Bad Blood: Secret and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
I was initially planning to skip this book. I always tell people that there isn’t much to learn from failures — there are so many ways to fail and so few to succeed that it’s probably better to focus on just the successes. After multiple strong recommendations from friends, I decided to give this one a go on Audible.
Bad Blood is absolutely unputdownable. It’s a non-fiction book, but it could very well belong to the fiction shelves. John Carreyrou is not just an award-winning investigative journalist at WSJ who exposed the Theranos fraud to the world, he’s also a gripping storyteller as you’ll find in this book.
Theranos, probably the biggest sham since Enron, was a blood-testing startup founded by the charismatic 19-year old Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes. It aspired to build technology to run a battery of blood tests with just a drop of blood and thus revolutionize the medical diagnostic space. The only problem was that the technology wasn’t really feasible and Holmes tried to cover this up with false promises and straight-up lies. Through a mixture of charm, connections, and privilege, Holmes convinced the likes of Henry Kissinger, George Schulz, Rupert Murdoch, Tim Draper and a number of other powerful and talented folks to invest in the startup or join its board. On top of that, she also convinced the like of Walgreens and Safeway to start testing pilot programs for Theranos.
Theranos, the company, itself was run in a shroud of secrecy — almost no employee knew the full picture of what was exactly going on besides Holmes and her then-boyfriend Sunny Balwani. And, of course, they had an excellent reason to build silos within the team and keep transparency as far out as possible — the technology just didn’t work after all! Whenever an employee got a hint that something was amiss, they were either intimidated, forced out, or just plain fired and made to sign iron-clad non-disclosure agreements in return for the severance.
This book is a story of how sociopathic tendencies can maneuver other smart folks into getting scammed for their money or time. It’s not very common, but it’s more common than you think. It’s an outlier that you don’t expect to happen, but it is this unbelievability itself that lets these multi-billion-dollar, decade-long scams to go on. Come to think of it, people could have been killed had John Carreyou, the author, not been able to break the story in time at WSJ.
The book is full of moments that will leave your jaw dropped, like when an employee told Carreyou that Balwani thought that the chemical symbol for Potassium is P; but I’ll end this review with one of my favorites:
The resignations infuriated Elizabeth and Sunny. The following day, they summoned the staff for an all-hands meeting in the cafeteria. Copies of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho had been placed on every chair. Elizabeth told the gathered employees that she was building a religion. If there was anyone not prepared to show complete devotion and unmitigated loyalty to the company they should “get the fuck out.”
Next time you’re in the mood for some dark fiction, read this book instead.
This is #38 in a series of book reviews published weekly on this site. You can read the rest of them here.