VOD film review: WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn
James R | On 14, Aug 2021
Director: Jed Rothstein
Cast: Adam Neumann, Rebeka Paltrow Neumann
Where to watch WeWork online in the UK: Sky Documentaries / NOW / Curzon Home Cinema / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Virgin Movies / Google Play / Sky Store / Dogwoof On Demand
When is a technology company not a technology company? When does a start-up become a cult? And when, exactly, did everyone start believing in the self-prophesied success of WeWork, a company valued at $47 billion one day and the next bordering on bankruptcy? The answer to all of these outlandish questions lies in the curious figure of Adam Neumann, the co-founder of WeWork who swiftly positioned himself as the company’s sole face.
Adam is a man in possession of great height, even greater self-confidence and, greater still, the apparent ability to convince investors that his idea was a money-making goldmine. It was – but not for them. Founded in 2010, WeWork wasn’t the first co-working venture to spring up, but it was certainly one of the most ambitious. It started with the basic idea of leasing out office blocks and converting them into lots of tiny offices to rent out to smaller companies on a monthly basis. They got the flexibility of contract-free office space, plus some perks such as football tables, vending machines and breakout areas – and WeWork got the opportunity to proclaim itself as the future of the working world.
Except Neumann didn’t stop at those business fundamentals. He went on to expand this community-centric ideal into a way of life – a philosophy that led to extravagant 72-hour corporate events (described as “Fyre festival gone right”), communal living spaces that kept employees in the We-bubble, an educational programme titled WeGrow, and even Neumann selling the rights to the word “We”. That blue-sky thinking included a company brochure that talked about “the energy of we – greater than any one of us but inside each of us”, a philosophy encouraged by Rebekah Paltrow Neumann, Adam’s wife, who became the “chief brand and impact officer” for the firm.
Underpinning it all was the insistence that the company was a technology firm, rather than a traditional real estate company, which was enough to cloud the thinking of a multi-billionaire Japanese banker, among others. That ultimately resulted a high-profile, embarrassing IPO, which revealed the company’s extraordinary valuation to be built on little more than vapes and mirrors.
Director Jed Rothstein chronicles this fascinating tale with the expected mix of wry commentary and confessions of gullibility from former employees, customers and partners. There isn’t much in terms of forensic analysis here, but what Rothstein instead weaves is a cultural portrait – the latest in a long line of cautionary tales about excessive capitalism, this time for the digital age.
It’s a handsomely filmed snapshot of ego and hubris, but also a shrewdly observed account of how the gig economy mindset drilled into a generation of freelancers and start-ups leaves people open to exploitation and deception. One superbly edited montage relays the countless clients who each think that they could be the next Jeff Bezos – a critical mass of ambition and hype that fuels the venture capitalist mindset, which propelled Neumann’s initial success but also prompted his downfall. “If you tell a 30-something male that he’s Jesus Christ, he’s inclined to believe you,” one interviewee remarks.
WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn is available on Sky Documentaries. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, for £9.99 a month with no contract. For the latest Sky TV packages and prices, click the button below.