What the Theranos Story Teaches Us About the Dark Side of Personal Branding

We all love a good start-up story.

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By Jon Michail

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

We all love a good start-up story. The idea's conception, a disruptive execution, tech integration, a charismatic leader and a healthy billion-dollar valuation are the ingredients of a solid entrepreneurial narrative.

We learn from the greats of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk and, long before them, a genius inventor called Thomas Edison. Edison gave us the light bulb, the technology for a film camera and the first successful tech start-up story.

These were few inspirations of a formidable young woman called Elizabeth Holmes, the former founder of a medical start-up called Theranos. Based on her story, charisma and idea, she was able to pull in big money investors on her way to becoming the youngest woman billionaire in the world.

Except, it was all an alleged hoax.

We talk about the personal branding of people and the ways you can command authority in your niche, except not everyone brings their best intentions to the table.

Holmes started the company as a university dropout from Stanford in Silicon Valley, studying to become a chemical engineer. She would apply for her first patent in her freshman year. Her big idea was a medical patch, as small as a pill, that would draw blood through a single prick of the finger, that would revolutionize blood testing and result in production forever.

Through her journey, she went on to pull in significant investments and military interests to create a powerful board of directors as part of her brand-building strategy, among who were names like Harry Kissinger, George Schultz, former US Secretaries of State and even the former director of the CDC, William H Foege. She even pulled in high-ticket investors like media mogul Rupert Murdoch and Oracle founder and chairman Larry Ellison.

But this billion-dollar myth did not continue attracting investor interest for years based on technology or medical evidence but storytelling and careful narrative fabrication. Something about her would draw people towards her, making people want to believe in her and her vision.

Holmes created a narrative that made people enchanted towards her. What she lacked in technology, she fulfilled in compelling storytelling. Today, many leaders and executives struggle with confidence in their vision, but it is essential to know that lying is not the way.

Holmes is a classic case of using storytelling as a tool to control the narrative surrounding her. Here are some personal leadership branding and business branding lessons that we can take away from this story of our times.

1. Unkept promises

Holmes claimed that her machine could revolutionize how the world approaches lab tests. While the idea is solid on paper, the thermodynamics within the "Edison" beg to differ. The device did not produce accurate results, and behind the scenes, they used standard clinical equipment to provide accurate results. Their partnership with Walgreens fell through because they could not deliver the promised, precise results, which could cost people their lives.

It is crucial to come through on your word in leadership positions, especially when you create a name for yourself in a field where human lives are involved. It builds credibility and trust, which investors and other stakeholders believe in when they decide to do business with you.

Related: The 5 Vital Rules of Personal Branding

2. Loss of faith

I'm sure Wall Street sees stories like this every day, but these stories influence honest people to lose their trust in entrepreneurship and investments. In unprecedented times taking control of your life is of utmost importance, and we must look at life as an opportunity to create our own paths. Loss of faith will lead to everybody acting like a deer caught in the headlights. It increases fear and motivates the shift from creation to survival.

Entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship are ways to claim control of your life, and stories like these are not new but nevertheless are an attack on entrepreneurship and doing honorable work. This is one of the reasons cryptocurrencies and blockchain are picking up, because decentralization has its own powers. So, it is worth noting that in an age of abundance and information as opposed to wisdom, faking will only take one so far they will be found out sooner rather than later.

Related: What Is Your Brand Saying About You?

3. Your story is more powerful than you think

In this case, Holmes not only allegedly made fraudulent claims, but she also used a false voice with a deeper baritone for authority and created animosity within her employees by trading secrets that created a toxic environment in the company. She pitted one team against the other in a survival game of the fittest, a great example of toxic leadership.

But the people and investors didn't see that, but her story: A young college dropout with a certain charm about her, who is charismatic and idolizes Steve Jobs, dreaming of revolutionizing an industry she was passionate about. She repeats the story of her family member who lost their life to cancer many times during interviews and capitalizes on the feeling of loss. Almost like the perfect formula. When they say that something is too good to be true, it is often true. She made people believe in her vision which proved to be false, but she dominated her narrative.

It is now more important than ever for leaders and entrepreneurs to develop critical thinking skills and emotional intelligence. It will help you see facts from fiction in situations and lead to better business and team relationships. It will help you eliminate toxicity from your business and establish better communication throughout your company.

The Theranos story urges us to think about the dark side of the corporate and start-up culture. While there are so many people trying to make a difference every single day, there are also these examples that urge you to take a hard look at your business operations and make you think about all the ways that you can improve your organization.

Think about your business and position from a place of creation and unlimited possibility. Often we make our decisions when operating in fear. Theranos is a classic example of mismanagement and poor C-level decision-making: all fluff and no substance. Align your mind, body and spirit to your purpose and work towards it every day as a creator. Think about your core values and what truly matters.

Related: Want More Powerful Branding? Go All In.

Jon Michail

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Founder and Group CEO of Image Group International

Jon Michail is the CEO and founder of Image Group International, an Australia-based corporate and personal-brand image advisory and coaching organization that conducts transformational seminars, workshops and one-on-one coaching in over four continents.

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