The most remarkable fact about WeWork is not that a hyped-up twist on a business as old as office-leasing ended up imploding; it is that Adam Neumann, its messianic co-founder, convinced so many people for so long that his unoriginal, lossmaking start-up could change the world — and the laws of corporate valuation.
Before the near-collapse that cost the Israeli entrepreneur his job, turned his motivational T-shirts into Halloween costumes and brought his business within weeks of running out of cash, Neumann had managed to raise more than $10bn at valuations peaking at $47bn.
To believers, he was the model of a visionary founder: a hyperactive, hustling immigrant disrupting one of the world’s largest asset classes, convincing followers that they were rethinking work itself by paying him over the odds for tiny workspaces.
A WeWork building — with its meditation rooms, pool tables, vegan food stalls and aroma of small-batch coffees — could make insecure freelancers feel like they were on a Google campus. Neumann had captured a moment where the gig economy sounded like freedom, where Silicon Valley seemed more cool than creepy and thousands laid off in the financial crisis were starting afresh.
Benchmark Capital, the venture capitalist veteran that funded eBay and Instagram, bought what Neumann was selling, as did Harvard’s endowment, Fidelity and Alibaba’s Jack Ma. Most importantly, of course, there was Masayoshi Son, the Saudi-funded SoftBank boss who liked to throw more cash at founders than they had asked for and then berate them for not thinking big enough.
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