When the media company Ozy unraveled last fall, its CEO, Carlos Watson--the would-be wizard of Ozy--stood accused of inflating performance, inventing partners, and looking the other way when his co-founder impersonated a YouTube exec to potential investors. It wasn't, however, the first time a funding-hungry, win-at-any-cost entrepreneur would take preposterously desperate measures.
Did others cook the books? Check. Conspire to traffic cocaine? Hey, it's financing! Dress like Steve Jobs? Sadly, yes. Take a look at some who ran the gamut from unbridled hype to "Let me explain, Your Honor."
Grinding the Numbers
If you're running China's biggest domestic coffee chain, with nearly 3,000 cafés, opening stores faster than Starbucks, and poised to go public, you can pretty much sit back, sip your cappuccino, and enjoy the sweet whirring of the espresso machines. Unless, that is, your hyper-caffeinated growth story is mostly froth. To keep funding its cash-burning business, Luckin concocted complex coupon and voucher schemes, created hundreds of thousands of fake customer orders, and even devised a fictitious employee--fabricating an alternative financial reality that overstated annual sales by as much as 40 percent. The company succeeded in luring investments ($864 million worth), but when the Securities and Exchange Commission's bean counters dug in, the stock price fell by 75 percent, the CEO got the heave-ho, and the company was delisted from Nasdaq and fined $180 million--a mere cup of coffee, given the scheme.
A Real Estate Cult
In his quest to convince investors that WeWork was less the subleasing real estate business it actually was and more of a tech company--and one deserving of otherworldly tech-company valuations as well as throw-money-in-the-air tech-company spending--CEO Adam Neumann essentially turned himself into a charismatic cult leader. The fast-talking, arm-waving, long-haired Neumann played the role to perfection, employing an often-nearby spiritual adviser while making grandiose mission statements (the company, he said, would "elevate the world's consciousness" and "solve world peace"). Neumann also served up a dizzying array of three- card monte distractions, such as the "WeGrow" early-childhood school, the "WeLive" apartments, and a fitness business clumsily named "RiseByWe." He made bombastic, hard-to-disprove pronouncements--for example, that Jamie Dimon was thinking about quitting his little CEO gig at JPMorgan Chase to become Neumann's personal banker. In the end, of course, the cult leader with the $60 million corporate Gulfstream flew too close to the sun, and WeWork's valuation shed $38 billion as it fell to earth.
DeLorean Motor Company
There was a moment in the early '70s when the smart money had a hot-rod General Motors exec named John DeLorean--a renegade who'd overseen the design of the Pontiac GTO muscle car--pegged to lead the whole outfit. But DeLorean craved speed and style, not Chevy sedans: He wanted to build a stainless-steel sports car with gull-wing doors and a powerful engine. DeLorean took money from flashy investors (Johnny Carson, Sammy Davis Jr.) and, in a bold move that scored him $120 million in funding, opened a factory in Belfast, Northern Ireland, smack in the middle of the Troubles. The cars were expensive ($25,000 in 1981, a huge premium over the average car price), and the factory was plagued by production potholes. After assembling about 9,000 vehicles, the company's finances stalled. What to do? Buying 55 pounds of cocaine seemed like a good way to refinance. Buying it from an undercover agent, however, proved problematic, as did being videotaped during the buy. DeLorean, who did not deny purchasing the Colombian marching powder, was charged, tried, and ... acquitted; the jury found he'd been entrapped by the FBI.
In 2015, when everything was moving to mobile, HeadSpin, a company designed to help app developers test their products in all sorts of thrilling ways, seemed like a pretty sharp play. According to co-founder and CEO Manish Lachwani, customers were signing up in droves, and investors like Alphabet's GV and Dell Technologies Capital were writing huge checks. He claimed HeadSpin's valuation was $1 billion. To score ever more funding, Lachwani triumphantly trotted his not-really-a-unicorn all over Silicon Valley, scooping up millions. The company's board of directors scratched its collective head, began poking around, and discovered that Lachwani had, on a massive scale, not only inflated invoices, but also created fake ones. The board then furrowed its collective brow and recalibrated the valuation downward by a head-spinning $800 million. Lachwani climbed off his not-so-magic horse and, when the DOJ came a-calling, put his hands behind his back.
A Bloody Mess
The death-spiral story of Theranos, the blood-testing company founded by a too-young-to-drink Stanford dropout named Elizabeth Holmes, has been told by journalists, podcasters, filmmakers, and, most recently, federal prosecutors. But the allegations of how Holmes, who religiously outfitted herself in Steve Jobs-evoking black turtlenecks, brazenly misled investors continue to astonish. Holmes stands accused of faking demos of her proprietary-but-underwhelming lab equipment by using another company's machines to perform tests that her "revolutionary" device couldn't. The company allegedly diluted blood samples to allow more tests than its machines could handle; and it certainly diluted the truth by claiming to investors that the technology was being used by U.S. troops on battlefields in Afghanistan. While some level of hype from a startup is to be expected, deceiving patients with fake blood tests is--what's the word we're looking for?--evil.