In 2019, WeWork was one of the most coveted unicorns in Silicon Valley, establishing itself as the queen of coworking, valued at more than $47 billion. Four years have passed since then, and the American company filed for bankruptcy in early November. The fault lies in opaque accounting, the lack of a business model and years of staggering debts, carefully concealed by his former boss and co-founder Adam Neumann, 44. At the helm of WeWork for nearly a decade, the Israeli-American spent lavishly, but "jumped ship early enough to get rich," comments Les Echos. Together with his wife Rebekah, the man has a colossal fortune: $2.2 billion, according to Forbes. But when it comes time to comb through the failed start-up, the excesses of the Neumanns no longer go unnoticed.
The pitch of the WeCrashed series, inspired by the couple, sounds like the chronicle of a fall foretold, from the very first scene. Adam Neumann (Jared Leto, on-screen) is lounging in bed in his $35 million apartment in New York's upscale Gramercy neighborhood, where he lives with his wife Rebekah (Anne Hathaway). And this, while he is expected by the board of directors of his company which must decide on his fate. A life of excesses can be guessed in a few minutes. The businessman is woken up by a domestic worker, like Louis XIV in his bedroom at Versailles. The "valet" carefully opens the curtains, then hands a joint of grass to his boss, who gets his first dose of the day. The stage is set.
New York Elite
Born on April 25, 1979, Adam Neumann grew up in Israel. According to The Mirror, he goes to school near the Gaza Strip, while his mother - who has been raising him alone since her divorce - works at a local hospital. After five years in the Israeli Navy, he arrived in New York in 2001. He was 22 years old at the time. There, Neumann enrolled in the public university, Baruch College, where he majored in business. It was at this time that he came up with the "WeLive" concept during an entrepreneurship competition organised by his university: an all-inclusive flatshare offer (internet connection, cleaning service, access to common areas dedicated to leisure activities or unlimited consumption of drinks). But the project was not retained. Adam Neumann eventually dropped out of school and looked for the "right" idea that would make him rich. His first businesses, shoes with foldable heels and then jumpsuits for babies with reinforced knees, were failures.
Next to it, the young man is building up a contact book. He scoured the clubs where he mingled with the jet-set, thanks to his sister Adi who posed for women's magazines. But above all, he meets his future wife, Rebekah Paltrow (one year his junior), cousin of a certain... Gwyneth. The couple married in 2008 and two years later founded WeWork, a company specializing in shared offices. The beginning of fame (finally).
Adam and Rebekah Neumann at the Time 100 Gala. (New York, April 18, 2014.) BEN GABBE / AFP
Real Estate Rush
At WeWork, everything happens very quickly. The concept catches on, dollars are pouring in, and offices are springing up like mushrooms. The startup has hit the nail on the head and has seduced McKinsey, Volkswagen, Pinterest, Google, Deloitte, Visa, IBM, Microsoft and BlaBlaCar to host some of their employees. In August 2017, the Japanese holding company Softbank even invested $4.4 billion in the New York-based company.
Since the money is flowing, the Neumanns are taking advantage of it. Caught up in delusions of grandeur, the couple acquired several properties, including two in New York, one in the Hamptons, and a luxurious mansion north of San Francisco that included a guitar-shaped living room, a swimming pool, a three-story waterslide, a spa, a racquetball court and an orchard.
At WeWork, they deliberately wield their power internally. Adam Neumann skates through the halls of his company's headquarters, calls conference calls in the middle of the night, conducts interviews behind the wheel of his white Maybach, which is launched at full speed... Libération describes a boss who behaves like a "student party animal on a spring break": "Rapping at full blast from the back of his white Maybach with Masayoshi Son; a tequila-fueled tug-of-war with Jared Kushner, heir to a real estate empire and son-in-law of Donald Trump, who has not yet entered the White House."
The eccentricities don't stop there. According to Reeves Wiedeman's book Billion Dollar Loser, at a company seminar in 2014, Neumann "took psychedelic mushrooms on the first night of camp and was walking around with a water gun filled with vodka," without any embarrassment. We also learn that, on site, employees had "canoes filled with cans of Coors Light beer and Smirnoff Ice vodka" while "a dozen shisha pipes were lined up on a table." Another whim of the boss: he, who is a vegetarian, forbids his employees to eat meat. Until one of his employees spotted him devouring "a gigantic lamb shank," according to Libération.
Actor Ashton Kutcher and Adam Neumann. (Los Angeles, January 9, 2019.) JEAN BAPTISTE LACROIX / AFP
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The madness of the We and the fall in 2019
In their 2021 investigative book The Cult of We: WeWork, Adam Neumann, and the Great Startup Delusion, Wall Street Journal journalists Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell made further revelations about the Neumanns' lifestyle. It reveals that the sulphurous couple returned their private jets to VistaJet "in a state worthy of a fraternity house, with splashes of alcohol, vomit and torn curtains." On one flight, the marijuana smoke was even so thick that the crew had to put on oxygen masks to breathe. So many escapades that ended up reaching the ears of the major shareholders and caused the downfall of the Neumanns. In 2019, Adam was forced to resign by his investors, just as the company was about to be listed in New York. Rebekah, meanwhile, is stepping down from her role as head of brand and impact at WeWork, and as CEO at WeGrow, the private school she founded in 2017 in Chelsea. The pandemic and the rise of teleworking will further undermine the start-up's business model.
But the Neumanns have more than one trick up their sleeve. As LesEchos points out, they immediately reinvest their golden parachute in new real estate companies. Adam Neumann creates Flow, a start-up that aims to revolutionize the lives of residential tenants, and it seems to be working. In August 2022, one of Silicon Valley's leading venture capital funds, Andreessen Horowitz, invested $350 million. Far, far away from the descent into hell of WeWork, which filed for bankruptcy on November 7. Adam and Rebekah Neumann, parents of six, have never left New York City. And gravitate between their multitude of mansions.