WeWork’s Adam Neumann on investing, startups, browsing and Masayoshi Son

Adam Neumann needs his story to be instructed. No, not the one concerning the weed-smoking, tequila-loving, free-spending wild youngster who took his co-working unicorn WeWork to a $47bn valuation after which to the brink of collapse. That story has already been the topic of numerous unflattering articles, podcasts, page-turners, tv documentaries and, later this month, an Apple TV+ sequence wherein Jared Leto performs Neumann with Israeli-accented messianic aptitude.

This story, Adam Neumann’s model of the Adam Neumann story, is the second act, the comeback. At 42, he says he’s starting “one thing a lot greater than I even knew was attainable”. And the very first thing that New York’s most flattering founder says, as all 6ft 5in of him strides over to satisfy me, is that he has chosen me — solely me — to inform it.

We’re standing within the headquarters of Neumann’s household workplace, a thin Beaux Arts constructing in Greenwich Village the place you possibly can nonetheless see the shadow of the WeWork brand that when held on the masonry outdoors. The aesthetic feels acquainted — stripped flooring, white partitions, couches with assertion cushions — but additionally toned down. There are not any neon indicators urging guests to “Respect the Hustle” as there have been within the WeWorks of the Neumann period. No desks inside cellphone cubicles or shuffleboard tables both, and nothing extra hipster within the communal fridge than pots of hummus. IBM was WeWork’s primary buyer on this constructing, till Covid-19 made one of many world’s largest customers of workplace house realise that it may handle with much less of it. And WeWork itself was Neumann’s tenant till 2021, this being one among a number of buildings that he invested in personally after which leased to the firm he managed.

That battle of curiosity was simply one of many issues that scared off Wall Road traders when Neumann tried to take his lossmaking “capitalist kibbutz” public in 2019. Within the disaster that adopted the failed itemizing, WeWork got here inside weeks of working out of money, Neumann misplaced his job as CEO and his grip on the corporate — and SoftBank, the Japanese funding agency that had guess $10bn on Neumann’s imaginative and prescient of fixing work as we all know it, needed to spend billions extra rescuing the enterprise. 1000’s of workers misplaced their jobs as WeWork’s new administration tried to deliver prices beneath management, however the phrases of that bailout ensured that Neumann nonetheless emerged a billionaire. His second act ought to, if nothing else, require much less outdoors capital than the primary.

The expertise has executed nothing to dent Neumann’s salesmanship. Masayoshi Son, SoftBank’s unicorn-hunting founder, invested his first $4.4bn after Neumann gave him a 12-minute tour of a WeWork in 2016. My stroll by means of his new one-floor headquarters is even shorter, a blur of individuals preoccupied by their screens who, Neumann says, both work for him or for start-ups he has invested in. “It’s precise co-working,” he says, earlier than hastening to make clear that this doesn’t violate the non-compete settlement he signed on leaving WeWork. Neumann has spent a whole lot of time with attorneys since then and, whereas he has settled an unpleasant courtroom combat with SoftBank, receiving one other a number of hundred million {dollars}, sufficient free ends stay that he should watch his phrases.

Maybe because of this arranging this assembly has taken a lot negotiation. At first, Neumann’s publicist means that he ought to approve any quotes from the interview that I intend to make use of. Advised that the FT can’t settle for this, he backs down, however says Neumann can see me just for an hour. And we can not ship a photographer; as a substitute, Neumann sends his personal picture to make use of. (Editor’s observe: we didn’t.) The man whose WeWork inventory as soon as carried 20 instances the voting rights of different shareholders nonetheless appears to love management.

Neumann ushers me right into a featureless convention room and sits in entrance of an untouched whiteboard. I pull out a digital recorder however am instructed I can use it provided that I agree to not air the recording. Neumann sugars the tablet: “In the event you really feel like a podcast, that this particular quote would sound wonderful otherwise you need to put it up for sale by some means and also you want me to file one thing for you, we’re your companions,” he says. For a second, I can see why so many traders had been charmed.

Time is tight, and Neumann has his pitch ready. It entails founding new start-ups, funding others and creating an entire new property empire. Judging by the slide deck in entrance of him, it additionally entails browsing. The duvet of Neumann’s presentation exhibits a lone surfer chopping by means of an infinite wave, giving me flashbacks to tales I wrote about him taking WeWork’s $60mn Gulfstream to Hawaii or investing firm cash in a surf-park enterprise.

Is that him within the image? “Each time I take a look at it, I would like it to be,” he smiles, however no: “It is a greater wave than I’ve ridden . . . I cap out at about 28ft.” Neumann took up the game 5 years in the past, he tells me, and loves that it requires his full consideration, complete presence. “The second you’re not [present], you fall,” he says. “It’s so simple in immediately’s world to get distracted. We cherish these moments the place immediately you’re proper right here within the second. Like this, proper now.” 

A WeWork building in New York in 2019
A WeWork constructing in New York in 2019, shortly earlier than the corporate imploded © New York Instances/Redux/Eyevine

Within the second, he can not resist a comeback analogy. “To be an entrepreneur, it’s a must to recurrently make selections on the spot. And to achieve success, it’s a must to, over time, make extra proper selections than you probably did improper — really, much more proper. And the upper the expansion of the enterprise, the quicker you progress, the harder that it’s to do. However the longer you practise, similar to browsing over time, the higher you get at it. So that you fall in browsing, and then you definitely stand up and do it once more. And also you do it just a bit bit higher.” The implication is that if Neumann fell from grace with WeWork, it was solely as a result of he was transferring too quick. Now he’s prepared for better heights, and he has solely 45 minutes to elucidate them.

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The T-shirts emblazoned with motivational slogans that Neumann normally favours impressed Halloween costumes after his fall. At present, he has chosen a sober gray shirt as a substitute, featureless however for its black buttons. His hair is shorter too, although lengthy sufficient that he should sweep it off his face often. However there’s nonetheless loads of the charisma, conviction and hustle with which he pulled so many individuals into WeWork. He barely breaks eye contact as he speaks. There are significant pauses the place he places his hand to his coronary heart, lowers his tone to an excited whisper and smiles as if he’s about to disclose one thing great. “In a second, you’re going to get one thing that nobody has seen,” he guarantees.

However first, some historical past. Neumann opened his household workplace in 2019, when WeWork’s valuation was at its peak and his personal wealth — on paper — had hit $13bn. He had already cashed in a reported $700mn of his shares (one other bone of competition for IPO traders) and had begun including stakes in different start-ups to his property portfolio. He staffed the workplace with three skilled traders, Ilan Stern, DJ Mauch and Max Fink, with backgrounds in companies resembling Soros Fund Administration, Basic Catalyst and Citigroup. He anticipated to see them “occasionally” as he busied himself with WeWork. When his plans abruptly modified that autumn, “I walked into the household workplace, and I checked out them they usually checked out me and we had been like, ‘Properly, what now?’”

He requested the three companions to elucidate what they did, from non-public fairness offers to buying and selling eurodollar futures, after which they requested him the identical query. “I construct corporations, and I try this by means of mission, values, tradition after which serving to lead a staff of individuals in a single path,” he replied. The 2 worlds got here collectively, he says: “It was a one plus one equals three scenario.” Earlier than I can remind Neumann of traders’ scorn for fuzzy-math WeWork metrics resembling “community-adjusted ebitda”, he explains his level: their abilities complemented one another, “and there was concord”.

Neumann’s background made property an apparent place to start out, although his non-compete dominated out workplace house. Mauch introduced an evaluation that captivated his boss: the US has a scarcity of about 5mn houses however builds solely 1 / 4 of that quantity a yr, Neumann tells me. “In the event you stopped building immediately, you [would] run out of houses in lower than two months. Loopy, huh?”


WeWork’s peak 2019 valuation – shortly after, the corporate discovered itself on the snapping point

The legal guidelines of provide and demand have been tough on the younger professionals he dubbed the We technology. The median age of a US homebuyer has risen from 31 in 1981 to at the very least 45. So Neumann, after a decade of upending workplace markets from Manchester to Medellín, has been shopping for up reasonably priced rental residences — tons of of thousands and thousands of {dollars}’ price of them — in US cities that have stuffed up throughout the pandemic with millennials and Gen Z. “That is an previous factor in actual property, however location is extraordinarily vital,” he remarks, displaying a expertise for presenting truisms as revelations.

He says he favours cities resembling Nashville, Atlanta, Austin and Miami, which mix nice climate with the experiences that younger People need, however it’s not but clear to me what’s completely different about an Adam Neumann constructing from every other. “We began by shopping for this actual property, however then I began strolling the buildings, simply feeling, and it felt like there’s a lot extra that could possibly be executed to make these tenants’ lives higher,” he explains. Reaching for a phrase that loomed massive in his WeWork lexicon, he provides: “It felt like frankly, there’s room for extra neighborhood.” The We technology, he says, “has learnt rather a lot in corona”.

Neumann ventured into residential property as soon as earlier than with WeLive, opening just a few dormitory-like condo buildings with frequent areas crammed with contemporary fruit and yoga lessons. He isn’t but able to reveal what he plans this time, he says, however “all I can inform you is, I feel the chance is super”.

Neumann arriving at an event on the sidelines of WeWork’s trading debut in New York, October 2021
Neumann arriving at an occasion on the sidelines of WeWork’s buying and selling debut in New York, October 2021. He has a set of T-shirts with motivational slogans © Angus Mordant/Bloomberg

Neumann can speak about multifamily lodging with the identical zeal as he as soon as talked about elevating the world’s consciousness, however it’s clear that his actual ardour is for start-ups.

WeWork was his fifth enterprise (his early ventures, making girls’s footwear with collapsible heels or child garments with padded knees, are remembered now solely because the flops that made his later success attainable) however Neumann discloses that he has began a sixth, impressed by his spouse.

Rebekah, who as soon as ran the green-themed WeGrow kindergarten and was described in WeWork’s 2019 itemizing doc as Neumann’s “strategic thought associate”, had taken her environmental issues and began shopping for forests close to the equator within the hope of saving the useful carbon sinks from being reduce down. “Inside a yr, we’ve purchased greater than a few instances the dimensions of the state of New Jersey, actually a whole lot of forest. However in a short time, we realised we will’t purchase sufficient,” Neumann says, cradling his lengthy fingers collectively. So Rebekah challenged the family-office staff to give you a manner of shopping for extra forests whereas being profitable on the similar time.

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The consequence was Circulate Carbon, a enterprise promoting carbon credit to corporations trying to offset their emissions. The twist is that the credit are stored on the blockchain, so gamers in an in any other case opaque market can ensure that they aren’t shopping for one thing that has been offered many instances earlier than. He says it did $10mn in gross sales final yr.


The stake in WeWork retained by Neumann, price about $1bn when the corporate listed final October and about half that now

Moreover investing in Circulate Carbon and discovering co-founders to construct it, the Neumanns got here up with its branding. The title contains one among Neumann’s new favorite phrases — circulation (suppose waves relatively than money). “Surfers like to make use of the phrase ‘circulation state’. While you’re in circulation state, you’re actually going for it,” he says. “After we consider the surroundings, we consider ourselves, we consider the concord between us and different folks, we need to circulation. And I feel one thing all of us learnt in corona is all of us need to be on this state of circulation.”

It strikes me that the person who as soon as licensed using the phrase “We” to his personal firm for $5.9mn has but to give you a equally catchy model for his household workplace, which works by the title of 166 2nd Monetary Companies, a reference to the place he and Rebekah first lived. “I’ve already instructed you just a few issues. Now I’m going to attempt in your article to additionally provide the title,” he guarantees. “Folks suppose branding is developing with the title. It’s not; it’s the complete story coming collectively.” (A couple of days later, I’m instructed there shall be no new title to report in any case.)

The complete story of Neumann’s agency isn’t just about property investments or the dream of a brand new world-changing start-up. It’s about Neumann’s mutation from a founder depending on elevating outdoors capital to a supplier of such funds. His household workplace, now a workers of greater than 50 folks in New York and Miami, has quietly invested in 49 different start-ups, from a mortgage supplier to an organization making use of synthetic intelligence to in vitro fertilisation.

This additionally places Neumann himself within the place SoftBank’s Son occupied when he was nonetheless working WeWork. Again then, Son pushed Neumann to pursue ever-faster progress. I ask Neumann how that have informs how he operates now, and there’s a five-second pause earlier than he solutions. “That is so attention-grabbing. I’ve solely shared this internally, so it nearly feels bizarre to say it out loud,” he says, “however I imagine it’s that have that’s permitting me and the staff now to be enterprise traders . . . It’s really taking, clearly, the successes. However much more apparently, the teachings from the previous 10 years, and implementing them to each scenario that we see. And I wouldn’t be the place I’m immediately with out that have.”

Neumann, a uncommon government who talks about enterprise by way of his non secular follow, referred to as a number of former colleagues after he left WeWork and requested them what they thought he had executed improper. He admitted final yr that the intoxicating valuations placed on his firm went to his head. (At one level, Son projected that WeWork could possibly be price $10tn by 2028.)

However even his pals usually are not positive that he has any actual regrets, apart from not pausing WeWork’s spending on the proper time to point out Wall Road that it may generate a revenue. “I don’t suppose he feels regret,” one says. “I feel he’s nonetheless processing what occurred to him and is looking for desirous to have that factor once more.” That factor being the surfer-founder’s excessive of conquering the subsequent, greater wave.

Neumann continues answering my query about Son. “Once I converse to the entrepreneur, I was that entrepreneur, I can see myself in them,” he says, placing his hand on his coronary heart once more and explaining that he cuts his fellow founders some slack in consequence. It’s nerve-racking being of their footwear, he is aware of: “You generally really feel like the burden of the world is in your shoulders.”

He volunteers a narrative to point out what he has learnt from his dealings with WeWork’s traders. On a video name a couple of yr in the past, he says, he was advising a founder to take a brand new strategic path, however the entrepreneur wouldn’t hear it. The decision received heated, “and immediately . . . I see myself and I decelerate, I breathe. And I say to the entrepreneur, ‘Thanks’. As a result of now I see the way it feels to be on the investor facet. And I say to him, ‘ what? I feel many instances I made the fitting selections, however there have been instances the place I may have listened higher. And the rationale I’m providing you with this recommendation is as a result of I feel it’s greatest for you . . . not due to any private want for myself. So for those who may take a second and listen to what I’m saying and be taught from my lesson. I ought to have listened extra; this is a chance so that you can pay attention.’”

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Most postmortems of WeWork beneath Neumann have concluded that the search for hypergrowth was his undoing. But when he has learnt a lesson about going extra slowly, his slide deck in entrance of me doesn’t betray it. The household workplace is pursuing enterprise investments with “large” value-creation potential, it says.

Ulrich Kratz, co-founder of an ecommerce enterprise Neumann has backed referred to as Unybrands, says that the expansion expectations he units have been cheap. He had learn the press on Neumann earlier than they met in 2020, he says, however his expertise has been of “somebody who’s tremendous fast to be taught from the nice and the dangerous”. Neumann, he says, taught him that “you’ll discover your actual power within the challenges and also you’ll overcome them”.

Different executives he has invested in appear way more fascinated about his rise than his fall. “This man is aware of find out how to break glass. He disrupted business actual property quicker than anybody on the planet. To have him on our facet as we do it in residential is a really highly effective factor,” says Marcela Sapone, co-founder of Alfred, which offers “resident expertise options” for condo buildings.

Constructing an organization is about bringing folks collectively who imagine in a mission, provides Andrew Wang of Valon, a mortgage servicer and lender. “When you concentrate on who has executed that greatest, above all else, it’s Adam. He needs you to construct one thing better than your self. That’s my fact of who he’s,” Wang says, including that spending time with “larger-than-life folks” has taught him that a whole lot of media protection of them is inaccurate.

If Neumann is now in Son’s footwear as an investor, although, his relationship with the businesses he funds may be very completely different. Colleagues at WeWork say Son was a father determine for Neumann, however the founders he works with trace at how that relationship soured. “He by no means had the mentor that he needs to be now. He says that, and he’s very open about his journey and what he needs to do otherwise now with the businesses he’s working with,” says Daniella Gilboa, CEO of AiVF, an IVF know-how firm in Tel Aviv. Neumann is a “genius in storytelling”, she provides, although another founders complain that he makes the story of their start-ups a narrative about himself.

There’s one massive, unfinished piece of the WeWork story. Neumann nonetheless owns about 10 per cent of the corporate, a stake price about $1bn when it lastly listed final October. (It’s price about half that now.) Underneath his authorized settlement with SoftBank, Neumann is eligible to return to WeWork’s board as of this month, although solely as an observer for now, and solely with the Japanese group’s blessing. Pals imagine that he’s longing to be invited again.

Is he? “You probably did nice the way you waited for the final 4 minutes — that’s very good,” he smiles, pointing to the time on a close-by display screen. What he’ll inform me is that as the biggest non-public shareholder in a public firm, “I don’t need to make any statements that have an effect on it in any manner. I additionally don’t need to be a back-seat driver.”

It’s a merciless irony that the person who considers he invented the way forward for work needed to sit out the largest rethink of workplace work that the world has ever seen. However the pandemic has solely strengthened his perception within the WeWork mannequin. As we return to places of work, however in a extra versatile, hybrid method, “the chance goes to be even better,” he assures me.

As he was at WeWork, Neumann stays an outlier, an unusual determine who fascinates even the folks appalled by his comeback bid. He appears to imagine within the story he’s telling, even when different folks gained’t. However then we wish our entrepreneurs to see the world in ways in which the remainder of us can’t. From Elizabeth Holmes to Elon Musk, we fetishise founders’ quirks on the best way up. (These turtlenecks! That cavalier disregard for regulation!) On the best way down, we marvel why they by no means conformed.

We’re much more fascinated by their comebacks. Steve Jobs had one. So did Masayoshi Son. I ask Neumann if he had any such mannequin in thoughts when he sat down to start out writing his second act. He pauses, even longer this time. “I feel what’s lovely concerning the new story is that it’s a development and a consequence of the previous story,” he replies softly. “I don’t know if it’s a mannequin, however a thought that guided me is that if we take every part that occurred as a lesson, and we have fun the good, we be taught from no matter it’s we will be taught from, after which apply it as we transfer ahead into the long run, then it . . . it’s extraordinarily useful,” he tails off. I ask once more: what does he, Adam Neumann, need the subsequent chapter of the Adam Neumann story to be? “That’s a straightforward one. This chapter, I’d adore it to be the reality.”

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT’s US enterprise editor

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