Book of the week: The Cult of We by Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell

Two Wall Street Journal scribes chart the downfall of WeWork’s ‘messiah’

WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann
WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017
(Image credit: Noam Galai/Getty Images for TechCrunch)

When Adam Neumann got on a private jet, the crew “would often be in for a rough ride”, said Tom Knowles in The Times. His friends would down shots, spit tequila at each other and throw up. On one occasion there was “so much marijuana smoke in the cabin that the crew were forced to pull out the jet’s oxygen masks and put them on”.

Neumann isn’t a rock star or a Hollywood actor. “He was the boss of a company that provided office space on flexible leases in trendy-looking buildings.” Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell’s “fascinating and highly entertaining” new book is “packed with marmalade-dropper stories” like this about Neumann and his mismanagement of WeWork, a shared office space company that many investors mistook for the “new Apple”.

WeWork was going to transform the way we work, “just as Airbnb has revolutionised the way we travel”, said John Arlidge in The Sunday Times. Instead of leasing “sterile office blocks” for long periods, companies would use Neumann’s platform to rent desks on short leases in fashionable offices, with free coffee, beer and yoga classes thrown in. “There were a few problems: first, Neumann’s business plan was hopelessly flawed; second, he was too greedy for his own or his firm’s good; and, third, he was bonkers.”

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Neumann had a “messiah complex”. He stated that his firm’s mission was “to elevate the world’s consciousness”, and that its overblown valuation was “much more based on our energy and spirituality than a multiple of revenue”. He also “flat-out lied”, claiming the business had 30% profit margins when the real figure was less than 10%.

Eventually, as preparations were made to float WeWork on the stock market, it all came crashing down, and Neumann was pushed out by the board of directors. Brown and Farrell, who work at The Wall Street Journal, are “meticulous” rather than flashy, and “the book will appeal to business readers rather than regular folk. There aren’t many jokes. But their attention to detail is second to none.”

They can be funny, in a wry and understated way, said Katherine Rosman in The New York Times. Neumann “scoffed” at suggestions that he hire an experienced executive to advise him, as Mark Zuckerberg had by hiring Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook. He repeatedly told lieutenants, “I am both Mark and Sheryl.” As Brown and Farrell point out: “he wasn’t.” They tell this amazing story well, of how the business world fell hook, line and sinker for Neumann’s supposedly revolutionary new idea: “office space”.

Mudlark 464pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99

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