How Adam Neumann Used the Mystique of the Kibbutz, and Much Mumbo-Jumbo, to Make a Bad Business Idea Seem Appealing

July 1, 2021 | Matti Friedman
About the author: Matti Friedman is the author of a memoir about the Israeli war in Lebanon, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016). His latest book is Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (2019).

Following its dramatic rise, WeWork—a company renting office space that billed itself as an innovative startup—was revealed in 2019 to be a house of cards, and quite possibly a scam, with an unworkable business model and questionable practices. At the center of its story is its charismatic Israeli-American founder and former CEO Adam Neumann, who somehow made many millions off the venture. Matti Friedman reviews Billion Dollar Failure, a new book about Neumann and his company:

If WeWork had been merely a rapacious business that failed, the story wouldn’t be much fun. The narrative electricity here comes from the loopy culture of the tech world, which requires its capitalists to speak a language of ideals—you are not out to make money, God forbid, but to connect people or save the planet or, as Neumann liked to say, “elevate consciousness.” (On the podcast WeCrashed, one of Neumann’s detractors had a good name for this: “yoga-babble.”)

My own introduction to the phenomenon, around the same time WeWork was gaining steam, came when I was reporting on a press conference for the launch of an electric car made by an Israeli startup that was going to change transportation forever and make the world green, or something. A reporter sitting next to me asked the CEO an innocuous question about how investors planned to make money. The CEO looked down from the stage as if he’d been asked about a recent case of syphilis and informed us, “I work for your children.”

As Neumann reinvented himself in America as a visionary CEO, with a certain Israeli mystique working in his favor, he made much of his kibbutz background. WeWork was a community, a kind of capitalist collective. People renting desks weren’t tenants but “members.” They’d share resources like coffee machines, printers, and fruit-flavored water and have unplanned yet productive meetings in the corridors. Sure, they were paying, but that wasn’t the point—the point was We. It was, he told Haaretz, “Kibbutz 2.0.”

Despite all of its subject’s babble, Friedman concludes, Billion Dollar Failure tells a “very human story of greed, ego, and gullibility.”

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