Before the Hollywood myth-making machine cranks into high gear and--in the latest example of tech/financial porn--Jennifer Lawrence helps transform crooked Theranos troll Elizabeth Holmes into some lip-glossed go-getter whose wonderful dreams sadly got waylaid by a slimy Svengali or an evil cabal of manipulative VCs, we need to get real. We need to take a few minutes to recall just how low and sleazy a story this was and still is. We need to remember how many sick and suffering patients were victimized by this immoral and greedy pseudo-scientist and ersatz entrepreneur and her aggressive host of enablers. We need to learn the almost Biblical lessons (before the movie bursts on the scene) and intelligently apply them as we try to put this sad saga behind us.
Unfortunately, whatever we do, an embarrassingly large number of prospective entrepreneurs and wannabes will be more influenced by the flash and jazz of the flick than by the facts and the injustices and injuries of this flagrant fraud.
My greatest fear, given that no movie ever makes a bundle with an ending that's either open-ended or a depressing downer, is that teams of well-paid and pathetically untalented scriptwriters will try to contort this already painfully truer-than-fiction saga into some kind of watered-down and confused morality tale. Or, worse yet, into some lament about a poor and tortured soul whose well-meaning attempts at empowerment (and, incidentally, at saving the world) went slightly astray and more's the pity.
I have no problem with heroic failure. I just can't abide attempts to rewrite history and justify what was--almost from day one--a consistent and intentional plan to manipulate a willing media always looking for a new "star," as well as deceive and ultimately embarrass hundreds of compliant and oblivious medical professionals. And, ultimately, to enrich a small group of criminals, not to mention making it harder than ever for honest inventors and startup entrepreneurs to overcome the enormous obstacles that make innovation in medicine so very difficult, time consuming, and costly.
In any event, it's important to talk about a couple of important distinctions that I expect to see cropping up both as regards Theranos, but more critically, with regard to the very next round of similar situations, which are always just around the corner. Not dwelling on yesterday's wins or losses is a key startup success factor, but promptly forgetting the sins of the past or thinking that we're too smart to fall for them is a guarantee of more pain to come. These handy excuses and convenient justifications for bad behavior fall into what I could call the gross rationalization category. As the adrenaline mounts and the excitement builds, so, in too many cases, does the arrogance and the growing belief that for whatever precious reason, crucial cause, or momentous mission, the ordinary rules just don't apply.
Here are a few of my favorites:
1. Exceptional People Deserve Special Concessions
We hear this all the time and there's no reason to expect that the hero worship and clamor will cease any time soon. Because it's a staple of the media's fixation with looks, luxe, and the resultant laissez-faire attitude that almost anything goes as long as you do it with style and don't get caught doing anything déclassé. No one has erred more gravely and yet recovered more fully than Kanye, whose complete redemption following his MTV mic grab from poor Taylor Swift has probably amazed even Yeezus himself.
But it's in the "tech" space--if you can call WeWork, for example, a technology story--where the wonders and the overreaching never end. Adam Neumann moved swiftly into the momentary "bad boy" vacuum left by Uber's Travis Kalanick and grabbed hundreds of millions of dollars right before the "soon-to-maybe-never-be" WeWork IPO. And, like the licking dog, he did it because he could and because no one in the company had the guts or the ability to tell him not to. These things don't really happen entirely on their own-- they happen because we encourage them and tolerate them far too long and far too often.
2. Parsing the Pieces Is Pitiful
As astonishing as it seems, we're already hearing that the Theranos scandal was especially bad and unforgivable because it involved medical technology and impacted real human beings. The unstated corollary seems to be that, if this were just a bunch of flat-out falsehoods and fake test results about some other kind of technology or a different business model, then that behavior might have been relatively OK because--after all--everyone in the Valley lies about almost everything. "Fake it 'til you make it" is just a part of the accepted and crooked code of behavior; if you're duped, it's mostly shame on you. This seems to me to be a lot like trying to pick up the clean end of a shit stick. In the real world, these things are pretty black and white, and the truth isn't a sometime thing.
3. Defending the Indefensible Is Delusional
But the worst set of excuses, exceptions, and explanations are those which suggest that ahead of every enterprising entrepreneur awaits a series of virtually irresistible snares, sinkholes, and seductions intent on pulling even the best of them down the slippery slope into fraud and outright criminality--all in the name of building a great business. Cutting corners, telling half-truths, forgetting a few awkward details or unseemly results is how you do business in the startup world. How could you really expect them--in the midst of such an important and game-changing crusade--to take the time to follow the rules and do the right things?
Watching Elizabeth Holmes on stage late in the game--when the jig was largely up-- blatantly lie to fawning interviewers isn't a study in someone missing a few dotted i's and crossed t's. Hers was a coolly calculated and consistent long-term plan to fool everyone for as long as possible and in every way possible. The more anyone tries to explain it away, the more we just encourage new inventive attempts to find questionable and quasi-legal shortcuts, fix or evade the rules, and pull off other scams.
We're seeing kids' lungs destroyed and people starting to die from vaping, and the scumbags pushing and promoting these products, primarily to kids, are claiming in full page ads in the New York Times that the medical problems are due to black market knockoffs and other inferior products. Surely it couldn't be their disgusting nicotine-addiction devices. They're running another version of the Theranos race, and they'll keep it up until someone has the guts to cry "foul" and shut them down.
And let's not forget to put the moronic mothers and path-paving dads who bribed their kids' ways into college into this category as well. You already hear chatter all day long about how well-meaning these affluent parents are and how they simply lost control and fell into the clutches of evil and venal men. After all, how bad could they be if they're regularly on TV? Let's give them two weeks of reflection time (with a little sunbathing tossed in) in a spa-like detention center and call it a day. After all, they meant well. Right?