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What Innovators Can Learn From the Spectacular Rise and Crash of Theranos

Including its CEO Elizabeth Holmes

What Innovators Can Learn From the Spectacular Rise and Crash of Theranos

Last week in a Silicon Valley courtroom, Theranos founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes was convicted on four counts of fraud in connection with the failed blood-testing company she founded in 2003. The Stanford dropout will soon be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. She joins a long list of convicted fakers that includes Bernie Madoff, Jeff Skilling, John DeLorean, and many others.

For most observers, the question now is how Holmes got so far, so fast. But for innovators everywhere, I want to focus on a different question: what can we learn from this case study of innovation gone bad?

As an innovation author and trainer to corporate America, I see this as a tragedy for future startups, and the field of innovation.

From the beginning, I followed the amazing rise and spectacular fall of Theranos. At its zenith, the firm soared to a $9 billion valuation. When articles appeared on Elizabeth’s achievements, I was dazzled. Here was a young woman who’d had the gall to drop out of college and start a company that promised to change the game in healthcare.

Theranos invented the nanotainer, which collected blood through a simple, painless finger prick. Several drops of blood could then be tested by another Theranos invention, the Edison. Capable, according to company literature, of performing “hundreds” of separate tests, from standard cholesterol checks to AIDs and leukemia. “The results are faster, more accurate, and far cheaper than conventional methods,” crowed Wired Magazine in a 2014 cover story.

If only it were so. As the 18-week trial revealed, it was all smoke and mirrors.

The Edison was never able to perform any blood tests reliably. But instead of coming clean, Holmes chose to double down and lawyer up. In the book Bad Blood, Wall Street Journal reporter John Carreyrou detailed how Holmes went extreme. She harassed, threatened, and tried to silence internal whistleblowers. Carreyrou was pilloried before the Theranos staff and threatened by Holmes’ attorney and company stakeholder David Boies. Yet his damaging reporting led to Theranos’ unraveling. He carefully documented how Holmes and COO Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani resorted to using conventional test equipment behind the scenes, while pretending to patients and investors that Edison had performed the work.

As the story of Theranos now fades into history, what can be learned from this rare, behind-the-scenes insight into the amazing rise and fall of a startup that might guide the innovation efforts of others? What did Holmes get right, and where did she go wrong?

Innovators need to believe in themselves and think big, and they need self-discipline. Holmes had these attributes in spades. As a journal she kept revealed during the trial, Holmes kept up a grueling personal development regimen: “4 a.m. rise. Thank God, exercise, meditation, prayer. Eat breakfast Eat breakfast of whey and banana. Get to office by 6:45.”

Young and inexperienced in business, she apparently disciplined herself to speak in a deep and unemotional voice to make her seem older and more credible. She wore turtleneck sweaters to subliminally get people to think she might just be the second coming of Steve Jobs, her hero.

She made mentors of people like Larry Ellison and big-name investors like Tim Draper, who in turn helped convince big-name investors like the DeVoss family, the Cox family of Atlanta, and Rupert Murdock, who lost $125 million in the collapse.

Holmes’ was ultra-tough on herself to keep upping her game: “I am never a minute late,” she wrote in one entry. “I show no excitement. [I am] ALL ABOUT BUSINESS. I am not impulsive. I know the outcome of every encounter. I do not hesitate. I constantly make decisions and change them as needed. I speak rarely. I call bullshit immediately.”

Yet the one person she failed to call it on was herself.

And once she edged down that path with little lies, little deceptions, she got trapped into telling bigger and bigger lies. “Our equipment is already in use by the U.S. military on battlefields,” she promised would-be investors. It wasn’t. She was particularly good at establishing credibility, and somehow managed to charm such luminaries as Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and James Mattis to serve on her board of directors, along with not a single scientist nor medical doctor who might have red-flagged problems with the Edison. (It is amazing that General Mattis apparently didn’t bother to check out the false claim that the military was already piloting the product on battlefields).

Holmes knew how to deflect when her offering proved vulnerable. Every good sales professional knows to “overcome objections.” But whenever visitors started asking her questions that were too close to the Big Lie (the product had major flaws), she aggressively pushed back with, “don’t ask us to reveal trade secrets.” While this shut them up, it did not solve her problem.

Another tool of innovators trying to build the buy-in for their ideas is to use the “fear of losing out” technique. There’s nothing unethical about it, unless you misrepresent facts. This strategy worked well for Holmes – at least for awhile. She used it successfully to secure big contracts, and big investments.

But the lie that did her in was a false attempt to demonstrate credibility. Before the jury, she admitted adding the logos of drug companies Pfizer and Schering-Plough to a marketing pitch to Walgreen Drugstores, at the time considering partnering with Theranos to install instant blood-testing centers in its 9,000 retail locations.

Final lesson to innovators: use creativity to make your case, but don’t fudge even on the smallest details. What Elizabeth did with the logos became a charge of wire fraud and was said to be the smoking gun that all jurors agreed on should send her to prison.

This article originally appeared in Forbes
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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