The Daredevil Unicorns: Why WeWork, Juul, and Uber Play With Fire

Lawless startups exploiting the seams of regulation are suddenly feeling the heat—and getting burned

Steve LeVine
Marker
Published in
9 min readSep 17, 2019

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Four illustrated characters representing WeWork, Juul, Tesla, and Uber are in various poses, with smirks on their faces.
Illustration: Mica Warren

OhOh to be a heedless startup founder in an unregulated space. To tromp on legacy players, ignore norms and rules, and generally move fast and break things, as Mark Zuckerberg put it a decade ago. To be not just part of a new company, but to lead a mission, a movement. And, not incidentally, become insanely rich.

Only, what happens when regulators show up, losses pile up — or people start, quite literally, dying?

We are watching a sudden perp walk of aggressively blithe founders who, fueled by chutzpah, raw conceptual genius, and a promise to shatter paradigms, have dominated the last decade of technological history with eye-popping valuations.

WeWork’s Adam Neumann, accused of self-dealing and power-grabbing, has had to vastly curtail the ambitions of his planned IPO, punching a hole in the company’s $47 billion valuation, and offering shares at a reported value of $10 billion to $20 billion. Investors may not even be prepared to buy shares at the lowered valuation, but they suddenly have more time to think about it: Late last night, the Financial Times reported that Neumann is postponing the startup’s IPO roadshow which was set for this week, for some time later this year. Uber, still suffering the hangover of past slash-and-burn behavior, has been ordered by California to start assuming the greater cost of treating its drivers like real employees. And Adam Bowen and James Monsees, co-founders of Juul, are facing a potentially existential threat to their $38 billion company after the deaths of six people and the illness of some 380 who used vaping pens.

But this is not really a story about the much-chronicled unicorns — the approximately 150 U.S. companies valued at a billion dollars or more, many of which are very much alive. Instead, it’s about an apparent reckoning for the Daredevil Unicorns, a rarefied subset of these companies that have stood out for their unabashed readiness to cross boundaries that almost everyone else observes.

A market correction disfavoring the Daredevils and their…

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Steve LeVine
Marker
Writer for

Editor at Large, Medium, covering the turbulence all around us, electric vehicles, batteries, social trends. Writing The Mobilist. Ex-Axios, Quartz, WSJ, NYT.