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Risky business: WeWork’s rise and fall

A new documentary tells the cautionary tale of a start-up venture that very quickly turned from triumph to disaster.

Now that working from home has become normalised, there are apparently some people who miss the mundane rituals of office life. Putting aside the valuable social aspect, how much of this nostalgia is genuine? Do you really miss a communal fridge crammed with milk cartons labelled with various initials? Or the sneaking suspicion that a co-worker has lumbered you with their wonky mouse? Is remembering to dial nine for an outside line a perishable skill? The way 2021 is shaping up, it looks like the old world of lanyards, leaving cards and Thursday morning fire drills may never fully return.

It also means WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn is a contemporary documentary that suddenly feels like a period piece. Writer/director Jed Rothstein’s film examines the profit-obsessed parabola of WeWork, the US start-up co-founded by long-haired and often bare-footed Israeli-American entrepreneur Adam Neumann. This was a company that strove to make office management sexy.

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Founded in 2010, WeWork enjoyed such a meteoric rise that it transcended the business pages – helped, perhaps, by its logo being mounted on city centre buildings all over the globe during their mushrooming expansion.

Neumann’s mantra was “empowering the world through collaboration” but what that really meant was turning boring old offices into hipster hubs with free craft beer to appeal to young creatives. If providing work space has always been terminally uncool, WeWork gave it a seductive makeover with Neumann preaching touchy-feely core values like a young bohemian pastor.

Sharp-eyed commentators pointed out that this was a business that had nothing proprietary to offer beyond the brand (if Facebook and Google have their closely-guarded code and algorithms, WeWork seemed more like an interior design aesthetic with added wifi). But thanks to keen investor interest the company’s valuation rose from $100m in 2012 to an astonishing $47bn in 2019, just before it attempted to go public.

The result is a cautionary tale about getting high on your own office supplies. Neumann was the public face of the company, so in Rothstein’s film he embodies WeWork’s flaws, overreach and hubris. Never mind the fact that the vaguely evangelic hype man declined to be involved: after a decade preaching the WeWork gospel on TV and at conferences, there is plenty of footage to choose from. The documentary starts arrestingly with what is essentially an extended Neumann blooper reel from a vital investor pitch video.

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Having such an eccentric lead certainly gives this doc a literal character arc, especially since you know that disaster is looming. But there is a sense that Rothstein wants to take aim at an entire financial culture where investors will do anything to create a “unicorn” – a private start-up that rapidly achieves a valuation of $1bn – just so they can then make a killing.

The focus on Neumann feels like it blunts that effect. The WeWork vision of creatives and coders working cheek-by-jowl in stripped-back office spaces may be on the backburner for now but those invidious investment strategies appear to be pandemic-proof and certainly deserve even more scrutiny.

Three stars out of five

WeWork: Or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn is available on digital platforms from August 13.

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