The Charlatan’s Bookends: The Inventor and WeWork

There was a time, not so long ago, when there was a place called the Santa Clara Valley in Northern California. It was a handful of middle class towns below South San Francisco and Daly City (immortalized in the classic rich hippie sneer as “little boxes on the hillside’). It was home to Airbase Sunnyvale, later Moffett Field (NAS Moffett) where blimps were often seen from Highway 101 near Candlestick Park. Stanford University was an important contributor to local culture a bit further south and some local boys were sent to Palo Alto Military Academy or the Harker School and local girls went to Miss Harker’s School for Girls. San Jose was its southern border.

Then one day, it changed. It became Silicon Valley and it attracted some of the smartest people in the world and it made them rich. And being rich along with the belief that technology could give you anything and solve any problem attracted another group of people–the charlatans. Just like carrion attracts vultures.

If you want to understand how Silicon Valley the moveable feasting hung out the sign “Hosts Wanted” you should see two movies that are the serious side of the TV show Silicon Valley.

The Inventor and WeWork are two wonderful movies that respectively tell the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Adam Neumann. I’d tell you that they are two sides of the same coin. Holmes founded Theranos which is gone and Neumann founded WeWork which appears to be operating on fumes.

In my opinion, Holmes was just your average psycho and Neumann was your average grifter, but both will, I think, turn out to be very well rehearsed cons. Watch them closely for the “lie check out throw out”–it’s that slightly penetrating look that follows the big lie to see whether the person they are lying to is ready to hear an even bigger lie or whether they are going to get thrown out of whatever situation they are in only to find another mark. Politicians do something similar.

This takes practice, but that certain kind of practice that is the absolute favorite of narcissists such as Ms. Holmes and Mr. Neumann–the kind you do alone in front of a mirror. Because let’s face it, the man was ridiculous. But as Scott Galloway says in the movie, if you tell a 30 something male that he’s Jesus Christ, he believes it. I’d add, because he desperately wants to believe that very thing and the smart people want to believe that very thing about him.

These movies also tell another story, which is that the smart people (just ask them) in Silicon Valley were not only ripped off once, they were ripped off twice. In reality, they are ripped off all the time, just on a smaller scale that no one notices if the ROI is high enough–it’s when it is zero that it’s a problem. This included academics, journalists, technologists, and, of course, investors. And remember, many of these same names were in the Dot Bomb collapse, so they’d seen both these movies before. You probably thought that’s why they got the carried interest and management fees. Not so much.

Fortunately, neither company managed to get to the pubic markets, but main street still got ripped off indirectly through the private equity and VC funds backed in part by pension funds where Mr. & Mrs. America try to save some bucks.

A few takeaways from the movies. Remember that Silicon Valley, like the Hollywood they try to lord it over, runs on the Fear and Greed continuum. Fear is often “fear of missing out” in Silicon Valley rather than “fear of getting fired” in Hollywood, but it’s fear nonetheless. (If you look at the trades that appeal to both groups, they are founded on one principle: People who control advertising budgets will pay big money to support publications for “insiders” that tell them how smart they are.)

But with both Theranos and WeWork, the smart people were wrong. Really wrong. And there were lots and lots of them.

These companies are very much like cults–and Theranos and WeWork are certainly not the only ones.

They are run by cliques that are not that different than high schools or prisons, except they are playing with billions of other people’s money that doesn’t belong to them. Like other cliques, when the chips are down, they turn on their employees and crush their lives and dreams. It’s one thing to mock someone and ask if they really thought free beer was such a great idea and will they please not do that again. It’s another thing entirely when the so-called leader they put their faith in is revealed and they were being lied to all along. Those employees deserve an opportunity to be heard and for justice to be done.

So where were the Theranos and WeWork boards of directors? Their boards are worthless and unreliable backstops–and in Neuman’s case he had 20:1 super voting shares due to WeWork’s dual class stock which meant he could replace the board anytime. Just like Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergei Brin, Daniel Ek and many, many other pod people at big tech companies that are built around Founder Cult. Even Adam Neumann was bought out of his voting stock for over $1 billion. One thing we didn’t find out that I’d love to know is how many funds had investors stop showing up for capital calls and at what point.

But there is another difference between Theranos and WeWork. Adam Neuman has yet to be prosecuted. It looks like Elizabeth Holmes may be going to prison.

That’s right. The girl goes to jail and the boy fails upward with a bundle of cash. And that story is more Valley-esque than anyone wants to admit.