Looking back at the build up and the let down on the Theranos story, the recurring question that comes up is how the smart people that funded, promoted and wrote about this company never stopped and looked beyond the claim of “30 tests from one drop of blood” that seemed to be the mantra for the company. While we may never know the answer to the question, Aswath Damodaran offers three possible reasons that should operate as red flags on future young company narratives...
1. The Runaway Story: If Aaron Sorkin were writing a movie about a young start up, it would be almost impossible for him to come up with one as gripping as the Theranos story: a nineteen-year old woman (that already makes it different from the typical start up founder), drops out of Stanford (the new Harvard) and disrupts a business that makes us go through a health ritual that we all dislike. Who amongst us has not sat for hours at a lab for a blood test, subjected ourselves to multiple syringe shots as the technician draw large vials of blood, waited for days to get the test back and then blanched at the bill for $1,500 for the tests? To add to its allure, the story had a missionary component to it, of a product that would change health care around the world by bringing cheap and speedy blood testing to the vast multitudes that cannot afford the status quo.
The mix of exuberance, passion and missionary zeal that animated the company comes through in this interview that Ms. Holmes gave Wired magazine before the dam broke a few weeks ago. As you read the interview, you can perhaps see why there was so little questioning and skepticism along the way. With a story this good and a heroine this likeable, would you want to be the Grinch raising mundane questions about whether the product actually works?
2. The Black Turtleneck: I must confess that the one aspect of this story that has always bothered me (and I am probably being petty) is the black turtleneck that has become Ms. Holmes’s uniform. She has boasted of having dozens of black turtlenecks in her closet and while there is mention that her original model for the outfit was Sharon Stone, and that Ms. Holmes does this because it saves her time, she has never tamped down the predictable comparisons that people made to Steve Jobs.
If a central ingredient of a credible narrative is authenticity, and I think it is, trying to dress like someone else (Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett or the Dalai Lama) undercuts that quality.
3. Governance matters (even at private businesses): I have always been surprised by the absence of attention paid to corporate governance at young, start ups and private businesses, but I have attributed that to two factors. One is that these businesses are often run by their founders, who have their wealth (both financial and human capital) vested in these businesses, and are therefore as less likely to act like “managers” do in publicly traded companies where there is separation of ownership and management. The other is that the venture capitalists who invest in these firms often have a much more direct role to play in how they are run, and thus should be able to protect themselves. Theranos illustrates the limitations of these built in governance mechanisms, with a board of directors in August 2015 had twelve members:
I apologize if I am hurting anyone’s feelings, but my first reaction as I was reading through the list was “Really? He is still alive?”, followed by the suspicion that Theranos was in the process of developing a biological weapon of some sort. This is a board that may have made sense (twenty years ago) for a defense contractor, but not for a company whose primary task is working through the FDA approval process and getting customers in the health care business. (Theranos does some work for the US Military, though like almost everything else about the company, the work is so secret that no one seems to know what it involves.)The only two outside members that may have had the remotest link to the health care business were Bill Frist, a doctor and lead stockholder in Hospital Corporation of America, and William Foege, worthy for honor because of his role in eradicating small pox. My cynical reaction is that if you were Ms. Holmes and wanted to create a board of directors that had little idea what you were doing as a business and had no interest in asking, you could not have done much better than this group of septuagenarians.
The question of whether Theranos makes it back to being a valuable, going concern rests squarely on the science of its product(s).
- If the Nanotainer is a revolutionary breakthrough and what it needs is scientific fixes to become a reliable product, there is hope. But for that hope to become real, Theranos has to be restructured to make this the focus of the business and become much more transparent about the results of its tests, even if they are not favorable. Ms. Holmes has to scale back many of her high profile projects (virtuous and noble though they might be) and return to running the business.
- If the Nanotainer turns out to be an over hyped product that is unfixable, because it is scientifically flawed, Theranos has a bleak future and while it may survive, it will be as a smaller, low profile company. The investors who have put hundreds of millions in the company will lose much of that money but as I look at the list, I don’t see any of them entering the poor house as a consequence.
There is a chance that the lessons about not letting runaway stories stomp the facts, never trusting CEOs who wear only black turtlenecks and caring about governance and oversight at even private businesses may be learned, but I will not hold my breath expecting them to have staying power.