritualism and energy of Kabbalah one wonders? It’s not a question the author answers. In fact, at one point, he describes Adam as ‘devoutly religious’ which seems at odds with his work life behaviour. Ultimately, the Neumanns drifted away from the Kabbalah Center; Adam – never one to acknowledge irony – even reportedly called it a cult.
As WeWork expanded, Adam’s ego – which was never small to begin with – ballooned with it. But it was getting out of hand. When Adam reprimanded his employees’ slack attire, for example, they pointed to the T-shirt and jeans he wore to work. He responded, ‘This is different than the T-shirts you wear. I look like someone people want to be.’
On the advice of another rabbi, Adam began to keep the shabbat, but this only went so far to check his ego. He began to dream up a range of hairbrained schemes, practically putting the word We before any verb he could think of: WeLive, WeBike, WeEat, WeLearn. He even considered a WeWork fragrance and energy drink.
You Don’t Mess with the Neumann(s)
The story of WeWork is peppered with a supporting cast of Jews and Israelis that makes You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (to which this story pays more than a passing resemblance) look goyish, as Adam populated WeWork’s senior ranks with friends and family. ‘He had surrounded himself with friends and family since the company’s early days: childhood buddies, navy pals, friends from Kabbalah, not to mention his wife, sister, multiple in-laws, and two nephews.’ Nepotism or, perhaps more accurately protekzia, ruled.
His brother-in-law was the company’s COO; his cousin-in-law was its head of real estate; his navy friend was its first CFO. His wife Rebekah herself had worked as chief branding officer. Adam openly admitted he preferred to hire Israelis where possible. In meetings, he often switched to Hebrew when he wanted to convey something to the Israelis in the room; one WeWork executive joked about buying Rosetta Stone for his team.
Adam met Jared Kushner as a boyish New York landlord in the early 2010s and they became friends. Shortly after Trump became president, Kushner invited Adam to the White House, even though this contradicted WeWork’s determined political neutrality. Adam quietly made the trip and refused to take a stand on the Muslim travel ban.
Other Jews who crop up include Jamie Hodari, the founder of a WeWork rival called Industrious; Gil Haklay, an Israeli architect; Andrew Finkelstein, a Hollywood agent who later represented Denzel Washington and Lin-Manuel Miranda, had introduced him to Rebekah; Hasidic real estate developer, Joel Schreiber, who helped to get him set up; Danny Orenstein, WeWork’s third employee; Zvika Shachar, a high school friend from Kfar Saba who worked at a Sushi Samba; Ariel Tiger had graduated at the top of their class at the Israeli Naval Academy a friend from the navy; Eitan Yardeni, his rabbi at the Kabbalah Centre; Cheni Yerushalmi, an Israeli entrepreneur running an office-space company; Sam Ben-Avraham, the founder of Kith, the hip clothing empire; Rebekah’s cousin Mark Lapidus, who worked in real estate; Marc Schimmel, a real estate developer Adam knew from the Kabbalah Center; Michael Eisenberg, a partner at Benchmark venture capital; Roee Adler, the chief product officer at a start-up based in Tel Aviv; Marc Schimmel, one of WeWork’s Kabbalah Centre investors; Shlomo Silber, who ran a coworking space called Bond Collective; Elie Tahari, a fashion designer he knew from the Kabbalah Centre; Arik Benzino, a WeWork executive who knew the Neumanns from Israel; Ilan Stern, who managed Adam’s family investment office.
A ‘Capitalist Kibbutz’
The kibbutz-inspired ideals behind WeWork only went so far. It was definitely more capitalist than collectivist. As Adam became more adept at squeezing workers into ever-smaller spaces, his personal office kept getting bigger and bigger, more garish and gauche. At various points, he had installed a punching bag, a gong, a bar, a Peloton bike, a private bathroom with an infrared sauna and a cold-plunge tub. So much for the ethos of a kibbutz.
Meanwhile, the Neumanns’ personal investment portfolio also grew. They now had three homes in addition their house in the Hamptons to their West Village townhouse. Adam cashed stocks in to fund their increasingly lavish lifestyle. At the end of 2017, Adam and Rebekah spent $35 million to buy four apartments in a single Gramercy building, combining three of the units into a mega penthouse. Adam bought homes for his sister and grandmother, paying them back for the rent and tuition they had covered during his early years in New York. They then had the chutzpah to talk about their embrace of the sharing economy and lack of interest in material wealth. ‘We believe in this new “asset-light lifestyle”’, Rebekah told one interviewer.
In fact, Adam’s progressive communitarian rhetoric belied the same hardnosed business tactics as any shyster New York landlord. WeWork underpaid its employees. Many forgave the low pay and lousy benefits because of their initial exhilaration. The free booze on tap – but which has since been ended — also helped. (‘Excited’ was an overused word at WeWork.) Eventually, though, most refused to drink the Kool Aid and left after eighteen months, physically exhausted, psychologically scarred, disillusioned and pushed over the edge by another one of Adam’s crazy decisions (at one point he banned meat at all company locations). By the end of 2018, fifty percent of WeWork’s ten thousand employees had been there for less than six months. Those who broke ranks were tossed out, discarded. ‘Many employees began to see WeWork less as a company than a cult… Many of those who left described their departure as if they had escaped Jonestown or Waco.’ No matter, though, as ‘Adam’s preaching attracted a constant influx of fresh devotees who kept the machine running.’ The image of the meat grinder in Pink Floyd’s The Wall looms large. ‘From a business perspective,’ one HR executive told Weideman, ‘the cult is working.’
WeWork also avoided unionized labour in order to keep costs low and allow construction to operate around the clock. Consequently, some of the work was so shoddy it recalled the movie Office Space. While the Neumann family grew to four children, many of his employees toiled for such long hours that this was not an option for them. They regularly worked sixty-hour weeks or more and were chastised for leaving at 6:30 p.m. The corporate culture was sexist. There was a lack of senior and executive female employees. Candidates were asked if they planned on getting pregnant.
Full of Shit
Adam presented himself ‘as a prophet for a beneficent workplace revolution’ in public but was, in private, a ‘hard-nosed real estate tycoon’. By 2017, he was becoming more aggressive, playing hardball, approaching business with a warlike attitude and siege mentality, threatening to obliterate or purchase virtually every one of his competitors which he sought to do through poaching tenants and/or filing lawsuits. For a coworking entrepreneur, he didn’t want to co-work, instead rapaciously acquiring any potential partner. He ‘was far from the only eccentric rogue’ in the dirty game of real estate, writes Wiedemann. Nor were ‘his tactics were especially dastardly’. The problem with Adam was that ‘he was pretending to be something he wasn’t’.
Following his election as president in 2016, Donald Trump provided the ideal role model to feed Adam’s expanding ego. ‘His friend’s father-in-law had become the most powerful person in the world through a mix of chutzpah, bluster, and a willingness to pander to his audience’ and Adam began to run WeWork with ‘a Trumpian hubris’.
Like his role model, Adam wasn’t averse to ethically dubious practices. This included collecting rent from his own company when he leased space to WeWork in buildings he owned. The sums were in the millions.
Lightening rapid expansion and spending went unchecked, often without any revenue to balance it. The company was losing $90m annually and staff were being laid off as a result. In 2018, the losses totalled $2 billion alone. Problems weren’t solved, instead they intensified. Adam was advised to slow down not least by Howard Schultz, the former CEO of Starbucks. Investors grew worried. Adam’s response? ‘Fuck that’.
Adam’s eccentricities were tolerated as long as he made money. ‘Everyone around Adam had been too afraid to challenge him, or had chosen to enable his ambitions so long as the company and the value of their stake in it went up and up.’ Now he was becoming a liability. His earliest investors turned on him and forced him to resign. His departure was not mourned because he ‘had managed to upset practically every person at WeWork, from his executive team down to the new community manager in Johannesburg he never got to meet. In a matter of six weeks, Adam’s bluster, antics, and delusions of grandeur had been revealed as both the reason why he was able to persuade investors and employees that, just maybe, this office-space company could change the world—and the primary reason why things fell apart.’
In December 2019, Adam returned home to Israel where he was greeted as a hero, the local boy made good.
Meanwhile, the accountants went through the books in October 2020, and calculated that, without any new funding, WeWork would run out of money before Thanksgiving. Assets were sold and employees laid off as the dream unravelled. Some jobs were saved simply because WeWork couldn’t afford the severance payments.
At one point in the book, Weideman writes, ‘It was hard to figure out what was real… a perpetual problem at WeWork’. On their first date, Rebekah told Adam, ‘You, my friend, are full of shit. Every single word that comes out of your mouth is fake.’
It seems she was right all along.
Billion Dollar Loser: The Epic Rise and Spectacular Fall of Adam Neumann and WeWork by Reeves Wiedeman is published by Hodder & Stoughton.