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Graphic from "The Cult of We," by kind permission of the authors, Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell

This single slide — marked up in the yellow scrawl of SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son — captures this era's euphoria over the hyper-scaling of tech startups, combusting with extremely low interest rates:

The big picture: Cash gushers chase indefensible valuations on delusional growth prospects and paths to profitability, with little regard for the reality of the underlying business and market structure.

The slide was uncovered by Wall Street Journal reporters Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell as they wrote the delicious new book "The Cult of We," chronicling the wiles and humiliation of Adam Neumann, WeWork's day-drinking co-founder, former CEO, and chief snake-oil salesman.

"As he pondered a bigger investment in WeWork," the authors write, "Son pushed WeWork's already ambitious financial projections into territory unprecedented in business history. During a meeting with Neumann, he scribbled out a vision for a company worth $10 trillion."

Graphic from "The Cult of We," by kind permission of the authors, Eliot Brown and Maureen Farrell

SoftBank made Goldman Sachs look downright restrained in a pitch deck, also obtained by the authors, to take WeWork public.

  • Goldman bankers included the bar chart shown above ("Your Path to $1 Trillion"), which "played to both Neumann's hunger for a giant valuation and his affinity for simple visuals."

On the book's cover, business journalist Charles Duhigg calls it a portrait "of how grifters came to be called visionaries."

  • The wild-haired Neumann — a yeller who combined a televangelist's frenzy with tequila and weed, plus quirks that included strolling Manhattan barefoot — eventually drove his baby off a financial cliff:
The rise and fall of WeWork was enabled by a collision of forces: a man characterized by charisma, unbridled optimism, and astute salesmanship met an entire financial system primed to fall under his spell.

"Had a frothy venture capital sector not been so obsessed with the search for eccentric and visionary founders," the authors continue, "WeWork might still occupy only a smattering of buildings in Brooklyn and lower Manhattan."

Cover: Crown

The authors told me that COVID shutdown had sunk their reporting travel plans. But it turned out to be easier to talk to key players in the drama when they were stuck at home, rather than trying to meet them and gain their trust in a coffee shop. Maureen Farrell, who's on The Journal's Deals team, told me it's scary how much capital was destroyed during the We Work saga:

  • "In this era of so much money chasing the next great idea, it makes people willing to not have the checks and balances."

Eliot Brown, who covered venture capital and now writes about the SPAC frenzy, said Neumann got "smart people to do dumb things":

  • "Theranos was a charismatic entrepreneur making up numbers to trick investors. This was a charismatic entrepreneur using real numbers — but getting them to delude themselves."

Read a free excerpt, "Chapter 1: The Hustler."

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Go deeper

Capitol riot suspect allegedly seeking asylum in Belarus

Photo: Eric Lee/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Evan Neumann, an alleged participant in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, has fled the country and is seeking asylum in Belarus, the Washington Post reports.

Driving the news: Neumann, who is wanted in the United States on six charges related to the insurrection attempt, including counts of violent entry and disorderly conduct, appears to have sat down for an interview with Belarusian state television to discuss his departure.

Nathan Bomey, author of Closer
2 hours ago - Economy & Business

Tesla delays Cybertruck until 2023

Tesla debuts the Cybertruck in Hawthorne, Calif., on Nov. 21, 2019. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

Tesla is at risk of falling behind on one of the most critical products in the American auto industry: pickups.

Why it matters: Pickups are the most profitable segment in the business and account for the first, second and third best-selling vehicles in the country. Without a serious pickup strategy, Tesla could miss out on a huge source of future income.

Defense taking steps to mitigate civilian harm after botched airstrikes

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a news conference at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia on Sept. 1, 2021. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin issued a directive Thursday to improve the U.S. military's approach to civilian harm mitigation and response, calling it a "strategic and a moral imperative."

Why it matters: The Pentagon has faced criticism for years for amassing civilian casualties in its missions, especially in the Middle East. New York Times investigations have found systemic failures in efforts to prevent civilian deaths, as well as a cover-up of a 2019 airstrike that killed dozens of women and children in Syria.