on his phone. “When Masa chose to invest in me for the first time,
he only met me for 28 minutes. Okay?” Neumann told me in January.
At the time, Neumann’s admiration for his mentor was still intact.
He recalled that Son told him, “The last person I felt this with was Jack
Ma.” Ma had famously turned a $20 million investment from Son in
February 2000 into Alibaba, a commerce giant valued at more than
$200 billion. There was a directive mixed in with the flattery: Neumann
would be expected to deliver as Ma had.
Neumann had always been aggressive and demanding, the kind of
entrepreneur who thought about having 100 We Works when he still
had only a mere handful. Once Son’s investment in We Work was announced, in August 2017, Neumann became even more so.
Employees who worked closely with Neumann say that Son’s exhortation to move “faster” made him more volatile. One executive
recalls the founder returning from a meeting with Son, upset because Son had told him that he wasn’t growing the company quickly
enough. Neumann turned up the pace to breakneck. He tore up plans
that called for opening 30 new locations, insisting that the team make
it 60. “You have to imagine the strain this puts on an organization,”
says one employee who worked with Neumann.
The logistics involved in opening a We Work location are exhaustive: negotiating a lease, designing the space, getting permits,
building it out, finding tenants, and tailoring the marketing for a
particular neighborhood. Major problems at the company’s far-flung locations—it had expanded everywhere from Houston to
Melbourne, Australia—would get overlooked or swept under the
rug amid the frenzy to grow.
Executives say that when they tried to convince Neumann to
proceed more cautiously, he would become enraged, calling them
“B players.” One former manager recalls being publicly berated,
and later having his job title stripped, after trying to persuade
Neumann to rethink a particular strategy that did not have enough
staffing to be executed properly. Others who argued with Neumann
would get barred from meetings, pointedly ignored, or iced out of
conversations. “You would get punished for standing up to him,”
one employee says.
Few people on the planet have had as much access to Son as Neumann once did. Son was more than just a deep pocket. He was an ally, a
confidant, a fellow dreamer and supporter. “Adam and Masa have a special relationship,” Artie Minson, We Work’s former CFO who took over
as co-CEO in September 2019, told me in the
fall of 2018. Neumann, whose parents divorced
when he was 7 and who was raised mostly by
his mother, grew to rely on Son for guidance.
Neumann did not want to disappoint his mentor, and Son expected much of his star. Son
appointed two top lieutenants—SoftBank vice
chair Ron Fisher and Mark Schwartz, a former
Goldman Sachs partner—to sit on We Work’s
board. Schwartz, employees say, was a regular
around the office, at times appearing in operational meetings, and working out of a small
room near Neumann and other top executives.
Neumann had long kept a scrap of paper
on which he and cofounder Miguel Mc Kelvey
had sketched out their early ideas for how
the company could grow into residential real
After the food startup
raised $375 million
from SoftBank in
November 2018, its cofounder and then CEO
Julia Collins quietly
departed. Since then,
Zume’s strategy has metastasized from robot-made pizza delivery
to an overly broad
vision to reinvent
the food system.