Seven years removed from his Israeli military service, Adam Neumann was, in his words “misguided and putting my energy into all the wrong places.” He was running an infant clothing company he founded in New York called Krawlers but clearly looking for something new. Together with his friend Miguel McKelvey, Neumann founded GreenDesk, a company that rented desks and office space. Eventually, GreenDesk became WeWork, and the company’s 3,000 square foot building with “creaky floorboards and exposed brick” in New York City expanded to 853 locations in 123 cities. Neumann’s company peaked at a $47 billion valuation after taking an additional investment from SoftBank in January 2019, with rumors swirling that J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley had identified investors willing to value WeWork as high as $100 billion. So why now, less than a year later, did WeWork require a $5 billion bailout from SoftBank at a valuation of $8 billion just so it could afford the severance pay for employees that it plans to lay off? And why is Adam Neumann, once hailed as a visionary, being forced to resign as WeWork’s CEO?
In the summer of 2019, as WeWork approached its highly anticipated initial public offering (IPO), more information about the company’s finances was made public. This information showed that even though the company’s revenue had doubled to $1.8 billion in 2018, losses had also more than doubled to $1.9 billion. In addition, despite projecting $3 billion in revenue for 2019, WeWork lost $700 million in the first quarter of the year alone. Based on these extremely poor results, prospective investors began to balk at the $47 billion valuation that WeWork was targeting.
As a result of its impending IPO, WeWork was placed under significantly more scrutiny that it had been previously; at that point, it was a rising star in the financial field with nothing but positive press coverage. Part of this scrutiny focused on WeWork’s business model and path to profitability. WeWork’s business model is unique because it is simultaneously a tenant and a landlord. To make this profitable, WeWork needs to be able to charge their tenants more for each space than they pay their landlords. If this model applied to every square foot that WeWork paid for on a monthly basis, there would not be a problem. However, WeWork dedicates large sections of many of its office spaces to communal areas that do not generate revenue. These areas are intended to fulfill their mission to “build a community”—the ‘we’ in WeWork. In addition, much of WeWork’s office space is vacant. The company has become the largest private landlord in New York City, and New York is far from the only place they have large real estate holdings. There simply isn’t enough demand for their service compared to the amount of square footage that they have committed to paying for under their lengthy real estate leases.
Another focus of intense scrutiny was Adam Neumann himself. After filing paperwork for the seemingly imminent IPO, Neumann was found to have now infamously filed a personal trademark for the word ‘we’—which he sold back to the company for $5.9 million. Those close to Neumann have noted that he is an avid drug user, ranging from heavy alcohol consumption to excessive marijuana use on his numerous private jet trips around the world. His surfing trip to the Maldives just before the final IPO papers were to be filed in mid-August drew particular backlash. He has also been known to come up with outlandish ideas on a whim, from adding an airline under the umbrella of The We Company to becoming Prime Minister of Israel, or even, in his own words, “President of the World.”
After WeWork’s failed attempt to go public, they postponed their IPO to September and then again to October before abandoning it completely. One of the biggest losses taken as a result of WeWork’s failure belongs to the aforementioned SoftBank, whose ill-advised investments in WeWork resulted in the lofty valuation in the first place. SoftBank has ousted the disgraced Neumann (albeit at a $1.7 billion expense in the form of an exit bonus for Neumann, money which WeWork desperately needs), taken control of the company’s board of directors and invested an additional $5 billion for working capital WeWork requires to continue to operate. SoftBank is left to essentially pick up the pieces of a problem that they helped create by inflating WeWork’s valuation far beyond what was actually supportable.
If SoftBank had valued WeWork more reasonably and filed an IPO at a lower number, WeWork’s perceived potential would likely have resulted in a successful IPO and thus much-needed working capital would have been raised to help WeWork reach profitability. Adam Neumann would also likely still be the CEO. In the end, WeWork serves as the latest in a series of examples of ambitious people and companies creating impossible expectations and valuations without the performance to back them up. By leasing huge amounts of real estate, promising significant profits to investors, and attempting an IPO with an enormous valuation, WeWork created expectations far too large and thus failed to meet them. If they had kept expectations reasonable, WeWork would likely still be among the most unique and exciting companies on the rise today.
Justin Diament is a senior at High Technology High School in Lincroft, N.J. He is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.