I Worked Side By Side With Elizabeth Holmes. She Seemed Like a Visionary, but We Were All Duped — and It's a Comfort to See Justice Served. "Silicon Valley's 'fake it until you make it' mentality. That rhetoric is just a way to condone lying to people."
- Patrick O'Neill worked closely with the disgraced Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes.
- He shared what it was like to experience the company's rise and fall from the inside.
- "Seeing those people be brought to justice is a comfort," he said of Holmes going to jail.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider.
This as-told-to essay is based on a transcribed conversation with Patrick O'Neill, the head of creative at Starco Brands and the former chief creative officer at Theranos. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
I hadn't heard about Theranos before Elizabeth Holmes approached TBWA/Chiat/Day, the ad agency where I was a creative director, in 2012.
She really admired Steve Jobs and wanted to model Theranos' branding on the work we'd done with Apple.
We started building the Theranos brand in "stealth mode." It was very secretive.
I'd been working with legacy brands like Visa and the Olympics, and Theranos was the opposite of that — an unknown brand championing a mission to change the healthcare industry.
On top of that, Elizabeth was a female founder, which was incredibly rare for a Silicon Valley startup at that point. She was unlike anyone we'd ever met.
Her instincts aligned with what a lot of us believed in — minimalism and clear, purposeful messaging.
Theranos was set up very similarly to Apple
People now ask me if I found it odd that everything was so secretive, but Theranos was set up very similarly to Apple.
Steve Jobs kept the research and development teams separate. People who worked with Apple weren't allowed to discuss the projects, and the offices had increased security. Sometimes you would see black boxes being carried through the office with the latest version of a new product.
To me, the secrecy was part of working with companies developing groundbreaking technologies.
Working closely with Holmes, I felt like she had to bring herself down to earth to communicate with me. I saw her as a brilliant visionary. All her quirks and relentless focus on the mission just confirmed that image to me.
We'd worked with Elizabeth for around a year when the website went live in Fall 2013. At the same time, Theranos announced its partnership with Walgreens, which was covered by The Wall Street Journal.
Six months later, Elizabeth asked me to become the chief creative officer at Theranos.
I didn't hesitate. Joining a startup was risky, but working for a company that could make the world a better place was too appealing to pass up.
It's not every day that your life intersects with someone like Elizabeth or the chance to fulfill a purpose with that intensity.
Elizabeth had very good taste for a client. She was very curious about marketing — she was always asking questions. I appreciated that she wanted to understand it from our perspective.
I joined in June 2014.
In the beginning, it was my dream job
Working as the internal creative lead, I had the opportunity to express my creativity across multiple channels. Elizabeth and I met weekly, sometimes more if we were working on an extensive campaign or event.
I helped design the office space, internal communications, the brand, and magazine shoots.
For our first advertising campaign, I brought on Errol Morris, a world-famous documentary filmmaker, and Martin Schoeller, the award-winning photographer.
Everything happened under Elizabeth's incredibly close direction.
She loved choosing the photographs for campaigns, and we'd spend hours discussing a specific shot. It was enjoyable to work with someone who appreciated the nuances of these things.
I went to work believing I was making accessible, affordable healthcare possible. We were consistently reminded of why we were there and what we were working toward.
The company culture discouraged people from discussing what they were working on. Most teams worked in silos, and you weren't allowed in different parts of the building.
At first, the media loved Elizabeth's story
Around the time I joined, Elizabeth's infamous Fortune cover came out. The media fell in love with her story.
The first year and a half of working at Theranos was filled with magazine covers, great press, raising money, and getting FDA approval. All these milestones reinforced that this company could change the face of healthcare.
In September 2015, Elizabeth was on the cover of Forbes magazine for a profile of her as the youngest self-made female billionaire.
When The Wall Street Journal article came out a month later criticizing the Theranos lab tests, it was unexpected but not surprising. Elizabeth had prepared us to see criticism or naysayers as a natural part of building a cutting-edge business.
From late 2015 onward, Elizabeth and I didn't meet as often. When we did, we focused on damage control and protecting the brand's image.
Later on, there were constant accusations
It became normalized that there would be constant accusations.
There were town halls where Elizabeth would acknowledge the criticisms coming out in the press, but she was always defiant. These meetings were meant to be bonding experiences, and she would say: "Hey, I know this is hard, but it comes with the territory."
Her narrative was that we were being targeted by the healthcare-industrial complex, or because she was a woman, or the media was tearing Theranos down for sport. I definitely bought into it.
In hindsight, the counternarratives seemed defensive. I think there was a little bit inside all of us thinking: "What's going on here?" But we were actively kept from knowing what was really going on.
The labs and wellness centers shut down in Arizona in July 2016.
Layoffs happened in October. I was one of the only people left on the creative side.
I left at the beginning of 2017
I'd taken a risk, and it hadn't paid off. I had to accept that and move on.
When I first left, there wasn't a lot of public knowledge about what Theranos was like on the inside.
There was a negative perception. People weren't jumping to be associated professionally with the company.
The documentary "The Inventor" came out in 2019, and I think that was the first time people saw the whole story. The work that individuals had done at Theranos could be separated from the con.
That's when people outside my circle of friends and family started complimenting my work there.
I am now a creative director at Starco Brands, working on products like Cardi B's alcoholic whipped cream. I love the work I do now, and it's nice to do something fun and lighthearted.
Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos story are now so well-known that when people ask me what my story is, I have to decide whether I'm going to talk about it. Once I mention it, everyone is pulling up a chair.
I don't try to distance myself from Theranos because I was a very public advocate for a long time. Now I just have to take responsibility for my choice and learn from the experience.
I try to focus on the lessons I've learned
I've learned to be more skeptical. I've also learned to completely distrust Silicon Valley's "fake it until you make it" mentality. That rhetoric is just a way to condone lying to people.
I think Silicon Valley's culture is now more skeptical because of situations like Theranos.
Documentaries and news media now cover business scandals. It feels like people want to put checks and balances in place.
Seeing the people responsible face the consequences is a comfort
Other people had a very different, much more negative experience, especially on the product and technical side, and I'm empathetic to that. A lot of people felt very betrayed.
It's hard for people to conceive that no one knew what was going on, and I sometimes ask myself: "How did I not know?" The answer is, no one knew.
Everyone was duped, and there were no complicit partners. We were all being blindly led by Elizabeth and her vision of what Theranos could be.
For someone who worked at a company where people were doing horrible, illegal things, seeing those people be brought to justice is a comfort.