An old lesson revisited – share the vision, but sell the reality…

A tragic story that is almost unbelievable but full of lessons (enough to win a page in my diary – UnLearning)

hype or reality

I am so used to reading success stories and biographies of innovators and leaders that this experience of a tragic story (Bad Blood– Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley startup by John Carreyrou) was quite different.

For most part of the book I found it difficult to believe that one could so easily lose sight of all values, morals and ethics, but I cannot deny that somewhere I saw a reflection of a technology startup. We are all guilty of selling grand visions, creating hype(sometimes bordered on science fiction), and carving our journey (gradatim) many a times starting with nothing but vapourware– always living in the eternal hope that reality will soon catch up with the dream. And while the author is generous towards technology startups and says that the worst harm that they can drive is deflated expectations and frustrations, it still is a reminder to stay honest to our dreams and have the courage to do what is right – always! And more importantly it has a cautionary message, that if we are not careful then even our aspirational qualities – voracious ambition, boundless optimism, laser focus, relentless drive – can prove to be our nemesis…

The first part of the book is a narrative of how Elizabeth Holmes came up with the idea of using a drop of blood to run hundreds of tests and set out on the journey to change the world.  Her vision – to revolutionise the medical industry by making it simple (faster & easier) to run a multitude of tests – that too at home and without the dreaded needle – was so compelling that everyone from investors, business leaders, media, technologists, innovators bought into it, recognising the business potential and the gratifying opportunity of social impact – a means to give a full picture of health thru proactive investigations. And Elizabeth Holmes and her company Theranos emerged as the new star of the Silicon Valley and saw unparalleled growth – not just achieving the coveted unicorn status but contracts with pharmaceutical companies, military and wellness centers in Safeway, Walgreen. Their rise was spectacular (everything we all dream of), but their technology fell short of the grand vision(micro fluids and nanotechnology) and with that started a cycle of over commitments and short cuts… and somewhere in that cycle they lost sight of their real goals and worse still their ethics and values when they started going to extreme lengths to hide the fakery – the duplicityand the subterfugecannot be explained.

The second part of the story covers the investigation that exposed the story in the Wall Street Journal in 2015 and led to an early cataclysmic fall that shocked everyone. It provides an inside view and highlights the hardships that John Carreyrou faced and the effort it took to bring to light the story with support from a few ex-employees who stand out for their unwavering belief to do what is right.

The book reads like a thriller and holds the attention – an incredible achievement especially when the end is a foregone conclusion! As the story unfolds, John Carreyrou introduces many characters and after a while it becomes difficult to keep track of all of them. But each character and the thread still manages to add a dimension to the central story, and most incidents hold a lesson too. Some of the stories – fake results, regulatory hacks, quality oversights, controlled demos, disguised reports – are so ridiculous that it’s hard to believe that it happened that way…even harder to appreciate is the culture of terrorising employees, an obsession with with secrecy and practices of surveillance and monitoring, and its incredible that despite this the company continued to attract talent and experience…

An engaging read… but somewhere I find an undercurrent of gender bias and the subtle hint that the situation was created by the charm and persuasion of its female founder. I disagree and have innumerable references of other smart, charismatic, persuasive founders who are equally adept at storytelling – winning over investors, clients, partners and employees – in their single minded pursuit of the end goal.

Theranos’s journey itself has all the elements to make it into an interesting read but the book stands out for forcing us to reflect, and reminding us to be avoid the trap of oblivion, to stay cognizant of true realities in the midst of bold promises.

I was reminded of an early lesson – a lesson I learnt many years agothe risk of selling what does not exist. I was new to business development and I remember how I got carried away with the sales pitch… for a while I was oblivious to the fact that by repeating the message I had myself started to overlook the reality (that we did not have the functionality), and in the process lost the urgency to build it. Before I knew I was caught in the virtual cycle myself… I lost a customer that day – and that is the day that I promised myself that while I will share the vision, I will always sell only the true reality. And it’s a promise that I have kept for most part.

This article was first published @LinkedIn on March 21, 2019.

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