How the Reporter Who Wrote That Viral WeWork Profile Kept Track Of All the Crazy Stories
'Adam has been pretty clearly to us, like, an endlessly fascinating figure.'
|Bill Murphy Jr.||Oct 4, 2019|| 2|
Welcome to Understandably (formerly “The Byliner”), my new regularly published email about the “story behind other stories.”
—Bill Murphy Jr.
Some people collect paintings or antiques. Others collect coins or stamps or baseball cards.
Eliot Brown of The Wall Street Journal spent months collecting weird stories about Adam Neumann, who was until recently the CEO of WeWork.
“Adam has been pretty clearly to us, like, an endlessly fascinating figure,” Brown, who has covered WeWork since 2013, told me this week, adding: “I literally started keeping a spreadsheet [of anecdotes] … probably about nine months ago.”
On September 18, a month after WeWork filed its paperwork to go public, the Journal published Brown’s 2,864-word profile of Neumann.
The skills that helped fuel We Co.’s breakneck growth are piling up as potential liabilities as the company prepares to go public.
The story was a “bombshell,” according to Dakin Campbell of Business Insider, and marked “a turning point in how [Neumann’s] investors and employees saw him.”
Among the anecdotes Brown included (mostly sourced to “people familiar with the incident(s),” were:
Neumann allegedly flying with friends on a private jet to Israel while smoking marijuana, and the crew finding "a sizable chunk of the drug stuffed in a cereal box for the return flight." (The jet's owner took the plane back home without him.)
The CEO waxing poetically about "becoming leader of the world, living forever, [and] amassing more than $1 trillion in wealth." (Brown: "Many former employees said they didn't always know how seriously to take some of Mr. Neumann's pronouncements.”)
How Neumann reportedly spoke “somberly” before his entire company after laying off 7 percent before bringing in staff with tequila shots for everyone, plus a surprise appearance by Darryl McDaniels of Run-DMC, who "played a set for the staff." (Brown: Some employees said they were "stunned and confused.")
Six days later, Neumann was forced out as CEO. A week after that, WeWork backed off its plans for an IPO.
‘Why is this worth so much?’
I talked with Brown earlier this week, shortly after WeWork’s announcement about not going public, and after Brown had an announcement of his own: a book deal, along with fellow Journal reporter Maureen Farrell.
Brown 36, came to the Journal in 2010 from the New York Observer. He’s in San Francisco, where his beat is officially venture capital and startups (although recently, “150 percent WeWork”).
He said he started covering WeWork simply because of its fast growth, but got sucked in after private investors started valuing it in the billions.
“That’s when our heads sort of turned like, why is this worth so much?” he said.
At some point, he and Farrell, who mostly covers IPOs, will take leave to work on their book, which is under contract with Random House. I asked what the book deal was worth, but he declined to comment on that.
But he did explain how he and other Journal reporters, Farrell included, have managed to share some of the writing about WeWork.
“We have like text chains, or group texts between me and Maureen, [and] Liz Hoffman, who covers Goldman and Softbank, and Dave Benoit, who covers J.P. Morgan. And our editor on a lot of this stuff, Dana Cimilluca. It’s literally … the most collaborative effort I've ever seen at the Journal.”
‘The energy of we’
It’s funny how things unfold. Any one of the anecdotes Brown included in his Neumann profile might not have been that big a deal. But the cumulative way he spelled it all out made its ultimate impact seem almost inevitable.
It all came on the heels of scrutiny of the SEC paperwork WeWork filed, which was strange and entertaining in itself, starting with a cryptic epigraph: "We dedicate this to the energy of we -- greater than any of us, but inside each of us."
It only got weirder. Within days, investors and media seized on the company’s odd business model and Neumann’s alleged self-dealing — things like buying office buildings personally and then leasing them back to WeWork, and his plan to sell the trademark to the word “We” to the company for $5.9 million.
By September 8, WeWork was floating a valuation of about $20 billion — less than half the $47 billion it had been valued at during its latest private financing round in January. Then, another report said they were looking at $10 billion, so half that again.
Brown covered all of this, while simultaneously working the phones, trying to confirm the Neumann stories he’d kept in his spreadsheet.
“The stuff that made him — the kind of crazy things that he did — that made him so successful at raising money on the private markets, were going to be looked at unfavorably on the public markets,” Brown said when I asked him to summarize what angle he was going for with his profile.
“I honestly don’t have an incredibly good sense of how the investing public saw it,” he continued. “From readers, it was a really well-read story. And editors here, I think, were quite happy with it. Also, quite good at making it better.”