2021 will see the release of a new ew HULU documentary on the rise and fall of the real estate scam known as WeWork. I could smell it the moment I walked into the building in 2016. The unmistakable odor of a scam. Like the smell of fake leather in an overpriced used car. The entire WeWork concept was never meant to “change the world.” It was meant to change the world of one man: Adam Neumann. It succeeded on that level. He is now worth close to 1 billion American dollars. Meanwhile, thousands of others are left unemployed, exhausted, and broke. It was never meant to be a “Tech Startup.” It was a Real Estate scam. One whose success relied on tenants who couldn’t pay their rent because many of them were also scam artists. The mantra “Fake it ’til you make it” only goes so far before reality sets in. Read on to see what I saw when working on a contract job in a WeWork building back in 2017.
The following article was originally posted on 3 March 2017:
Last year, I secured a contractor gig at a small startup occupying one of the hundreds of box-sized hipster-friendly shared offices within a large modern building in East London. The establishment featured floor-to-ceiling glass in place of walls, both inside and out. Each floor had a fancy kitchen stocked with tea, coffee, and fruit-infused water included in the price of rent.
At first glance, the people running and working for the companies within the premises seemed professional and hardworking. The (mostly) millennials ran around between meeting rooms, constantly talking on their phones, clutching coffee, laptops, and tablets as if they were extensions of their bodies.
Within one week, the façade began to crack. Each day, I listened in on the tea break and commuter conversations of the owners and employees of many companies, and it turned out that a lot of them were just throwing money down the drain trying to look good by renting space with a cool “company culture.” Many had no viable business plans or even any idea how they were going to pay for that day’s third Starbucks run. Many believed that their ideas and image alone would propel them to success, even if the idea had been executed previously, and innumerably better. I even discovered several who provided no services at all and/or didn’t sell a product or content, but who inexplicably had marketing staff. Many complained of living hand to mouth and more than a few still lived with their parents. “What exactly does your business do then?” I asked cautiously, knowing my question might be perceived as being hostile to their fantasies. Almost all of them would proceed to show me an app or a website they were convinced would bring them great fame and wealth.
As a veteran of the Television industry in Los Angeles, I am familiar with this phenomenon of human psychology. It is the same one that plagues almost every moderately attractive actor who moves to Hollywood to be the next Brad Pitt or Jennifer Lawrence. It’s called delusional. In 15 years I never saw it pan out for anyone. In fact, those who concentrated on the fame and fortune aspect of things usually ended up moving back to Indiana. Conversely, those who were willing to take whatever job they could get within the industry, including those behind the camera as well as in front it, were the ones that ended up building successful careers and lived very comfortable lives.
Drawing further parallels, these young entrepreneurs in the glass building were just as excited about the meeting to discuss the meeting with the potential investors next week as recent acting school graduates were about getting their first set of headshots. “I really think Mr. Goldpockets will love Tinder for cat ladies. I mean, who wouldn’t? I dated a dog guy once. What a waste of time. So…coffee then?”
Of course, it goes without saying that for every 25 starving impresarios, there is at least one venture capitalist (or in the case of show biz – an agent) with far too much money lying around. Investors suitably impressed by the hip aesthetics within the glass offices to give Tindercat just enough capital to continue paying rent to the landlord. WeWork is currently valued at $16 Billion. Life must be pretty sweet for the landlord. And the guy taking those headshots in L.A. They both know it will likely amount to nothing in the end.
By the end of the week, I realized the all-glass design of the building, meant to impart a transparent, shared space, was a larger metaphor for the current state of the small business economy and its appropriation of show business culture. It is fragile. It bends light in such a manner as to create rainbows. Rainbows look nice but are nonetheless fleeting. Just like the images created by the lens of a camera in Hollywood.