I recently finished reading Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. It’s the now infamous story of the rise and fall of blood testing company Theranos and CEO Elizabeth Holmes. Carreyrou was the original reporter who broke the whole thing wide open a few years ago.
Once I started, I couldn’t stop reading. I typically read just before bed, and I had to give myself time cutoffs so I wouldn’t stay up all night. The story is so compelling because of the absurdity. It’s shocking that a company can fool investors, employees, and regulators into letting them roll out entirely inaccurate medical devices. The organization is run like a third world dictatorship by Holmes and her right-hand man / creepy old man boyfriend Sunny Balwani. How Theranos was possible is beyond me.
After I finished the book I started thinking about the few business books I’ve enjoyed recently and how they all have the common theme of being exposes of failure. And not just your ordinary run of the mill failure, but catastrophic, improbable, insane, laughable failure.
Hatching Twitter: A True Story of Money, Power, Friendship, and Betrayal by Nick Bilton was all about the dysfunction surrounding Twitter’s origins and how in many ways it succeeded despite itself. Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons chronicles the ridiculous culture within Hubspot, which takes a wild turn when Hubspot finds out about Lyons’ plans to publish a book.
Both of those books will make your jaw drop, but Bad Blood is on a different level because Theranos was reporting inaccurate medical results, which can mislead doctors and literally destroy someone’s health. The book gives several examples that will make you cringe. Thankfully, doctors caught on quickly and started having patients repeat their lab work with reputable labs, which was part of the unraveling. And Holmes and Balwani are rightfully facing serious legal trouble including prison time.
Because these stories are such compelling reads, they are pretty effective at driving home what not to do as a business. They serve as great examples of how an obsession with growth/fame/money at all costs, left unchecked, can morph a well-intended vision into a criminal operation.