It took my less than two days to devour the 350 pages of Bad Blood via audible, listening to its 11.5 hours of audio material at 1.75x speed. And boy, what a story! I knew about the company and their rise and fall, but didn’t know all the details. After hearing many friends rave about the book and the investigative journalism done by John Carreyrou, I felt I had to read it.
One of the things that surprised me right from the beginning was that the Theranos story had started as early as in 2003. I don’t know why, but I thought the entire saga was much more recent. The other thing that surprised me was that while much of their downfall happened during my time at business school, right in the heart of Silicon Valley, it was never discussed – neither by students nor in class. Considering that she (and the media) prided her with being a Stanford drop-out, I’d hope that the school would make it some subject of discussion after all.
One of the recurring thoughts I had when reading the story was: how could she manage to build a company of 800 people, close nation-wide distribution deals, hit a $9B valuation, and build a board that included names like Kissinger and Matis – all based on lies and a technology that never worked as promised. It’s absolutely mind-boggling.
I highly recommend the book, but more importantly, I recommend reading and reflecting over the story. The Theranos story is a painful and important reminder of the many things that are wrong with our society, with our media, with the way how we interact with each other, with Silicon Valley and entrepreneurship, etc.
For one, it showed how much the media loves to glorify stories like hers. A 19-year old Stanford drop-out, a woman no less, starting a biomedical company that “can change the world.” Media is all about selling stories, and hers was one that had all the ingredients. And she only fueled the frenzy: the secrecy around her technology, the similarities with Steve Job/Apple that she nurtured, it was all a show, and the media loved 10x-ing everything that she fed them with.
What I found terribly shocking was how many people she deceived. Political giants like Kissinger, Shultz or Matis where on her board. Murdoch, among many others, was an investor. She was close with the Clinton’s and started to nurture a good relationship with the Obama White House. Vice President Biden came by to visit her company, and there she was on stage with Bill Clinton and Jack Ma. No one could see through it. Her “empire of lies” was growing bigger and bigger, and no one could resist her charm and allure.
The sad truth is that I, too, would have fallen for it. As I was reading, I wondered many times if I could have see through it. I am sure I would have been doubtful about some of the stuff that happened at the company (assuming I was working there), but chances are that I would have quelled my doubts by telling myself exactly what everyone else told themselves: how can so many people be wrong about her and the company? She is on all these covers, the company is growing, the money is flowing in, the partners are all lined up. This can’t be all fake, right?
One thing that helped mask all these lies was the fact that she was building a healthcare company. Give the many regulations and institutions that manage those, in combination with the fact that health tech R&D tends to take longer and often plagued with delays, she was able to go on for so long without being noticed. In other industries, it would have been much harder to mask it for so long.
The other thing that helped her go on for so long was the fact that she kept the experts away. None of her board directors had any experience in healthcare (in fact they were all white, male, and old… falling for her young charm). And of all the millions she raised, none of that came from experienced health/biotech VCs. And the experts within the company? She made sure they’d either never notice (by keeping the company notoriously compartmentalized) or by terrorizing them into silence once they did notice.
As I was reading the book, I couldn’t help but see many similarities with the current government. The many lies that you feed yourself with. The fake reality/world you make up in your mind until you believe it yourself. So much of it we can see in the Trump administration.
The biggest personal takeaway for me was that this story makes you take all these fundraising headlines and glorifications of entrepreneurs and their companies with so much more caution, distance, and skepticism.