When Distorting Reality Doesn’t Change The World

Thoughts on the Theranos verdict and what it says about startup culture

Elizabeth Holmes in 2014 (Photo by Steve Jennings/Getty Images for TechCrunch, via Wikimedia Commons)

Reality distortion is not leadership

One of the things Steve Jobs was famous for was his ‘reality distortion field’. Time after time, his knowledge, charisma, and sheer authority allowed him to inspire Apple’s engineers to push the technology beyond previously conceived limits. He was ambitious and his company continues to achieve some very impressive things — but there were few people who could bear to work with him. For years after the publication of Walter Isaacson’s biography, bosses would copy Jobs’s external traits such as his prima donna behavior, hoping that it would bring them authority and success. Elizabeth Holmes also modeled her leadership style and appearance closely on Steve Jobs.

It definitely works, honest

It’s true that any ambitious startup sometimes needs to ‘fake it ‘til they make it’. Creative success requires an amount of irrational optimism and stubbornness. You can sell investors on the idea of a product, maybe even sell a ‘faked’ experience to a few early customers, and then take investment to actually build the product that you’ll scale to a mass market. This works for software and services because the technology already exists to build the thing, so the only real question is whether people will buy it. For a new technology, on the other hand, you can validate the customer proposition all you like, but if the core technology doesn’t actually work, it’s a dud. Anyone thinking of putting money into something like this really needs to have someone with relevant scientific training on their investor team.

Postscript: No-way Holmes

The sad thing, to me, is that Holmes made herself into a caricature of a confident startup founder, hoping that alone would ensure her success. Was Theranos doomed from the start? I think not. She could have saved the situation if she had responded to criticism with creativity and a workable plan, and perhaps pivoted into becoming, say, a truly user-centered medical diagnostics company (which might have better warranted her ‘Apple of healthcare’ epithet). We can only guess what someone at the helm with more life experience might have done.

Hybrid scientist, strategist and maker. Worked with startups and innovation. Currently working in digital transformation for a large consultancy.