New York Magazine

The I in We

Nine years ago, Adam Neumann discovered he could make office spaces fun and charge extra for the “community.” How did he build WeWork into a $47 billion company? Not by sharing.

IN EARLY JANUARY, employees of the We Company, formerly known as WeWork, gathered in Los Angeles for its annual summit. As with many of the company’s events, it was more tent revival than corporate off-site. The Red Hot Chili Peppers performed. Jaden Smith and Adam Rippon spoke. Diddy and Ashton Kutcher announced the winners of the annual Creator Awards. Adam Neumann, one of WeWork’s founders, took the stage as he typically does at such gatherings. Neumann is six-foot-five with long dark hair and the easy charm of a man worth several (theoretical) billions of dollars who still manages to surf regularly and used to skateboard around the office. He is known for making bombastic pronouncements, like this one at an all-company event last year: “There are 150 million orphans in the world. We want to solve this problem and give them a new family: the WeWork family.” In L.A., Neumann told his employees that the newly formed We Company would now have three prongs—WeWork, WeLive, and WeGrow—with a single, grandiose mission: “to elevate the world’s consciousness.”

WeWork was born as a co-working space based partly on the idea that it should be easier for entrepreneurs like Neumann to get their ideas, good or bad, off the ground. Its core business is simple: lease offices from landlords—the company owns hardly any real estate—slice them up, and rent them out in smaller portions with an upcharge for cool design, regular happy hours, and a more flexible short-term lease. There are hundreds of co-working companies around the world, but what has long distinguished WeWork is Neumann’s insistence that his is something bigger. In 2017, Neumann declared that WeWork’s “valuation and size today are much more based on our energy and spirituality than it is on a multiple of revenue.” He has long maintained that categorizing WeWork as a real-estate concern is too limiting; it is a “community company” with huge ambitions. “We are here in order to change the world,” Neumann said that same year. “Nothing less than that interests me.”

In this mode—which is his usual one—he can sound like a satirical version of a start-up founder. The years between Steve Jobs’s ascension to business deity and the fateful afternoon when Elon Musk tweeted that his company might go private at $420 a share have cemented the legend of the iconoclastic founder as a modern American folktale. Spreadsheets are out; megalomaniacal ambition is in.

And what Neumann has accomplished is staggering: WeWork now has 466,000 members working out of 485 locations in more than 100 cities in 28 countries. Its revenue has grown from $75 million in 2014 to $1.8 billion last year. Three years ago, it had 1,000 employees; today, it has 12,000 and is adding 100 every week. It has installed 22 million square feet of the glass partitions that have defined an era of workplace aesthetics, and last fall, it became Manhattan’s largest tenant. (In Central London, it is second only to the British government.) In the wake of Uber’s (disappointing) debut on the New York Stock Exchange, the We Company is now America’s most highly valued start-up, at $47 billion—at least for the moment. At the end of April, Neumann announced that the company had filed paperwork to begin the process of an IPO.

Inside the company, however, employees and executives describe an environment that can be marked by the chaos, churn, and misbehavior that have come to characterize hyper-growth start-up life, not to mention questions about its business: WeWork lost $1.9 billion last year. But WeWork has already reshaped the commercial real-estate world, and it has its eyes on the rest of our lives. As Neumann recently told a person close to the company, he believes that WeWork’s size and scale could put it in a position to help deal with some of the world’s largest problems, like the refugee crisis, saying, “I need to have the biggest valuation I can, because when countries are shooting at each other, I want them to come to me.”

ONE DAY THIS SPRING, Neumann sat at a large conference table in his office at WeWork headquarters in Chelsea and apologized that he had only limited time. “It’s hard in a short time to get to know

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