The Sun Sets on We

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Ben Gabbe/Getty Images; Ruhani Kaur/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On August 23, the head of U.S. marketing for WeWork emailed several of her colleagues to deliver some bad news. She’d met with Google representatives the day before to go over WeWork’s planned spending on advertising and received a distressing report. Google had examined its all-seeing index of the internet, crunched the data, and found what the marketing executive described as “the most alarming negative sentiment trends they have seen compared to prior companies in similar situations.” In this “very challenging” environment, any attempt at buying ads to divert users away from the rapidly growing mass of articles, podcasts, and Tweets critiquing the company would “blow through our weekly paid search budget in a few hours.”

In other words: People did not like WeWork, its business model, or its leadership, and they were not shy about saying so. The head of marketing offered a note of condolence to the company’s chief spokesperson, acknowledging that, at this point in WeWork’s nine-year, largely upward trajectory, good news was suddenly hard to come by. The problem was that this particular moment was also just weeks before WeWork planned to ask the public to invest in its company in an initial public offering. WeWork had recently filed paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission describing its business — a flexible office provider with a stated mission to “elevate the world’s consciousness” and $1.6 billion in losses last year — and had almost immediately become a punching bag at which seemingly anyone felt free to throw a jab. (A day before the Google meeting, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang had declared WeWork’s $47 billion valuation “utterly ridiculous.”) The looming IPO brought the oddities of the company into wider public view for the first time, and, if Google’s results were any indication, the public — investors, journalists, rubberneckers, and presidential candidates alike — did not like what it saw.

As it turned out, the pessimism was prophetic. In the month since that email, WeWork has seen its theoretical value decline by more than $30 billion and lost its bombastic co-founder and CEO, Adam Neumann, in a hostile ouster led by the investors who had propped up his ambitions for years. This morning, WeWork announced it would be postponing its IPO indefinitely. In a matter of weeks, one of the world’s most highly valued private companies, a global emblem of the modern wave of venture-backed unicorns, had become a cautionary tale.

In the middle of April, Adam Neumann boarded a $60 million Gulfstream jet the company had bought the previous year, at his urging. Neumann was off to the Dominican Republic for a week, followed by two more weeks in the Maldives, to celebrate his 40th birthday. He was joined by his wife, Rebekah, who was also WeWork’s chief brand officer, their five children, and 20 or so family and friends, renting out a resort in the Maldives with a yacht anchored offshore for Neumann, an avid surfer. The vacation was both a birthday party and an extended period of relaxation before a consciousness elevation the likes of which even WeWork had never attempted. On April 29, with Neumann still spending a few final days in the middle of the Indian Ocean, WeWork announced that it had filed confidential paperwork in preparation for an IPO.

Neumann was eager to go public. “The numbers will speak for themselves,” he told me when I interviewed him in his office in April, just before his vacation. WeWork was on an Amazon-like trajectory, he said — “Think of the stage that we’re in as the books for Amazon” — and he projected future annual revenues of $100 billion. (Amazon had revenue of $232 billion last year.) “We have so many numbers we can’t really share,” he said, looking forward to the moment his books would be public. “I’m excited to show to people that when you do what I said, it also works financially. I think it’s good to have a report card.”

The expectations had some justification. In a frenzied effort to secure the roughly $100 million in fees for representing WeWork’s IPO, the world’s biggest banks had fallen over themselves to convince Neumann they understood the grandiosity of his vision. Morgan Stanley told WeWork its valuation could hit $104 billion, Goldman Sachs estimated the high end at $96 billion, while JPMorgan said it might reach a more modest $63 billion, according to the Financial Times. Any of those numbers would have lavishly rewarded WeWork’s investors, covered down payments on apartments near company headquarters in Chelsea for many of its 12,500 employees, and instantly made Neumann one of the world’s wealthiest people.

After Neumann returned from his trip in early May, WeWork began charging toward an ambitious goal of going public before the end of July. There were several reasons for haste, including a suggestion by Artie Minson, the company’s then–chief financial officer, that it would be ideal to go public before the loquacious Neumann spent a summer saying things he shouldn’t to bankers and investors in the Hamptons, where the Neumanns have two homes. But the July goal was even more ambitious than the bankers’ valuation projections. In May, employees from a marketing firm that helps companies prepare for IPOs met with a group of WeWork employees and were shocked to learn about their proposed timeline. “They were basically like, ‘That’s impossible,’” an employee aware of the discussion said. “It says everything about WeWork that the response from the top was, If you can’t do this the WeWork way, we’ll go somewhere else.

Speed had been a hallmark of WeWork’s rapid growth, and the company rushed to begin work on “Wingspan,” the code name attached to its S-1, the key document companies submit to the SEC before going public. “There was this moment when all of a sudden there were code names for everything,” one employee said. “Everything was need-to-know.” When SoftBank, the Japanese investor that had poured more than $10 billion into WeWork, was considering another massive investment late last year that ultimately fell through, the project’s WeWork code name was “Fortitude.” A campaign this summer was called “Stark,” and employees debated whether it was a reference to the doomed family from Game of Thrones, or Iron Man. (Neumann is a fan of both franchises.)

An S-1 is meant to be a bland financial document, but WeWork’s took a different direction. With Adam’s encouragement, Rebekah became unusually involved in the artistic presentation of the document. “The traditional approach to producing an S-1 is bankers and lawyers hashing this out, but the process was continually usurped by Rebekah’s involvement,” one executive said, echoing a sentiment expressed by multiple people who worked on the project. “She treated it like it was the September issue of Vogue.” WeWork had hired a former director of photography at Vanity Fair, and Rebekah insisted on selecting the photographers chosen to take photos of WeWork offices and members, and approved every photo that appeared in the S-1, of which WeWork included many more than most companies that go public. (She wasn’t the only picky one: Adam Kimmel, the company’s chief creative officer, became unhappy with how the company’s offices looked in its official pictures, so new photographers were sent around the world to reshoot them.) As the summer wore on, WeWork employees found themselves making so many trips to meet with Rebekah at the Neumanns’ home in Amagansett that “He’s ‘out east’ tomorrow” became a euphemism for describing a colleague spending their day driving to and from the Hamptons. “The thing that’s so damning about all that is that it’s just not the point of the document,” a person who worked on the project said. “That’s the thing about WeWork: You’re spending all this time working on the surface of it instead of the actual truth of the thing.”

The fast-paced process was marked by the organizational chaos that had always come with WeWork’s rapid growth. “Every week was an emergency,” one employee said. To meet its deadline, the S-1 document needed to be done by the second week of July, but the company blew past various deadlines, and by June it already had pushed back the date to August. WeWork hired Alexei Hay, a fashion photographer and Adam Kimmel’s step-brother, to take headshots of various executives, but Neumann and other executives neglected to show up. (“One of the only people who actually came was Miguel,” one employee said, referring to Miguel McKelvey, Neumann’s co-founder, who was otherwise largely absent during the IPO process.)

There were also fewer and fewer executives to photograph. Turnover has always been a problem at the company, and over the course of the year, WeWork had lost a shocking number of senior employees, including its chief growth, security, and brand officers, along with its head of corporate communications and the head of curriculum for WeGrow, the company’s $42,000-a-year elementary school in its Chelsea headquarters, among many others. In June, a group of employees staged a sit-in protest on the main floor of WeWork headquarters after a popular manager was let go.

On the last day of July, with the S-1 document still in the works, the company held a three-hour “analyst day,” to pump up potential investors. For the event, WeWork licensed Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us” — “This is the moment / Tonight is the night / We’ll fight ’til it’s over” — as background music for a two-minute sizzle reel. Several analysts came up to Neumann after the presentation and asked him to take a photo with them. According to several people in the room, the event seemed to be a success, and the excitement gave everyone a jolt of confidence that, after a few hectic months, this might actually work.

On August 14, just after 7 a.m., WeWork’s S-1 was officially released. It immediately raised eyebrows. The word community appeared 150 times, outstripped only by Neumann’s name, which was in the document 169 times. The S-1 detailed the extent to which Neumann controlled his company, and had benefited personally from his position: he had bought buildings in which WeWork then took out leases, and received $5.9 million in exchange for selling a set of We-related trademarks to his own company. One clause called for Rebekah to name a successor in the event of Adam’s death. The entire thing was dedicated, in an epigram, “to the energy of We — greater than any one of us but inside each of us.”

The filing was a troubling sign for many who hoped that the strictures of an official IPO process would constrain some of WeWork’s eccentricities. “When I read it, my jaw dropped,” a WeWork executive who had worked on S-1s at other companies said. The executive took less issue with the New Age rhetoric, which everyone at the company had grown accustomed to, than with how poorly the document made the business case for the company. Within a few days, two WeWork competitors told me that landlords with WeWork locations in their buildings began reaching out to see if the competitors would be able to move into the spaces, just in case.

Neumann and other executives tried to boost the spirits of WeWork’s employees, many of whom were taken aback by the sudden mockery of a thing to which they had devoted many long hours over several years. During a call with senior employees two days after the S-1 release, Neumann told them not to worry: the haters were hating, but he insisted that money managers were still clamoring to get in on the deal. The following week, Jen Berrent, the company’s chief legal officer, gathered a group at headquarters for wine and cheese and relayed a story that she said came from a confidant of Adam’s, Eitan Yardeni, a rabbi at the Kabbalah Centre with whom WeWork executives occasionally had one-on-one sessions. The punishment for the serpent in the Garden of Eden, this parable went, was that it could only eat what fell in front of it. The message, according to one person in the room, was that true satisfaction could only come from overcoming adversity.

In that spirit, the company forged ahead, with a new goal of hitting the market in September. Neumann began hosting meetings with investors. “There could not be less excitement about this IPO,” an analyst at a large investment firm texted me shortly before attending Neumann’s presentation to his company. The numbers in the filing already made him skeptical, and after the meeting, he reported back that Neumann spoke for “97 percent” of the time, bristled at any probing questions, and said that he hoped the analysts had enjoyed reading the S-1, which WeWork had tried to make more enjoyable than others.

If the analysts had fun reading the document, it wasn’t because of the well-composed photos of WeWork members. Neumann could be charming, the analyst said, but he struggled to articulate what made WeWork’s business different enough from a company like IWG, which rents out bland but equally-flexible offices, to justify the distance between WeWork’s aspirational $47 billion valuation and the $3 billion valuation IWG has on the London Stock Exchange, where it has traded since 2000. The analyst noted that the WeWork water cups in the meeting were branded with the motto “Always Half Full,” which wasn’t the most optimistic slogan for a company running a business in which 50 percent occupancy would mean insolvency.

On September 4, with the IPO suddenly faltering, Neumann and McKelvey hosted an all-hands meeting at WeWork headquarters. McKelvey spoke first, remarking that it was amazing how many people knew about WeWork now, and encouraging employees to reconnect with the company’s “pure” intent of bringing people together. Neumann told the crowd that WeWork was being criticized “because we poked the bear,” meaning the disruption-resistant world of commercial real estate. The trademark debacle, he explained, was the result of “bad advice,” and he planned to give the money back. Apropos of very little, he announced that the company would no longer use furniture with leather as a material. Referring to concerns about his control of the company, Neumann said, “I rarely give away my power, and when I do, it’s to my wife,” who he said was “99 percent right,” according to multiple people who watched the speech. Neumann concluded with yet another moment of life coaching: “Change your inner self. Change the world.”

Employees appreciated that Neumann went through much of the investor presentation during the meeting, and some of them came away more hopeful. But a day later, the Wall Street Journal reported that WeWork might cut its IPO valuation from $47 billion to $20 billion. Neumann had quietly flown to Tokyo a week before to meet with Masayoshi Son, the CEO of SoftBank, who had been Neumann’s chief promoter, to discuss SoftBank injecting further capital into the company. (WeWork executives also made trips to London, Boston, and Toronto to drum up support.) But now various outlets were reporting that WeWork’s struggle was dividing executives at SoftBank, with some pushing to postpone the IPO. On September 10, Bloomberg reported that Fidelity, which bought a WeWork stake in 2015, had decided all the way back in March that WeWork was worth less than it thought, and pegged its shares to a valuation of just $18 billion. From there, the valuations floated in public kept shrinking: to $15 billion, $12 billion, and even $10 billion.

The very viability of the IPO was now in question, which had potentially catastrophic consequences even beyond the investors and employees now worried about their payoff. According to several reports, WeWork needed $8 to $9 billion to continue growing at its current rate, and was in danger of running out of cash as soon as next year if it couldn’t find more. WeWork had secured a $6 billion loan from several banks that would help it reach that amount, but the loans were structured such that, if the IPO did not raise at least $3 billion, the loan deal would be cancelled. Hoping to firm up support, the company announced that it would list its shares on Nasdaq and make several governance reforms.

WeWork entered the second weekend of September planning to launch its roadshow as early as the following Monday, and that weekend, various deals were considered to prop up the offering. To make sure the company raised the $3 billion it needed, one plan involved SoftBank buying $1 billion in shares, at a valuation of between $12-$15 billion, while Zoom, the teleconferencing company, would buy an additional $25 million, on top of whatever was sold in the public market, according to multiple people with knowledge of the discussion. (A portrait of Zoom’s CEO was among the photographs in the S-1, and at the September 4th meeting, Neumann said WeWork was talking with Zoom about using its software in WeWork locations around the world.) Zoom’s possible involvement wasn’t publicly disclosed, but a major SoftBank infusion was floated in the press, seemingly as a way to show the company’s confidence in WeWork.

On Sunday, Neumann finally sat down at WeWork headquarters to tape his appearance in the company’s road-show video, for which he had come up with the working title “The Sun Never Sets on We.” Neumann was supposed to finish his portion weeks earlier, as other executives had, but he’d missed three different scheduled video shoots — a spokesperson for Neumann said he had gotten delayed by investor meetings — which cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars. He spent much of the day working on his script and only began taping in the late afternoon. The shoot lasted nearly until midnight. When it was over, Neumann encouraged everyone to join him in taking a shot of tequila.

By that point, there was no way to have the video ready for a possible Monday road show, so WeWork pushed it back to at least Tuesday. But “The Sun Never Sets on We” would never be shown. That Monday, the day after his lengthy shoot, according to a person with knowledge of the discussions, Neumann met with various investors and advisers who told him there simply wasn’t enough support for the IPO at the moment. The move to float SoftBank’s additional investment had backfired, according to one analyst, who said investors began to wonder just how desperate the company was. That night, WeWork decided to delay the IPO until at least October.

The following day, as a viral photo spread showing an umbrella that had somehow fallen and jammed shut the sliding door of a WeWork office in Washington, D.C., the company held yet another all-hands meeting. (It had cancelled one the previous week amidst all the drama.) WeWork company meetings had long been more like tent revivals, with musical performances and chants and free-flowing alcohol. This time, employees were told to watch via Zoom teleconference. When the broadcast began, McKelvey, who is now the company’s chief culture officer, stood in a room behind a Lucite podium decorated with the WeWork logo and remarked how odd it felt to address his employees through a screen.

McKelvey quickly turned over the podium to Neumann, and the co-founders gave each other what several employees described as a “really awkward hug.” McKelvey said he was surprised to see Neumann, who usually wore jeans and WeWork-branded T-shirts, wearing a blazer. (“That’s when I knew things were serious,” one executive said.) On the broadcast, Neumann told his staff that he was “humbled” and grateful for the opportunity to change — the personality trait he had once described to me as his “superpower.” (WeGrow, the company’s elementary school, is dedicated to “unleashing every human’s superpower.”) He then took a familiar tack toward what many employees had begun to see as his Trumpian side. He had never been more excited than he was at this moment, Neumann insisted, and the company’s prospects had never been better. Neumann said he had been receiving particular encouragement from friends abroad, where the company’s ethos is viewed with less cynicism than in the U.S. He began telling a story about how he had just flown back from Montreal, which was a funny coincidence, he said, because the last time he was in Montreal, he had gotten confused and kept telling people he was in Toronto. A voice from off-screen interrupted to correct Neumann that his most recent trip had, in fact, been to Toronto. Neumann fixed his mistake, finished his speech, and gave the microphone over to Artie Minson, the CFO, who deadpanned, “Good morning, Montreal.”

Photo: u/nealio_estevez via Reddit

Three days later, James, a young architect in New York, who asked that I not use his real name, was walking back to his office after having lunch in Gramercy Park when he spotted Neumann walking uptown on the sidewalk in front of Pete’s Tavern, a bar on Irving Place that is among the city’s oldest. Neumann was wearing a gray T-shirt, black pants—and no shoes. The Neumanns own a $35 million home around the corner from Pete’s, and Adam was known to often walk around the WeWork office barefoot. (A spokesperson for Neumann said, “Adam grew up on a kibbutz and likes to walk barefoot. He is a kibbutznik. Should we ask him to stop?”) James had considered joining WeWork’s design team over the years and recognized Neumann quickly enough — “He’s got kind of a unique look already, plus the barefoot thing,” James told me — that he was able to snap a photo of the barefoot billionaire talking animatedly on the phone. “It was that personality everybody talks about with him, all big and boastful,” James said, describing Neumann’s demeanor in the middle of a crisis. “It seemed like he was putting on the charm.”

Charm was a necessary weapon for Neumann at the moment. The Wall Street Journal had just published a lengthy story detailing Neumann’s erratic leadership of the company, and he had been forced to back out of an appearance at a SoftBank retreat outside of Los Angeles. That weekend, after his barefoot stroll, Neumann went to the Hamptons with his family, but by the time he got back to New York on Sunday, he was fighting for survival. Executives at SoftBank, which owns roughly 29 percent of WeWork, had spent the previous week reconsidering its support for Neumann and had decided that he had to go.

That day, while WeWork’s Twitter account was asking, “How do you plan to spend a moment relaxing today? #selfcaresunday,” Neumann spent the day in meetings, trying to persuade the company’s seven-person board to allow him to continue as CEO of the company he had founded, built, and embodied. With SoftBank, his chief ally, now against him, Neumann turned to Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan, which had invested in WeWork in 2014 and had helped orchestrate various loans for Neumann over the years. The pair met that afternoon, with Neumann seeking advice from the man he referred to as his “personal banker”; later, Neumann had dinner with Bruce Dunlevie, a member of WeWork’s board, who had previously expressed support for Neumann. Over dinner, Dunlevie told Neumann he would be voting to remove him as CEO.

On Monday, Neumann met again with Dimon and various advisers and bankers on the 43rd floor of JPMorgan’s headquarters on Madison Avenue to decide how to proceed. On Tuesday morning, Neumann was at the bank’s headquarters again for a conference call with WeWork’s board to decide his fate. Nine years after founding his company, five months after publicly beginning its IPO process, and six weeks after filing the necessary paperwork, Neumann gave in. He relinquished the title of CEO, taking a non-executive chairman role. In the final tally, Neumann voted against himself.

Neumann was leaving WeWork as a vexing figure: For all the bluster, antics, and problematic decisions, his delusions of grandeur had been the thing that made investors and employees believe that maybe this company really could change the world. But even those at WeWork who once looked up to him as a visionary now felt betrayed by his handling of a process they thought would finally offer them a financial payoff for years spent toiling on behalf of his vision. Multiple employees told me that unlike Travis Kalanick, whose forced departure from Uber was met by a strong show of support from his former employees, Neumann had pissed off pretty much everyone at WeWork outside his inner circle. After James posted his photo to Reddit, falsely claiming it had been taken the morning of Neumann’s ouster so that it would get more views, the post spread rapidly, and cathartically, across WeWork’s Slack channels.

But there were others who deserved blame, too. WeWork’s board had approved many of the decisions that came back to haunt the company, and none of its investors had made much of a stand until public opinion gave them little choice. Neumann had always been obstinate, and his company was aggressive and a bit undisciplined, but its business had been on a more sustainable path until Son and SoftBank showed up in 2017 and told Neumann to make WeWork “ten times bigger than your original plan,” that being crazy is better than being smart, and that WeWork wasn’t being “crazy enough.” “They’re trying to make this all about, ‘Adam is a lunatic,’” one rival real-estate executive told me. “But these people invested, they knew the terms, they knew about the governance issues, and they told this guy, ‘Be you, but be ten times you.’ What did they expect?”

If nothing else, a post-Neumann WeWork is sure to be a bit more bland. At the same time as Neumann’s departure, WeWork announced that Artie Minson, the CFO, and Sebastian Gunningham, its vice-chairman, would become co-CEOs — a sharing of power in keeping with the company’s communal ethos, if not one with an especially successful track record of success in business. (The Times cited four sources saying the appointments were interim, which WeWork has denied.) WeWorkers were split on their new leaders, wondering why they hadn’t done more to rein in Neumann, while acknowledging that he could be difficult to influence. Minson is a former Time Warner Cable executive who became WeWork’s 260th employee in 2015, and Neumann himself has referred to him as “the adult in the room.” When I interviewed Minson in May in a conference room at WeWork headquarters — thanks to the thin walls that permeate every WeWork, I could hear employees in the next room discussing an executive who had recently been pushed out — Minson wore a plaid blazer and jeans and paused when I told him about Neumann’s superpower, and asked what his was. A WeWork spokesperson jumped in to say Minson was “obviously good at finance.” Minson himself eventually settled on “being trustworthy.”

The day of Neumann’s ouster, the co-CEOs sent a memo announcing their new roles and another company-wide conference call for that afternoon. (The most common emoji responses on Slack were the WeWork logo, followed by 😐, 😮, and 🙃.) On the call, they emphasized that this was just beginning, and that while there were big decisions ahead, they would act transparently. The next day, on a call with 150 senior employees, Gunningham said the coming weeks and months would be difficult, according to a person on the call, and that anyone who wasn’t interested in dealing with the transition ahead should probably consider getting out.

As for the IPO, on the morning of Monday, September 30, in the middle of Rosh Hashanah, Minson and Guningham announced they were withdrawing the S-1 filing and would postpone a public offering to “focus on our core business.” Multiple executives told me they doubted any IPO would happen this year and wondered if the company would dare go public in the heat of a presidential election in 2020. Staying private means the company will either need to find cash to continue funding its growth or radically trim its costs and ambitions. Following Neumann’s departure, nearly 20 executives close to him, including Rebekah, his brother-in-law, and several close friends, were in the process of being pushed out. The company says it is going to slow its blistering pace of leasing new space, which might be a moot point: The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday that landlords were now hesitant to lease to the company at all. The company is expected to lay off several thousand of its 12,500 employees in the coming weeks and months. It is also planning to jettison a number of its side businesses, as well as Neumann’s prized Gulfstream, which it bought last year. On an internal WeWork classifieds page, one employee posted last week, “Selling a Gulfstream G650 for a friend. $60 million OBO.”

While WeWork’s summer of discontent was trying for Neumann and other executives directly involved in the IPO process, the hangover of its failure was now settling in with the rank and file. A person who joined the company last year said it had felt like arriving at the height of a wild party, only to stay too late and have the lights suddenly turn on. “Disillusionment is how I’d describe it,” the employee said of the current mood. While some WeWorkers were trying to feel energized by the chance to remake the company in a post-Neumannian image, many more were scanning the exits, worried that what had been a résumé distinction just several months ago might now be a black mark against them. “What’s getting missed is the huge effort people made to grow this company,” one former executive told me, of the many thousands of employees who had come in and out — Neumann had expressed a desire to turn over 20 percent of his staff annually — building the company at the breakneck speed Neumann and his investors demanded. “Thousands of people who worked tirelessly, because there’s no other way to do it there, are going to end up screwed financially because they took lower income to have more equity that has disintegrated,” the executive said. Two former executives told me they had no plans to purchase the large stock options they were owed, despite Neumann promising one of them that the options would be worth several million dollars. Several employees said they had already used savings to purchase their options, and were now worried that doing so could turn out to be financially ruinous.

There remains at least one WeWorker who has done well by his shares. Well before the IPO process even began, Adam Neumann had already cashed out well over $700 million in WeWork stock through a combination of stock sales and loans, according to the Wall Street Journal. Neumann is no longer CEO, but he still has his role on WeWork’s board, the homes in Gramercy and the Hamptons, plus a townhouse in the Village, a 60-acre estate in Westchester County, and a $21-million residence in the Bay Area complete with room shaped like a guitar. Neumann had a spectacularly embarrassing summer, but setting aside whatever lawsuits or investigations that could emerge, he’s set for life. Really, no one played the post-recession economy as perfectly as Neumann did: fill acres of empty commercial real estate with armies of freelancers, tell everyone you’re raising global consciousness, and walk away a billionaire. In his final town hall as CEO, Neumann argued that WeWork had “played the private market game to perfection.” He was speaking about the company he would soon no longer run, but he might as well have been talking about himself.

The Sun Sets on We