You guys gotta read this shit. I listened to the audiobook version, and I kept looking for reasons to listen, it was so compelling. Just really solid investigative journalism into a story that seems unbelievable when you string it all together.
By now, not many people haven’t heard of Elizabeth Holmes and her sham Silicon Valley start-up company, Theranos, but just in case you haven’t, Holmes started Theranos in 2003 just after dropping out of Stanford. Her dream was to produce a medical device that would revolutionize medicine, tech companies, and probably the world. She was ambitious and driven, and used almost nothing but her charisma, charm, and her vision to influence a staggering amount of investors into giving her company billions of dollars in funding, all the while never having a working product.
Carreyrou, an investigative journalist from the Wall Street Journal who was tipped off to the story and published the article that started Holmes’ and Theranos’ downfall, lays the story out in an interesting way. For about the first 75% of the book, he just tells the story of Theranos and Holmes, as gleaned from hundreds of sources (Holmes declined all requests for an interview). And it gets more and more bizarre as it unfolds, as you watch her go from an ambitious young woman with an ambitious idea, to an ambitious adult woman who doubles down on her mistakes, and begins cultivating secrets and lies instead of facing up to the facts. Carreyrou does an extremely thorough job showing us the culture of fear and secrecy at Theranos, and how time and time again Elizabeth is able to spin failure into improbable success. At the time of her downfall, Theranos had an estimated worth of $9 billion, and such esteemed board members as Henry Kissinger and former Secretary of Defense George Schulz, as well as a staggering amount of impressive shareholders and wealthy and connected friends, all of whom bought into the image she was selling.
All the while, the actual product, and the promise of new blood-testing technology that could use drops of blood to perform accurate medical tests, was almost completely a lie. It was almost funny to watch employee after employee that Carreyrou interviewed, first buy into the lie, then gradually become disillusioned, most of them resigning when they realized how irresponsible and unethical the company actually was, not to mention the toxic working environment Elizabeth and her boyfriend/employee Sunni Balwani created. They demanded total and complete loyalty, which meant no constructive criticism, no pointing out the flaws with the product, or problems encountered, no questioning anything ever. And almost all of those people got to see how Elizabeth handled perceived disloyalty, and the lengths she would go to in order to protect her company’s “trade secrets” and “proprietary technology,” the secret of course being it was all bullshit. Non-disclosure agreements were forced on people, cops were called (Sunni told a police officer that an ex-employee had stolen company property “in his mind”), threats were made, lives were ruined.
The last part of the book, Carreyrou brings himself into the story, telling how he broke the story, and Theranos’ reactions, and what ended up going down. That part was very satisfying to read, as I was ready for those motherfuckers to get caught like 20% in to the book. And they make things very, very difficult for Carreyrou as he tries to uncover their lies for public scrutiny.
The whole book is like that, which is funny because it’s told in this matter-of-fact tone. And all the while all this wacky shit is happening, and it just keeps escalating as the company’s lies get bolder, the things they are hiding get bigger, and the more they have to lose.
Highly recommend this one!
[4.5 stars, rounding down for now, might change it to five stars in the future]