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

Adam Neumann wants his story to be told. No, not the one about the weed-smoking, tequila-loving, free-spending wild child who took his co-working unicorn WeWork to a $47bn valuation and then to the brink of collapse. That tale has already been the subject of countless unflattering articles, podcasts, page-turners, television documentaries and, later this month, an Apple TV+ series in which Jared Leto plays Neumann with Israeli-accented messianic flair.

This story, Adam Neumann’s version of the Adam Neumann story, is the second act, the comeback. At 42, he says he is beginning “something much bigger than I even knew was possible”. And the first thing that New York’s most flattering founder says, as all 6ft 5in of him strides over to meet me, is that he has chosen me — only me — to tell it.

We are standing in the headquarters of Neumann’s family office, a skinny Beaux Arts building in Greenwich Village where you can still see the shadow of the WeWork logo that once hung on the masonry outside. The aesthetic feels familiar — stripped floors, white walls, couches with statement cushions — but also toned down. There are no neon signs urging visitors to “Respect the Hustle” as there were in the WeWorks of the Neumann era. No desks inside phone booths or shuffleboard tables either, and nothing more hipster in the communal fridge than pots of hummus. IBM was WeWork’s main customer in this building, until Covid-19 made one of the world’s biggest users of office space realise that it could manage with less of it. And WeWork itself was Neumann’s tenant until 2021, this being one of several buildings that he invested in personally and then leased to the company he controlled.

That conflict of interest was just one of the things that scared off Wall Street investors when Neumann tried to take his lossmaking “capitalist kibbutz” public in 2019. In the crisis that followed the failed listing, WeWork came within weeks of running out of cash, Neumann lost his job as CEO and his grip on the company — and SoftBank, the Japanese investment firm that had bet $10bn on Neumann’s vision of changing work as we know it, had to spend billions more rescuing the business. Thousands of employees lost their jobs as WeWork’s new management tried to bring costs under control, but the terms of that bailout ensured that Neumann still emerged a billionaire. His second act should, if nothing else, require less outside capital than the first.

The experience has done 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 walk through his new one-floor headquarters is even shorter, a blur of people preoccupied by their screens who, Neumann says, either work for him or for start-ups he has invested in. “It’s actual co-working,” he says, before hastening to clarify that this does not violate the non-compete agreement he signed on leaving WeWork. Neumann has spent a lot of time with lawyers since then and, while he has settled an ugly courtroom fight with SoftBank, receiving another several hundred million dollars, enough loose ends remain that he must watch his words.

Perhaps this is why arranging this meeting has taken so much negotiation. At first, Neumann’s publicist suggests that he should approve any quotes from the interview that I intend to use. Told that the FT can’t accept this, he backs down, but says Neumann can see me only for an hour. And we cannot send a photographer; instead, Neumann sends his own image to use. (Editor’s note: we didn’t.) The man whose WeWork stock once carried 20 times the voting rights of other shareholders still seems to like control.

Neumann ushers me into a featureless conference room and sits in front of an untouched whiteboard. I pull out a digital recorder but am told I can use it only if I agree not to air the recording. Neumann sugars the pill: “If you feel like a podcast, that this specific quote would sound amazing or you want to promote it somehow and you need me to record something for you, we are your partners,” he says. For a moment, I can see why so many investors were charmed.

Time is tight, and Neumann has his pitch prepared. It involves founding new start-ups, funding others and creating a whole new property empire. Judging by the slide deck in front of him, it also involves surfing. The cover of Neumann’s presentation shows a lone surfer cutting through an enormous wave, giving me flashbacks to stories I wrote about him taking WeWork’s $60mn Gulfstream to Hawaii or investing company money in a surf-park business.

Is that him in the picture? “Every time I look at it, I want it to be,” he smiles, but no: “This is a bigger wave than I have ridden . . . I cap out at about 28ft.” Neumann took up the sport five years ago, he tells me, and loves that it requires his complete attention, total presence. “The moment you’re not [present], you fall,” he says. “It is so easy in today’s world to get distracted. We cherish these moments where suddenly you’re right here in the moment. Like this, right now.” 

A WeWork building in New York in 2019
A WeWork building in New York in 2019, shortly before the company imploded © New York Times/Redux/Eyevine

In the moment, he cannot resist a comeback analogy. “To be an entrepreneur, you have to regularly make decisions on the spot. And to be successful, you have to, over time, make more right decisions than you did wrong — actually, a lot more right. And the higher the growth of the business, the faster you move, the tougher that it is to do. But the longer you practise, just like surfing over time, the better you get at it. So you fall in surfing, and then you get up and do it again. And you do it just a little bit better.” The implication is that if Neumann fell from grace with WeWork, it was only because he was moving too fast. Now he is ready for greater heights, and he has only 45 minutes to explain them.

The T-shirts emblazoned with motivational slogans that Neumann usually favours inspired Halloween costumes after his fall. Today, he has chosen a sober grey shirt instead, featureless but for its black buttons. His hair is shorter too, though long enough that he must sweep it off his face occasionally. But there’s still plenty of the charisma, conviction and hustle with which he pulled so many people into WeWork. He barely breaks eye contact as he speaks. There are meaningful pauses where he puts his hand to his heart, lowers his tone to an excited whisper and smiles as though he is about to reveal something wonderful. “In a second, you’re going to get something that no one has seen,” he promises.

But first, some history. Neumann opened his family office in 2019, when WeWork’s valuation was at its peak and his own wealth — on paper — had hit $13bn. He had already cashed in a reported $700mn of his shares (another bone of contention for IPO investors) and had begun adding stakes in other start-ups to his property portfolio. He staffed the office with three professional investors, Ilan Stern, DJ Mauch and Max Fink, with backgrounds in firms such as Soros Fund Management, General Catalyst and Citigroup. He expected to see them “once in a while” as he busied himself with WeWork. When his plans abruptly changed that autumn, “I walked into the family office, and I looked at them and they looked at me and we were like, ‘Well, what now?’”

He asked the three partners to explain what they did, from private equity deals to trading eurodollar futures, and then they asked him the same question. “I build companies, and I do that through mission, values, culture and then helping lead a team of people in one direction,” he replied. The two worlds came together, he says: “It was a one plus one equals three situation.” Before I can remind Neumann of investors’ scorn for fuzzy-math WeWork metrics such as “community-adjusted ebitda”, he explains his point: their skills complemented each other, “and there was harmony”.

Neumann’s background made property an obvious place to start, though his non-compete ruled out office space. Mauch presented an analysis that captivated his boss: the US has a shortage of about 5mn homes but builds only a quarter of that number a year, Neumann tells me. “If you stopped construction today, you [would] run out of homes in less than two months. Crazy, huh?”


WeWork’s peak 2019 valuation – shortly after, the company found itself on the verge of collapse

The laws of supply and demand have been rough on the young professionals he dubbed the We generation. The median age of a US homebuyer has risen from 31 in 1981 to at least 45. So Neumann, after a decade of upending office markets from Manchester to Medellín, has been buying up affordable rental apartments — hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of them — in US cities that have filled up during the pandemic with millennials and Gen Z. “This is an old thing in real estate, but location is extremely important,” he remarks, displaying a talent for presenting truisms as revelations.

He says he favours cities such as Nashville, Atlanta, Austin and Miami, which combine great weather with the experiences that young Americans want, but it is not yet clear to me what’s different about an Adam Neumann building from any other. “We started by buying this real estate, but then I started walking the buildings, just feeling, and it felt like there’s so much more that could be done to make these tenants’ lives better,” he explains. Reaching for a word that loomed large in his WeWork lexicon, he adds: “It felt like frankly, there’s room for more community.” The We generation, he says, “has learnt a lot in corona”.

Neumann ventured into residential property once before with WeLive, opening a few dormitory-like apartment buildings with common spaces filled with fresh fruit and yoga classes. He is not yet ready to divulge what he plans this time, he says, but “all I can tell you is, I think the opportunity is tremendous”.

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

Neumann can talk about multifamily accommodation with the same zeal as he once talked about elevating the world’s consciousness, but it is clear that his real passion is for start-ups.

WeWork was his fifth business (his early ventures, making women’s shoes with collapsible heels or baby clothes with padded knees, are remembered now only as the flops that made his later success possible) but Neumann discloses that he has started a sixth, inspired by his wife.

Rebekah, who once ran the green-themed WeGrow kindergarten and was described in WeWork’s 2019 listing document as Neumann’s “strategic thought partner”, had taken her environmental concerns and started buying forests near the equator in the hope of saving the valuable carbon sinks from being cut down. “Within a year, we’ve bought more than a few times the size of the state of New Jersey, really a lot of forest. But very quickly, we realised we can’t buy enough,” Neumann says, cradling his long fingers together. So Rebekah challenged the family-office team to come up with a way of buying more forests while making money at the same time.

The result was Flow Carbon, a business selling carbon credits to companies looking to offset their emissions. The twist is that the credits are kept on the blockchain, so players in an otherwise opaque market can be sure that they are not buying something that has been sold many times before. He says it did $10mn in sales last year.


The stake in WeWork retained by Neumann, worth about $1bn when the company listed last October and about half that now

Besides investing in Flow Carbon and finding co-founders to build it, the Neumanns came up with its branding. The name includes one of Neumann’s new favourite words — flow (think waves rather than cash). “Surfers like to use the word ‘flow state’. When you’re in flow state, you’re really going for it,” he says. “When we think of the environment, we think of ourselves, we think of the harmony between us and other people, we want to flow. And I think something we all learnt in corona is we all want to be in this state of flow.”

It strikes me that the man who once licensed the use of the word “We” to his own company for $5.9mn has yet to come up with a similarly catchy brand for his family office, which goes by the name of 166 2nd Financial Services, a reference to where he and Rebekah first lived. “I’ve already told you a few things. Now I’m going to try for your article to also give you the name,” he promises. “People think branding is coming up with the name. It’s not; it’s the full story coming together.” (A few days later, I’m told there will be no new name to report after all.)

The full story of Neumann’s firm is not just about property investments or the dream of a new world-changing start-up. It is about Neumann’s mutation from a founder dependent on raising outside capital to a provider of such funds. His family office, now a staff of more than 50 people in New York and Miami, has quietly invested in 49 other start-ups, from a mortgage provider to a company applying artificial intelligence to in vitro fertilisation.

This also puts Neumann himself in the position SoftBank’s Son occupied when he was still running WeWork. Back then, Son pushed Neumann to pursue ever-faster growth. I ask Neumann how that experience informs how he operates now, and there is a five-second pause before he answers. “This is so interesting. I’ve only shared this internally, so it almost feels weird to say it out loud,” he says, “but I believe it’s that experience that is allowing me and the team now to be venture investors . . . It’s actually taking, obviously, the successes. But even more interestingly, the lessons from the past 10 years, and implementing them to every situation that we see. And I wouldn’t be where I am today without that experience.”

Neumann, a rare executive who talks about business in terms of his spiritual practice, called several former colleagues after he left WeWork and asked them what they thought he had done wrong. He admitted last year that the intoxicating valuations put on his company went to his head. (At one point, Son projected that WeWork could be worth $10tn by 2028.)

But even his friends are not sure that he has any real regrets, except for not pausing WeWork’s spending at the right time to show Wall Street that it could generate a profit. “I don’t think he feels remorse,” one says. “I think he’s still processing what happened to him and is in search of wanting to have that thing again.” That thing being the surfer-founder’s high of conquering the next, bigger wave.

Neumann continues answering my question about Son. “When I speak to the entrepreneur, I used to be that entrepreneur, I can see myself in them,” he says, putting his hand on his heart again and explaining that he cuts his fellow founders some slack as a result. It’s stressful being in their shoes, he knows: “You sometimes feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders.”

He volunteers a story to show what he has learnt from his dealings with WeWork’s investors. On a video call about a year ago, he says, he was advising a founder to take a new strategic direction, but the entrepreneur wouldn’t hear it. The call got heated, “and suddenly . . . I see myself and I slow down, I breathe. And I say to the entrepreneur, ‘Thank you’. Because now I see how it feels to be on the investor side. And I say to him, ‘You know what? I think many times I made the right decisions, but there were times where I could have listened better. And the reason I’m giving you this advice is because I think it’s best for you . . . not because of any personal need for myself. So if you could take a second and hear what I’m saying and learn from my lesson. I should have listened more; this is an opportunity for you to listen.’”

Most postmortems of WeWork under Neumann have concluded that the quest for hypergrowth was his undoing. But if he has learnt a lesson about going more slowly, his slide deck in front of me does not betray it. The family office is pursuing venture investments with “massive” value-creation potential, it says.

Ulrich Kratz, co-founder of an ecommerce business Neumann has backed called Unybrands, says that the growth expectations he sets have been reasonable. He had read the press on Neumann before they met in 2020, he says, but his experience has been of “someone who’s super quick to learn from the good and the bad”. Neumann, he says, taught him that “you’ll find your real strength in the challenges and you’ll overcome them”.

Other executives he has invested in seem much more interested in his rise than his fall. “This guy knows how to break glass. He disrupted commercial real estate faster than anyone on the planet. To have him on our side as we do it in residential is a very powerful thing,” says Marcela Sapone, co-founder of Alfred, which provides “resident experience solutions” for apartment buildings.

Building a company is about bringing people together who believe in a mission, adds Andrew Wang of Valon, a mortgage servicer and lender. “When you think about who has done that best, above all else, it’s Adam. He wants you to build something greater than yourself. That is my truth of who he is,” Wang says, adding that spending time with “larger-than-life people” has taught him that a lot of media coverage of them is inaccurate.

If Neumann is now in Son’s shoes as an investor, though, his relationship with the companies he funds is very different. Colleagues at WeWork say Son was a father figure for Neumann, but the founders he works with hint at how that relationship soured. “He never had the mentor that he wants to be now. He says that, and he’s very open about his journey and what he wants to do differently now with the companies he’s working with,” says Daniella Gilboa, CEO of AiVF, an IVF technology company in Tel Aviv. Neumann is a “genius in storytelling”, she adds, though some other founders complain that he makes the story of their start-ups a story about himself.

There is one large, unfinished piece of the WeWork story. Neumann still owns about 10 per cent of the company, a stake worth about $1bn when it finally listed last October. (It’s worth about half that now.) Under his legal settlement with SoftBank, Neumann is eligible to return to WeWork’s board as of this month, though only as an observer for now, and only with the Japanese group’s blessing. Friends believe that he is longing to be invited back.

Is he? “You did great how you waited for the last four minutes — that’s very smart,” he smiles, pointing to the time on a nearby screen. What he will tell me is that as the largest private shareholder in a public company, “I don’t want to make any statements that affect it in any way. I also don’t want to be a back-seat driver.”

It is a cruel irony that the man who considers he invented the future of work had to sit out the biggest rethink of office work that the world has ever seen. But the pandemic has only strengthened his belief in the WeWork model. As we return to offices, but in a more flexible, hybrid manner, “the opportunity is going to be even greater,” he assures me.

As he was at WeWork, Neumann remains an outlier, an uncommon figure who fascinates even the people appalled by his comeback bid. He seems to believe in the story he’s telling, even if other people won’t. But then we want our entrepreneurs to see the world in ways that the rest of us can’t. From Elizabeth Holmes to Elon Musk, we fetishise founders’ quirks on the way up. (Those turtlenecks! That cavalier disregard for regulation!) On the way down, we wonder why they never conformed.

We are even more fascinated by their comebacks. Steve Jobs had one. So did Masayoshi Son. I ask Neumann if he had any such model in mind when he sat down to start writing his second act. He pauses, even longer this time. “I think what’s beautiful about the new story is that it is a progression and a consequence of the old story,” he replies softly. “I don’t know if it’s a model, but a thought that guided me is that if we take everything that happened as a lesson, and we celebrate the great, we learn from whatever it is we can learn from, and then apply it as we move forward into the future, then it . . . it’s extremely beneficial,” he tails off. I ask again: what does he, Adam Neumann, want the next chapter of the Adam Neumann story to be? “That’s an easy one. This chapter, I would love it to be the truth.”

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

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