- The second episode of HBO Max’s new docuseries “Generation Hustle” introduces Adam Neumann, a leader who had even the world’s most prominent business leaders fooled.
- Aside from the outlandish business ventures and investments, the most compelling portion of this episode of “Generation Hustle” is the impact these actions had on its bystanding employees.
- Despite the premise of the company focusing on the employee experience within the office, the core of the company and its inevitable fall from grace did little to inspire the employees who were helpless during this time.
There’s plenty to say about the central subjects in each episode of HBO Max’s new docuseries “Generation Hustle.”
Con artists featured in the show range from “scam rappers,” a fraud heiress that slithered her way into New York society and a failed college-aged stock broker.
However, in the second episode “The Cult of WeWork”, the audience is introduced to a leader who had even the world’s most prominent business leaders fooled.
The opening credits explain that a cult has three key characteristics:
- A charismatic leader
Anyone familiar with the WeWork story knows that its former CEO Adam Neumann fits that bill.
The Israel-born cofounder has long been described as more than just the leader of a coworking company: many former employees viewed him and the concept of the “We Generation” as a life-changing mantra.
There have been numerous thinkpieces to describe Neumann’s behavior over the course of his reign from 2010 to 2019, and for good reason. The headlines were too juicy to ignore.
Celebrities from Hamilton creator Lin Manuel Miranda, to Neumann’s own cousin-in-law Gwyneth Paltrow appear in the episode to discuss the meaning of “we” and what impact it could make on the world as a whole.
The foundation of WeWork was a simple business model — sign long-term leases with landlords, then sublease that space out to smaller companies and entrepreneurs.
When thinking of the commercial real estate industry, the initial response usually doesn’t involve a societal movement.
However, Neumann’s aura changed all of that.
Mandatory, booze-filled adult summer camps with world-renown recording artists, as well as business endeavors that range from a school (WeGrow) and investments into a wave pool company are what would eventually define the coworking operator for years to come.
Aside from the outlandish business ventures and investments, the most compelling portion of this episode of “Generation Hustle” is the impact these actions had on its bystanding employees, who truly believed they were part of a movement and trusted in the vision of Neumann.
“On my first day, I got an email at 8 o’ clock that morning from Adam that said ‘Good morning. Let’s create the largest physically networked community on the planet,’” said Lisa, who is described as employee 2. “No period, just off to the races.”
The assertive, grandiose nature of Neumann’s leadership abilities were hard to combat.
Although the beginning of the end of the company undoubtedly impacted the investors who had blindly trusted the company’s vision, the real tragedy from this episode highlights how these unorthodox business practices impacted employees.
“What made people believe [in WeWork] was they want to be part of something. They would call it a culture. They would call it a community,” said Teddy, described as Employee ~75. “Eventually it got to the point where people were confused. Once people who came in really did start questioning those things, they either were removed or they were silenced.”
Despite the premise of the company focusing on the employee experience within the office, offering them beer-on-tap, ping pong tables, parties and light-up neon signs that encourage them to “hustle harder,” the core of the company and its inevitable fall from grace did little to inspire the employees who were helpless during this time.
With the title of New York City’s largest commercial real estate landlord, worldwide expansions, investments into an array of businesses, a mouthwatering $47 billion valuation and billions of dollars from investors who were convinced WeWork was a tech company (spoiler: it wasn’t), Neumann decided to take WeWork public.
Soon enough, the real scrutiny began on a broader level.
Investors began to question the legitimacy and longevity of the company, who has failed to turn a profit even to this day. Neumann’s lavish spending on a private jet, numerous homes and even the “We” trademark finally caught up with him.
The mirage that was WeWork began to crumble.
Almost as quickly as it reached its pinnacle, the coworking firm’s valuation came tumbling down. Neumann was then forced to step down as CEO by WeWork’s board of directors and the IPO being withdrawn.
Then the layoffs came, and employees who were with the company since the beginning soon realized their small equity into the company would virtually mean nothing.
“Adam sat me down. He says ‘You’re going to have tens of millions of dollars. I’m going to make sure that you get to sell your equity. You’ve worked hard, you’ve earned it,’” recalls David Fano, former chief growth officer at WeWork. “And then I get the call, ‘Hey, it’s not happening. The deal fell through.’”
Many of these employees, sometimes hesitantly, devoted a large portion of their lives to make sure this company succeeded. But by the end of the Neumann-era saga, many would be left starting over in their careers and trying to dust off the residue that was WeWork’s reputation.
Yes, the losses that big name investors experienced were real and devastating.
However, the sacrifices and effort that former employees put into the company because they genuinely believe in its mission is all the more heartbreaking.
Employees describe openly weeping during layoff meetings, feeling deceived and manipulated, yet still yearning for the one aspect that WeWork seemed to execute well: its community.
“I still miss the energy of WeWork,” said Danny, employee 3. “Without sounding melodramatic, it was kind of like my one first love.”