Book Review: Bad Blood by John Carreyrou
Bad Blood is John Carreyrou’s in-depth non-fiction exploration of a tech startup gone wrong.
Theranos began with good (well, good-ish) intentions. While she had set her sights from a young age on being incredibly wealthy, Elizabeth Holmes founded Theranos with the vision of putting health care into people’s hands. Literally.
But then, her flagship device, the Edison, kept malfunctioning. Stylish and palm-sized, it was supposed to accurately and quickly diagnose more than 200 conditions, including cancer, vitamin deficiencies, and more. As the company raised and burned through many millions of dollars, they faked tests, fudged the numbers for investors, and fired any employees who weren’t enthusiastically on board with their fraudulent practices (hint: they fired a LOT of people).
As the project became bigger and more was at stake, Holmes lied repeatedly.
She lied about the accuracy of the test results, about her own family’s health history, about financial projections. According to a witness statement, she even faked the baritone of her voice, accidentally slipping back to a higher register in an unguarded moment.
…Actually, I can excuse that last one. Holmes’ deep voice, whether affected or not, is exaggeratedly low. But as a professional woman, I can understand her using subtle (or in this case, not-so-subtle) affectations to appear legitimate among a typically male-dominated industry. Not saying it’s right, but sometimes a woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do to get people to take her seriously when merit alone doesn’t do it.
But I digress. Holmes, along with her partner Sunny Balwani, created a device that, while it sounded great in theory, was a malfunctioning mess in practice. Along the way, they mistreated their employees, creating a culture of fear and deception. She presented something that could have revolutionized the average person’s access to their own health care. Instead, she knowingly sold a device that was dangerously inaccurate.
In Bad Blood, Carreyrou methodically uncovers every lie, presenting them with clinical clarity.
Only near the end of the book does he insert himself, walking through the investigative journalism into the fraud and the fear-mongering by Holmes and Balwani as they intimidated his sources. It makes for fascinating, if alarming, reading.
In my mind, Holmes’ actions were straight-up evil. In an interview on Mad Money, though, Carreyrou says he thinks it’s more like noble cause syndrome.
Noble cause syndrome starts out with good intentions. People think they’re doing the right thing in the beginning. When it starts to go wrong, they carry on, thinking the end will justify the means.
According to my extra-scholarly research…of Wikipedia … noble cause syndrome happens when there is a lack of morale, weak supervision, or an abundance of arrogance. All of these things were present in Holmes, and certainly she began Theranos with at least a drop of altruism.
It’s maddeningly unfortunate that it turned into a tsunami of fraud.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup
Published May 2018
Knopf Publishing Group