The WeWork Arc

The Diff:

WeWork is an ideal company for a business book. Per my general theory of business books, the ideal recipe for a satisfying narrative about business is:

  1. A classic Greek tragedy, where the hero is undone by his own hubris, and

  2. Lots of people with free time to talk to an author, who have a vested interest in telling their side of the story.

WeWork has both. The company’s financial history sounds like an extended roulette session: every year, the company doubled in size, until 2019, when it shrank to almost zero. And the story is tied to the ambition of a single founder, Adam Neumann, whose sales ability and indifference to risk propelled the company to a $47bn valuation and then led to its near-collapse.

WeWork got a lot of media coverage, slowly on the way up and then much more frequently on the way down, and now the story has been told in the just-published Billion Dollar Loser.

One thing the book’s narrative makes clear is that WeWork was not just a creation of the venture capital market of the late 2010s. It was also a creation of the labor and real estate markets of the early 2010s. WeWork’s founders, Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey, started a predecessor company called Green Desk in early 2008, leasing office space in a building in Brooklyn and subleasing smaller units. (In a memorable exchange, Neumann pitched this idea as a way for his landlord to get some use out of vacant space. The landlord said “You know nothing about real estate,” and Neumann replied “Your building is empty. What do you know about real estate.”)