I have just finished a book that was recommended to me by a brother-in-law, one who spent much of his career joining and then abruptly leaving various corporations that, he would discover sooner or later, were corrupt; this book was recommended to him by his son, a physician, for whom the Hippocratic Oath, “Do No Harm,” is deeply meaningful. These are two people for whom such a book would be not only riveting, but mirror aspects of their own life experience.
I’ve not walked in the shoes of either of them, however I have endured a multi-year experience with predatory attorneys, another focus that this book describes in gory detail.
Moreover, like most people who have been captured by this digital age, I rarely read a book all the way through anymore. And when I do, it’s because a book grabs me and will not let me go. Such is the case here, with Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup. The author turned what could have read as a confusing mess into a fascinating, straight-up thriller. Essentially an inexorable chronological account of the rise and fall of Theranos, the book masterfully focuses a wide-ranging lens to capture the stated views and experiences of what seem to be hundreds of people who were somehow involved over time with the lead actor, Elizabeth Holmes, a young, beautiful, charismatic, brilliant, Stanford drop-out with a deep baritone voice, big staring eyes, and one Big Idea: to invent and market a small, inexpensive device that could, with a single prick of a finger, perform, simultaneously, any and all diagnostic blood tests. She envisaged her device installed, not just in doctor’s offices, but in homes, just like computers moved from mainframes in offices, to home-based. Yes, her hero was Steve Jobs, and she was determined to be the first woman to emulate his entreprenurial success.
This story, told in blow by blow detail, moves with a sense of inevitability and succeeds in bringing all the various voices, encounters, events, business meetings, etc. etc. into a single current that moves inexorably along, wide and deep, showing how Holmes’ stubborn and mesmerizing belief in her own vision and the device that was supposed to guarantee it but never did work consistently, ended up generating a tangle of exaggerations and lies that, sad to say, most of her employees, even after, one by one, in their compartmentalized silos, would begin to personally realize that something was very off about the company’s claims, did not blow the whistle and so became complicit in the con. This growing hornet’s nest of mendacity which attracted a Board of Directors that included people like Henry Kissinger and George Schulz, that courted and signed contracts with both Safeway and Walgreens which, in the end, went sour, that attracted a total of $10.5 billion from investors over ten rounds of funding, went on from the beginning, in 2003, when Holmes was 19 years old, until its protracted ignominious denouement in 2015, when John Carreyou, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter at the Wall Street Journal, decided to publish his findings about this formerly lauded Silicon Valley start-up.
And following that, this book, Bad Blood, a tale so fascinating that it’s one of those that we call, “you cannot make this up:” for what finally started to bring down the company was the whistleblowing by Tyler Schultz, grandson of Board member George Schulz, who worked briefly for Theranos, and then quit; he then tried to tell his 95-year-old grandfather about what he had found, only to be rebuked by the old man whose belief in Holmes’ vision never did waver.
My take-aways from this book. Notice how “idealism” can become a trap. Notice how small exaggerations can gradually swell into gigantic lies. Notice how, in capitalist culture, we tend to make money the priority, rather than either truth or love. Notice how we let fear stop us from doing what we know is right. Notice how different value systems can tear families apart. And of course: notice how the end never does justify the means.
Tyler Schulz is the hero of this contemporary morality tale, and not just because he told the truth, but because he didn’t let threats from Theranos predatory attorneys sway him from telling it. Tyler’s parents are also heroes, because they paid his legal fees which, when the book was published, amounted to over $400,000.
I appreciate the author, who does not view Elizabeth Holmes as someone who started out to con people, but as someone who believed so much in her own vision for changing the world that she would do anything, anything, to make that happen. Holmes now faces criminal charges and her company dissolved earlier this year.