Elizabeth Holmes makes Fyre Festival’s Billy McFarland look like a kid who stole from a candy shop. The last few weeks were swarmed with discussions of the peek behind the curtain that both Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened and Hulu’s Fyre Fraud documentaries exposed. HBO recently premiered their contribution to honoring scammers on the silver screen, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. The difference is, in this one, neither watching the scam get pulled off, nor be exposed, feels fun or rewarding.
Based on the book Bad Blood: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley by John Carreyrou, the documentary adapts for television the research and eventual expose Carreyrou did on Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of Theranos. Theranos, now defunct, was a bio-technology company that aimed to disrupt the healthcare industry by offering comprehensive blood tests using only a finger prick of blood. The blood tests would be done on their proprietary machines, The Edison, and would be cheaper than traditional lab work with patients able to choose tests a la carte.
The machines never did what they promised, and the finger prick was not sufficient. Behind closed doors, Theranos was tampering with the market lab tests, taking vials of blood from the arm, and distributing inaccurate results. Theranos raised more than 700 million dollars in venture capital funding, resulting in a valuation of more than nine billion dollars, only to be worth zero nearly overnight.
Director and producer Alex Gibney is fascinated by fraud and was drawn to Holmes’ story and Carreyrou’s research. “I’m interested in the psychology of liars, particularly those people who believe their own lies,” he says. The story, as jaw-dropping as it was when it initially unfolded, is perfectly enhanced with video footage of Holmes’ never-blinking eyes and shockingly low voice from press interviews and a documentary she was clearly in the process of making. Only a few times in the two-hour long film do you want it to just get to the point, knowing of course, Holmes will fail. But how? And then what?
Anyone who has worked at a start-up of any kind is familiar with the specific brand of “fake it till you make it” alive in Silicon Valley and anywhere its money reaches.
Anyone who has worked at a start-up of any kind is familiar with the specific brand of “fake it till you make it” alive in Silicon Valley and anywhere its money reaches (everywhere). Faking it till you make it isn’t just an Instagram caption also tagged #hustle, it’s fundamentally the way many companies secure venture capital funding. Create a mock or prototype of a concept, pitch what it could do, secure money to make it happen, and then attempt to create what you claimed and “make it.” Most fail, but when companies do make it or another unicorn (company valued at more than one billion dollars) is born, the entire system is justified. Theranos, for a moment, was ten unicorns.
In The Inventor, former Theranos employees and consultants noted that when they’d approach Elizabeth or her COO-turned-boyfriend Sunny Balwani about impossible requests they had made, they’d be met with, “we only need yes people,” dismissals, and often, termination of their jobs. This immediately was reminiscent of Billy McFarland of Fyre Fest. Several Fyre employees reported being told Fyre was a “solutions-oriented” workplace where nothing was off limits, guilting anyone whose expertise gave them reason to believe the task at hand was impossible. Anyone holding up a mirror to the delusional goal must be removed, as to not show the reflection to anyone else.
Different from infamous con men or even the recent socialite turned scammer Anna Delvey, both Holmes and McFarland seem to believe their own lies so deeply that they’d never categorize what they did as wrong. In these cases, there seems to be two very different approaches to dealing with the public. One is to be incredibly mysterious, a la Theranos. Allude to your complete control of your project by feeling no need to explain it to anyone, by wondering why they even care to ask. Not showing, not telling, just buying time. The other is to talk a lot, the Fyre Fest. Telling and not showing, creating hype, and also ultimately, buying time.
Holmes was able to pull off her mysterious approach, an almost turn-on in the technology community, for a shockingly long time. She wrote her own death wish when she spoke just the slightest bit too much. In an interview with The New Yorker, Holmes spoke too freely, unable to explain the science behind her product, prompting further investigation into her and Theranos, eventually leading to the story that would take the company down and inspire the documentary.
I’m interested in the psychology of liars, particularly those people who believe their own lies.
To hook the American public, more so than a great product, you need a great story. If you can craft a founder persona and company origin story that plays into the archetypes that VCs and reporters love, you’re a shoo-in. Already an anomaly in her environment as a female founder, Holmes played the game perfectly. College dropout, reserved, good-looking but not too good. She was there to disrupt, she was humble but wanted to change the world. Holmes’ enigma quality worked for her, not against her.
Using empathy and repetition, Holmes crafted a heart-wrenching story about a sick uncle that inspired the idea behind Theranos. Despite her otherwise, cold impenetrable persona, a drop of humanity smaller than the blood sample Theranos claimed to collect, was all it took for her to connect with investors, patients, press and the American public. There was no proof, no science.
The world was rooting for her. Our star, Holmes, succeeding was rare as a women in tech, a female founder, a woman in business at all. Barack Obama and Betsy DeVos were avid supporters, her face was on magazines, she spoke at conferences. She was the exception to the rule. Seeing her fail not only felt frustrating because of the good Theranos could have done, in theory, but because her insistence on continuing her lie felt like a loss for women. The biggest success story from a woman in technology, a sham.
To hook the American public, more so than a great product, you need a great story. Already an anomaly in her environment as a female founder, Holmes played the game perfectly.
When the victims of a scam are greedy billionaires or shallow wannabe socialites, it’s easier (and almost fun) for the public to follow the story, screenshotting and sharing its takedown. A living meme, a throwback to Joanne the Scammer. For Holmes and Theranos, there was no sad cheese sandwich photo. Following Theranos’ demise in real time back in 2015 or learning about it for the first time in The Inventor doesn’t feel like laughing at the fact that rich frat boys bought $250,000 tents at Fyre. It’s frustrating, it’s confusing, it’s infuriating.
“If you believe your endgame is noble, it allows you to lie and commit fraud,” says producer Erin Edieken. “Noble cause corruption is what the police call it.” The most frustrating scams are when the perpetrator never acknowledges the scam, breaking the fourth wall, giving the audience an ending. As a preservation tactic, motivation, blind faith, or possible mental illness, McFarland and Holmes both committed to their lies through the end, even still. The lack of reflection and resolution makes Theranos’ fraud not a fun mystery but a disappointment. A mirror held up to an industry obsessed with hard-to-crack weirdos, mystery, and talking the talk.
As soon as we establish processes in new industries that can prevent fraud, the faster our ecosystem will churn out someone who knows how to work it in their favor. Unless we change what we value and the success story archetype, be it a smiling protege wunderkind or soft-spoken computer weirdo, it is likely another viral-worthy fraud will take place, and we’ll be left with less laughable Fyre moments and more depressing Theranos reflections. When first matters more than best and everyone is faking it, it’s hard to even allow the things that can make it the chance to survive.