All eyes in Silicon Valley were watching the latest chapter in the saga of Elizabeth Holmes unfold yesterday as the founder and former CEO of failed blood-testing startup Theranos was found guilty on four counts of fraud.
Holmes, an erstwhile media darling who grew the company into a decacorn before it all came crashing down, shocked observers by testifying in her own defense during the nearly four-month trial, maintaining that she was unaware of the problems with Theranos’ technology – which, in case you’ve been living under a rock, could not actually perform the slew of tests she claimed it could on a single drop of blood.
Perhaps the 37-year-old won over some members of the jury with the same charm she once used to woo investors that included high-profile members of the political and military establishment: She was found not guilty on four other charges, and the jury deadlocked on another three charges.
Although she may still appeal, Holmes now faces the possibility of up to 20 years in prison (though few expect such a lengthy sentence), as well as fines and restitution.
Whatever legal penalty Holmes ultimately faces now that the trial has ended, the court of public opinion is just getting started. Among entrepreneurs, VCs, business professors and others, a few interlocking themes emerged in the post-verdict chatter. Namely: that fraud like Holmes committed is a very bad thing, that founders absolutely should not do it, that it goes against the core values of Silicon Valley itself — and, oh, by the way, that it still happens all the time.
“Reminder to founders never lie, never bend the truth, always be honest about where you are at with your traction…especially when raising money,” tweeted internet entrepreneur and startup investor Jason Calacanis. “...and oh yeah, don't be a sociopath with delusions of grandeur.”
Software startup founder and advisor Tom Nora went a step further, tweeting that Holmes was a “#poser, not a leader.” He added: “She broke the traditional values of Silicon Valley -- brutal honesty, fairness, share the wealth, #innovation and got caught.”
The idea of “fake it ‘till you make it” along with Mark Zuckerberg-coined “move fast and break things” have long been mantras in Silicon Valley startup culture. Some observers argued that Holmes simply took those ideas too far. But some claimed that conflating her misdeeds with more typical norms in the industry was an unfair characterization.
“‘Fake it till you make it’ isn't even said in tech; it's a phrase you mostly hear in Hollywood,” tweeted Evan J. Zimmerman, founder of bioinformatics software company Drift Biotechnologies.
“Tech people sell overoptimistic dreams all the time,” he continued. “They pick more flattering metrics to highlight. But they never lie. ‘Here are my numbers’ when they're not your actual numbers is NEVER OK and no one thinks it is. Journalists are just upset with tech and taking another potshot.”
But some people weighing in weren’t quite so willing to distance Holmes from the rest of Silicon Valley and the tech industry. Prem Sikka, a professor of accounting at the University of Sheffield, observed that Holmes’ wrongdoing was enabled by a wide cast of characters.
“It is never one person, is it? There is a gang,” he tweeted. “What did non-exec directors, advisers, lawyers, accountants do? Someone must have known that technology was dud.”
Influential tech columnist and podcaster Kara Swisher took an even more damning view, saying outright that Holmes is not alone in the tech world in her misbehavior. “So not a surprise and it seemed like a thoughtful and considered decision by the jury,” Swisher said of the verdict. “That said, Elizabeth Holmes is getting the book thrown at her (and deserved) even as many others in biz do the same or far worse. Not an excuse but it should be noted.”
Even without going so far as to call out rampant wrongdoing, many held up Holmes as the ultimate avatar, and proof of the failure, for the notion that a founder should focus on hype first and results later.
“Elizabeth Holmes was found guilty on four counts of fraud, including defrauding investors. Will this change anything in the fake it till you make it strategy that is so prominent in the startup world?” tweeted Michaela Hruskova, a lecturer in entrepreneurship at the University of Stirling.
Though Holmes may be the biggest fraud story in tech at the moment, she’s hardly likely to be the last. Jessica Richman and Zachary Apte, the founders of poop-testing startup uBiome, are now on the run from the Feds in Germany after being accused of lying to investors about whether their testing products were covered by insurance.
Another is Trevor Milton, founder of battery-and-hydrogen-powered truck manufacturer, Nikola, who was charged by federal prosecutors in July with defrauding investors about his company. Milton has pleaded not guilty.
Nate Anderson, founder of activist short-selling firm Hindenburg Research, first brought Milton’s alleged fraud to light. Commenting on the Holmes verdict Monday, Anderson tweeted that she “had the best lawyers money can buy, enough sob stories to fill an ocean and a strategically timed baby right before trial and was still found guilty on 4 counts of investor fraud.”
“Good luck Trevor Milton,” he added.
At any rate, if nothing changes, the spotlight that Holmes’ downfall placed on a perceived culture of talking a good game whether or not you can really back up your boasts is likely to cast doubt on future founders when they claim to have world-altering tech.
“One could argue (I'm not) that Elizabeth Holmes clearly got the first part ("fake it") but never managed the second part ("make it") of the investment equation,” tweeted Jeff Nesbit, author and former public affairs director for two federal science agencies. “SV is betting big now on climate tech - while we wonder if it will work in time. So..is that faking it?”