Everybody wants to believe in unicorns.
These fabled creatures are majestic to see on paper. With every image, they inspire dreams and hopes of the Fantastic. But, no matter how hard you look, it’s clear to see that they never existed in the first place.
Based on this description, unicorns also exist in the business world—although the end result is the same. Directed by Jed Rothstein, WeWork: or the Making and Breaking of a $47 Billion Unicorn follows the unbelievable rise and fall of one of the largest corporate flameouts in recent memory. Led by their magnetic hippie leader Adam Neumann, WeWork began with a simple vision: to give young businesses a place where they could work together and support one another as they launch. Growing at an explosive rate, their community-centric ideal sent waves through Wall Street, amassing global interest. However, if something looks too good to be true, it probably is and, eventually, dreams must face the hard truth of reality.
Compelling from start to finish, WeWork is an amazing cautionary tale that speaks to the power of vision but the toxicity of arrogance. In WeWork, Rothstein has a fascinating subject that highlights the unique state of the business world. Coming at a time where YouTube millionaires have become commonplace, Neumann’s story almost sounds familiar. Loaded with a dream of creating space to support small businesses, this young man and his team built a business that seems worth admiring. (Does it get any more mythic than the tale of a dreamer empowering other dreamers?) However, at the same time, it quickly becomes clear that WeWork is not going ToWork financially, until ‘creative bookkeeping’ keeps them in the game. Filled with interviews from those who participated in (and bought into) Neumann’s ideal world, Rothstein does an excellent job of presenting a well-rounded portrait of WeWork’s culture from the inside. While never endorsing Neumann, neither does he fully demonize him either, allowing the viewer to decide the true value of his vision.
With this in mind, the most polarizing aspect of WeWork is Neumann himself. Part guru, part Zuckerberg, there’s a lot to admire about the young dreamer. His charisma and charm are infectious, especially at WeWork’s initial launch. However,WeWork also recognizes that these attributes, while attractive to follow, do not necessarily make a quality leader. With a mantra and expectations dependant on employees buying into their corporate culture, Neumann’s personality seems to border on cult leader at times. Preaching the benefits of community and, at times, world domination, he speaks as a spiritual guru and works (seemingly) with little accountability. (As one person says, ‘If you tell a 30-something male that he’s Jesus Christ, he’s inclined to believe you.’) Then, as things begin to spiral out of control, Neumann’s commitment to the vision makes him both sympathetic and terrifying as he attempts to scramble to preserve what’s left of his dream.
What’s amazing is that WeWork’s premise that start-ups could work together in an open space actually appears to have merit. Neumann’s vision to bring people together to achieve their dreams is a surprisingly powerful model for businesses moving forward, especially for young Millennials who truly believe that they can change the world. (What’s more, the fact that this took place immediately before a global pandemic is not lost on WeWork, as former employees yearn for the type of community that was pitched to them when they first hopped on board.) Led by a simple vision, WeWork gave young people the opportunity to work in a Facebook or Google-esque environment while still creating their own vision. This was an environment where people could feel supported by one another as they attempt to carve out their niche together… and it was working. While there will be some that question their expansion into the world of housing and education, there is much to be said about the value of their intent. To Neumann and his wife, the true value of WeWork as a company began not out of financial value but in its (supposedly) spiritual emphasis on connectivity.
The one thing lacking from this film is the voice of the enigmatic creator, himself. Though its completely understandable why he would not want to participate, one wishes that Neumann would have agreed to appear in the doc so that we could hear his perspective. His belief that the workplace—and the world—could be transformed by collaborating and celebrating the achievements of others is a noble goal and seems achieveable. To change the face of Wall Street while doing it though truly does seem too good to be true.
Most unicorns do.
WeWork is available on Hulu on Friday, April 2nd, 2021.