Elizabeth Holmes had the perfect Silicon Valley story and what made hers even sweeter was that she was a woman in her twenties that built a company from nothing to a valuation of $9 Billion in less than 10 years. She started her journey at 19 as an undergraduate at Stanford University, where the silicon valley entrepreneurs go. She had gone to study Chemical Engineering and even before the end of year one, her entrepreneurial acumen had started ticking in her. She shortly afterward patented one of her works and it’s after this patent that she started seeing the possibility of coming up with an invention that would steer her to the high echelons of silicon valley hall of fame and get her on the way to being the next Steve jobs. She wanted to be Steve Jobs so much that she ended up losing her Authentic Self, this was her making and her destruction.
Genius Idea and Deep Personal Conviction
Elizabeth was out to change the world, or so she made us believe. She planned on inventing a blood testing machine that would do hundreds of tests with a very small quantity of a blood sample at a fraction of the cost charged by other blood testing labs. Genius isn’t it? But to the medical world and engineering, it seemed like an impossibility, she pressed on. Theranos was founded on the belief that this was possible and that Theranos would be the first company to come up with such an invention and make it available for use to the general public. THERANOS was derived from the words Therapy and Diagnosis and therefore “THERANOS”. Quite catchy and easy to pronounce too, I think so. The idea was great and the branding was great too including a very simple but great-looking Logo. Theranos named the machine “Edison” after the famous inventor of the light bulb, Thomas Edison.
Her conviction in her idea was so deep it was hard not to believe what she said and be inspired by her belief, Elizabeth from childhood had believed in coming up with something that no-one had made before and be able to change the world, being in a position with a likelihood of making her childhood dreams come true made that belief even stronger.
Obsession with Steve Jobs – Success Leaves Clues
I am also a firm believer that success leaves clues, no need to re-invent the wheel in some instances. Elizabeth had an innate obsession with Steve jobs and she definitely was planning on becoming the next Steve Jobs of Healthcare, so what did she do? You guessed right, she insisted on dressing like him in black turtlenecks every day, she went as far us hunting down the designer that dressed Steve Jobs to dress her too. Only difference, jobs wore jeans and she wore black pants instead. Her management style tried to imitate Jobs but she had her own weird style according to former employees, high secrecy and accompanying legal consequences at that.
She went as far as courting apple’s former head of software Avie Tevanian to be a part of her board and she won him over although he resigned from the board just a year after. Holmes also recruited some other apple employees into Theranos especially engineers.
Genius in Fundraising
How she was able to convince venture capitalists, billionaires like Rupert Murdoch, the Walton Family, Devos Family and other funding sources without even seeing the Edison is a puzzle for many. Personally I’d attribute it to her passion and conviction in what she was doing and how it would impact humanity. This is where I remind founders that most of those who fund your deal are more concerned about their gut feeling when they meet you even before you pitch your idea. They are looking at whether you are someone they can trust to pull through with the deal come rain come sun and whether they can trust you to keep your word and deliver what you have promised them. This was easy peasy with Elizabeth’s conviction, belief and convincing power. Something tells me she had already convinced herself beyond reasonable doubt that she was going to pull it off and give the world that technology she had promised.
Low Baritone Voice
She created around her the aura of a serious ‘inventor’ and an ‘entreprenuer’. Every other thing about her image was morphed into the characters of an inventor and entrepreneur. The turtlenecks and black pants to show she was too busy to worry about what she wore, and by the way what she wore was the same every day as she disclosed.
She adopted a low baritone voice which many argue was fake, she never stooped or slumped in her interviews and public appearances. Most people who work long on their computers and don’t exercise regularly assume a kind of slouch which would be expected of Elizabeth but she didn’t, she always fixed her stature in public and even her walking style to signify strength, power and composure.
Brand Association – Most Illustrious Board in US History
She knew that to get the kind of funding and government projects she needed, she would associate her Personal and company brands with some of the biggest names in America. She would come out in the media with these gentlemen and have them publicly defend her work, this charmed investors and venture capitalist to trust her even more with their money.
She had among others in the Theranos board,
Henry Kissinger – A former Secretary of State
George Shultz – Former Secretary of State
Richard Kovacevich – Former Wells Fargo CEO
David Boies – Powerful US Attorney
James Mattis – US Secretary of Defense
William Perry – former secretary of Defense
The above line-up will tell you she had aligned with some of the biggest and most powerful men in the US. This was to build a perception of seriousness and more importantly to inspire TRUST. Much of the big chunks of funding she received, were made based on trust that if Shultz and Henry Kissinger are on that board, this definitely is something huge. Based on their ages, track record and former positions, it would be easier for anyone to trust people in the company of those men. Funny again, the board was all MEN! Can we safely say she charmed them into joining her board? Story of another day!
The Presence of Boies in her board in my view had a different purpose, this was a move of intimidation because it is known how much devastation Boies brought to the people he stood against in the courtroom, so anyone thinking about playing any legal games with Theranos or Elizabeth was forewarned by the presence of David Boies. This was later attested by some of the employees who resigned from the company and were suspected to be working with journalists, they received letters threatening them with lawsuits signed by none other than Boies himself and from the interviews you could tell how intimidated the employees were by Boies’ signature at the end of those letters.
Puppeteering the media
Elizabeth Holmes charmed the media like a cobra trainer. She had them at her fingertips, from the first interview she gave Fortune Magazine to many other magazines, TV appearances, Keynote Speaking Opportunities she took advantage of, she was all over the media keeping abreast with investors. She had kept a low profile for sometime though, she was off the media, Theranos did not even have a website. When she came out, she really did a good job at fooling the media and making them believe in her dream, just like herself.
When her media campaign started, she had a world-class Hollywood director do the Theranos ads, her personal photos and Theranos photos were also taken by world class photographers and everything about her and Theranos that had to do with branding was done by the best they could find in America.
The media believed her, and they kept giving her interviews and audience and they worked hard without knowledge, and to her advantage to make her look like the next Steve Jobs.
Something I admire about Elizabeth is she worked with no one but the best, she wanted the best that silicon valley had to offer, everyone she worked with was really good at what they did but her project…it was just another animal altogether.
Walls Tumble Down – Enter Carreyrou
You can run but you can never hide, she had to come to terms that the technology was just not possible to deliver at the time she had promised, it was not safe for use by the public and it had so many errors that at some point Theranos was not using the Edison at all for blood tests. She kept these secrets but in the end Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou Investigated Theranos and published the truth. Holmes tried to come back to the media and defend Theranos but it was too late, she tried all the last kicks but the horse was dying, authorities were now after her and Theranos. She is currently facing charges of wire fraud and faces a possible 20 years behind bars.
A strong personal brand, killed by lack of Authenticity.