How Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos Killed the Light Bulb Moment for Good
The idea is not enough.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Imagine you’re standing in front of a group of investors and tech luminaries.
You start out with an engaging story about how you dropped out of Stanford and came up with an idea that will change the world. The crowd, a bit enraptured by your speaking voice and intelligence, listens intently. Then, you drop the bombshell.
Your new invention, a blood-testing device, will allow the patient to prick his or her finger and, in a few moments rather than weeks, see the results.
It will save time! It will save lives! All around the room, like some unseen force, the light bulb moments start popping one after the other. “Yes, that’s amazing. We need that. How is it possible that no one ever thought of this? Also, where do I send my cash?”
Sadly, this pitch--one Elizabeth Holmes gave countless times and even appeared in Inc. at one time--did not quite come to fruition as a fully realized product.
As described in the amazing new book called Bad Blood by John Carreyrou, the Edison testing machine did not live up to the hype, never really delivered on the promise, and fizzled like a 40-watt incandescent hanging from a cord in your basement.
To think it all started with those light bulb moments (including this TED talk). I read the book this last week and kept thinking: This is going to kill light bulb moments.
I’ve heard hundreds if not thousands of these presentations, often by phone but also during startup pitch events. I’ve waited for the moment when the entrepreneur finishes a long story about water-delivery problems in a foreign country, the need for an app that connects us when we are in close proximity, or a car that drives itself.
Then, the pitch enters a new phase.
Time and time again, the entrepreneur talks about a “what if” scenario. A picture once blurry slowly comes into focus. You’re a fish swimming in a pool, and this is the hook. You might call it the “light bulb segment” of a pitch, the time when the person asking for money (or in my case, wanting me to write about their product), explains their brilliant plan.
I have read about the science of how light bulb moments work. There’s a small spark, a subtle flash--like a dopamine hit when you complete a level in Angry Birds. You sense the light bulb before you even realize it, and from what we know about the brain, these insights are part of what makes us human. You think: What if I quit my job and just sail around the globe? What if I ask that girl out on a date? Light bulb moments help us make decisions and build confidence, and following through on them can be a wondrous experience. (For the record, I did ask the girl on a date--we celebrate 30 years of marriage next week.)
For the record, I do believe in the power of moments. Sparks of ideas can lead to amazing products. I’m sure Steve Jobs had the idea to turn an iPod into a phone at one point in time. I’m not criticizing the spark of an idea that leads to a rigorous product cycle; I’m not saying you should squelch your brilliant idea, etched on a napkin at Taco Johns.
I am saying that Theranos as a company was essentially just an idea. The problem with sparks of innovation that do not become products is that they are just ideas. Also: They are misleading. They’re bogus. They don't really mean anything in the end. Maybe you should not sail around the world. Maybe there shouldn’t be a single social network platform that controls all of our information and uses it to sell ads. Maybe your idea sucks.
But you know what’s really impressive?
It’s not that napkin sketch or that blood-testing pitch. What’s really impressive is when the blood-testing machine actually works, when patients end up using the machine to get a blood test more often and find really troubling problems. In my case, I had the idea to write a book two years ago. It comes out next month. It’s exactly 86,000 words of hard labor. Anyone can come up with an idea; we should celebrate the actual result.
What is now considered one of the biggest cases of fraud in history started with an idea. We’re all to blame for thinking the light bulb moments are enough.
Guess what? They aren’t.
Only the finished product matters.