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11 weeks ago by tolkien
How Did WeWork’s Adam Neumann Build a $47 Billion Company?
“The We Company’s headquarters in Chelsea, where more than a thousand of its employees work, is something of a testing ground for how it can serve even larger organizations. (The company will eventually move into the old Lord & Taylor flagship on Fifth Avenue, which it recently bought.) The sixth-floor entrance is flanked by a full-service barista and a “living room” with an array of couches and lounge chairs roughly the size and feel of a West Elm showroom. There are Foosball and bumper-pool tables, along with three video-game consoles. Beyond that is the WeMRKT, an “in-office bodega,” as a WeWork spokesperson called it, next to a kitchen with a dozen taps serving beer, cider, cold brew, Merlot, Pinot, several kombuchas, and seltzer. On one of my visits, signs advertised astrology readings for employees that afternoon.

Aside from a few offices reserved for Neumann and a handful of executives, the headquarters has almost no assigned desks, and some WeWork employees describe a near-constant mental and physical battle to find a space with enough quiet and privacy for concentration. (The private phone booths are coveted, as they are in most WeWorks.) Joel Steinhaus, a WeWork executive, told me that his previous office at Citi allocated 200-to-250 square feet per person, while WeWork has shrunk that number to around 50. (A WeWork spokesperson says the number is higher.) WeWork claims that additional common spaces and amenities make up the difference, but also that closeness has benefits. A half-dozen WeWork employees repeated the same talking point to me about the narrowness of its staircases and hallways, which are there to foster community by forcing people to physically interact with anyone they walk past. They say any cost savings from fitting in more people is merely a bonus.

Building community is what WeWork has always promised, and its pitch to large corporations is not just hip design and flexible leasing terms but what WeWork calls its “WeOS,” referring to its expertise in helping companies optimize both space and overall culture. (In 2017, McKelvey was named WeWork’s chief culture officer, and he’s fond of using one of WeWork’s many internal slogans: “Operationalize Love.”)

But in dozens of interviews, current and former WeWork employees and executives questioned whether the company’s culture is itself one worth spreading. Despite the company’s slogan “Make a Life, Not Just a Living,” employees at all levels have often reported working 60- or 70-hour weeks, and events like Thank God It’s Monday and Summer Camp were mandatory. At its annual summit, the company keeps track of employee attendance at panels and events by scanning wristbands given to each person; excessive absences are reported to managers. A number of employees describe a regular cycle at WeWork: New people would arrive, excited by the company’s mission, only to get burned out, leave, and replaced by a fresh crop. Multiple executives told me Neumann’s cheerleading was critical to the company’s success. “From a business perspective, the cult is working,” said one executive.

Employees say turnover at the company has been dizzying. Multiple people told me Neumann has expressed a desire to turn over 20 percent of WeWork’s staff every year — he denies this — whether through attrition or firings, as a means of keeping staff on its toes. There have been two publicly reported rounds of mass departures, both of which the company said involved culling unproductive workers. But employees say that restructurings, in which entire teams are suddenly disbanded, are a regular occurrence. “When you’re at WeWork, there’s a certain lack of culture, which is ironic for a company selling culture,” one former executive told me. “If there is a culture, it is that of a revolving door.” The need to hire employees at a rate to keep up with its growth has led to occasional hiccups in its hiring process: In 2015, Neumann chastised a group of employees for not Googling a job applicant after finding out that WeWork had hired the Hipster Grifter, a Brooklynite who had become briefly famous several years earlier for scamming her way into jobs and cheating people out of money.

The focus on growth often seemed to leave little room for other concerns. Two people told me that during an early town hall when WeWork had just over 100 employees, Neumann took questions alongside two other executives, Michael Gross and Noah Brodsky, and someone asked about the lack of diversity among the executive team. Neumann disputed the point by referring to himself and the other people onstage, saying, “I’m a brunette, Michael’s blond, and we have a Noah.” (Brodsky, who is gay, went bright red.)

Employees and executives say much of the culture stems from Neumann, whose rule by fiat could be frustrating. Last summer, he announced at the end of a companywide meeting that WeWork employees would no longer be permitted to expense meals that included meat. Several senior members of the company had no idea the announcement was coming or what it even meant. Hundreds of employees joined a Slack channel to debate the policy, while some found various ways around it: A person in the New York tech world said WeWork employees have asked her to expense the meat when they go out for meals.

Especially at the top, WeWork looked to some like a boys’ club. The executive ranks have been sprinkled with Neumann’s friends from Israel as well as his extended-family members. During an executive off-site meeting in Montauk, he gave a joking toast to the virtues of nepotism. In a job interview, the first question one former executive asked a young female applicant was whether she had a boyfriend (he was later fired). Last year, two female employees reported that they were having trouble getting a meeting with Adam Kimmel, the chief creative officer, to whom they reported. According to multiple people with knowledge of the situation, Kimmel later said he hadn’t met with the women because he and his wife, the actress Leelee Sobieski, had a rule against meeting alone with a member of the opposite sex. (WeWork disputes this.) In October, Ruby Anaya, the former head of culture, sued WeWork, alleging she had been groped at both the company summit and Summer Camp by colleagues (the lawsuit is pending).

Several people told me they worried about what the company’s younger employees might absorb from their experience. A former WeWorker who now runs a company told me, “I spend a lot of my time on culture and HR, and it fucking slows you down worrying about how people feel.” But one employee told me his WeWork experience had made him think about what he would do differently if he were ever to run his own start-up. “You can move fast and break things,” he said, citing Facebook’s widely adopted empire-building ethos. “But you can’t move fast and break people.””

“Will WeWork work? The company has existed entirely in an expanding economy, and its business has never been tested by a downturn. WeWork argues that in a recession, larger companies will downsize into its spaces while laid-off workers will need them to start their solo careers. But it’s also very possible that large companies who currently have ancillary spaces in WeWork will identify those as easy costs to cut, and entrepreneurs will revert to coffee shops. A third argument goes that WeWork occupies so much space that many landlords will have no choice but to renegotiate its leases.

During the dot-com boom, a company called Regus became a stock-market darling by offering similar but much blander flexible offices. In 2000, Fast Company published a story about Regus titled “Office of the Future,” highlighting its efforts to bring “community” to the workplace. But the bubble burst and Regus went bankrupt. The company recovered and rebranded as IWG, but its existence presents another conundrum for WeWork. IWG currently has roughly 3,000 locations and 2.5 million customers worldwide, numbers that dwarf WeWork’s. IWG is profitable and now has a hipper, WeWork-ish offering. It is publicly traded and worth around $3 billion.

Everyone in real estate expects the kind of flexible office space WeWork offers to become an increasingly large part of their world, and many of the company’s rivals are grateful to Neumann for preaching the gospel of co-working and shorter-term leases. Even people critical of WeWork’s culture, or skeptical of its focus on hypergrowth, say it will likely remain a force in commercial real estate. But many, too, have begun to wonder what can explain the $44 billion in valuation difference between WeWork and IWG. In a financial disclosure last year, when it was in the process of losing $1.9 billion to fund its growth, WeWork acknowledged, “We have a history of losses, and we may be unable to achieve profitability at a company level.” It also published a financial metric it called “community-adjusted EBITDA” — earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortization, which is an accountant-approved way of measuring a company’s performance — that excluded many costs, like marketing, construction, and design, that WeWork claimed would disappear once it reached maturity, in an attempt to show it could make a healthy profit; the Financial Times dubbed WeWork’s doctored version “perhaps the most infamous financial metric of a generation.” WeWork employees told me they would be happy if the company were worth half of what SoftBank said it was going to be. “Even if it goes down to $5 billion, Adam’s still worth a billion dollars,” one rival said, expressing concern about the perverse incentives of the modern economy. “So from an objective perspective, was it a mistake to take this hemorrhage-inducing risk? You could argue that was the rational mode.”

Back in his office, Neumann remained upbeat. “Before you ask, let’s set an intention,” Neumann told me, after a WeWork spokesperson said I had time for … [more]
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june 2019 by robertogreco

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