Posts tagged ‘Elizabeth Holmes’

Brief Reviews: Theranos and Michael Jackson Documentaries on HBO

Last weekend I watched both the Leaving Neverland documentary about Michael Jackson and the Out for Blood documentary on Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos.

The Theranos documentary was fine -- Theranos is an amazing story and any documentary on it is naturally going to be engaging.  My only issue with it was that it was very spare compared to the depth of the Bad Blood book.  The documentary worked a bit too hard trying to be too stylized.  I would have rather a faster-paced, harder hitting approach.  But if you have not read the book, it is definitely worth your time.

On the other hand, the Michael Jackson documentary was simply riveting.  I really had zero desire to sit and watch 4 hours on child molesting, but I was totally engrossed.  The individuals telling the story were so articulate and honest that I just got sucked in to the story.  The whole thing was simply devastating.  And as an aside, the B-reel footage used in cut scenes and such was simply beautiful.

Business Strategy, The Insource / Outsource Decision, And Tesla

I have a confession -- at Harvard Business School (HBS), I loved business strategy cases.   This is a confession because most ex-HBS students have at best a love-hate relationship with cases in the same way that the Band of Brothers, or the 506th PIR, had with Curahee Mountain.  The first 8, 10, 12 cases were fine and you could handle them. But the problem is that they kept coming and coming, two or three a day, like a North Korean human wave attack.

There is a pretty well defined template for B-school cases, at least in my day (I love being old enough to say that).  A typical example begins with the CEO-on-the-Gulfstream-jet trope, e.g.

Jessica Stevens, CEO of Acme Enterprises, leaned back in her seat on Acme's brand new Gulfstream VI corporate jet, thinking about the meeting that lay ahead of her.  She was flying back to her Pittsburgh headquarters for the quarterly board of directors meeting, and the board was expecting real answers and a specific plan for how she intended to deal with Acme's mounting problems.

Over the last 3 years Acme's growth had plateaued at the same time a slew of new companies had entered its industry, putting pressure on Acme's traditionally strong margins.  In addition, Acme had just lost the bidding on two critical government contracts, its largest plant had just burned down, its CFO was under SEC investigation, a strong unionization drive was in the works supported by Antifa protests outside her house, and she had damaged her favorite Chanel purse when she launched it into the face of her lying mancy VP of manufacturing who she had just caught in bed with her husband.

OK, that last sentence is probably an exaggeration (cases were not quite THAT interesting).  But for me, strategy cases were like who-done-its or locked-room Agatha Christie mysteries.  Would the CEO extricate herself, and if so, how?  What would I do?  If someone were to write business strategy mysteries I would eat them up (the closest I can think of is Clavell's Nobel House -- how would the Nobel House extricate itself -- and even despite the absolutely unrealistic Dallas and Dynasty-like portrayals of business, I love that book).  It is telling that the only novel I have written (OK, more accurately, the only novel I have finished) has heavy doses of business strategy in the plot.

A lot of people write me and say, "Coyote, why the fixation on your blog and Twitter with Tesla?"  Unlike what Tesla fanboys guess about me, I actually like electric cars (though I am not thrilled with my having to subsidize them, but that is not a narrow Tesla problem).  I am riveted to the Tesla story because it totally feels like a great HBS case study of the future.

Long-time readers know I think that there is fraud here -- the SolarCity buyout, to my eye, was totally corrupt.  But if I found fraud fascinating, I would write constantly about Enron and Theranos (heck, I worked for Jeff Skilling at McKinsey on the Enron study so I could even be quasi-insider).  But fraud is only fleetingly interesting.  I can think of 5 companies that I am shorting today that I think are engaged in fraud, and I can't remember mentioning one of them on Twitter or this blog.   I find Theranos mildly interesting, but only because my wife is borderline diabetic and really was enthusiastic for Elizabeth Holmes's vision.

But here is the situation a couple of years ago at Tesla.  Think of this as the case study introduction:

  • Tesla has introduced a real, desirable EV in an industry where EV's were basically crap cars no one wanted produced for PR and some regulatory reasons.
  • For the first time ever, Tesla has demonstrated there was a large market for luxury EV's
  • With the model S, Tesla had what has proved to be at least a 7 year lead over competitors (introduced in 2012 and similar products from several companies coming out in 2019)
  • Tesla had the Model 3 ready to be introduced, with projections of topping 10,000 per week shortly, which could be one of the largest selling sedans in the world, EV or no.  Tesla had as many as 400,000 reservations already in hand for this car.
  • Tesla had a founder (sort of, Musk is credited as founder but really isn't) with the Midas touch, sometimes called the real world Tony Stark, with a huge legion of followers who believe that he is the smartest and most ethical (given his green vision) engineer in the world and can do no wrong.
  • Tesla had shareholders almost literally throwing money at the company, giving it a higher total market value than GM or Ford and with valuation metrics orders of magnitude higher than traditional car companies, based in part on visions of world-leading self-driving capabilities and comparisons to Apple.  The closest thing I have ever seen to the Simpson's take my money meme.

I can imagine the case study now -- should Tesla focus on the high-end of the market now and seek an immediate profit and a potentially sustainable long-term niche?  Or should it go all-out to do nothing less than become the major player in the entire worldwide automotive market, taking advantage of its high valuation to raise billions of capital to fund years of cash burn?  These are super interesting questions that I will not address today.  Tesla's apparent choice in this question is ... neither.  It has clearly gone all in, at least in rhetoric, on dominating the automotive market and Elon Musk has announced (at least on Twitter) future new products in nearly every automotive niche.  But at the same time Tesla has refused to leverage its high stock price to raise capital and actually has been cutting back on capital spending and slow-rolling expansion plans. I frankly cannot explain it, and won' try here.

What I want to discuss is the frequent comparison to Apple.   Elon Musk likes to compare himself to Steve Jobs and Tesla to Apple, but I don't think the comparison is very apt.  A big part of this is the differences in their in-source and out-source decisions.

As background, my thinking is shaped by several aspects of my HBS education.  The first is a business strategy curriculum crafted from the very first class to make one skeptical of flashy, sexy businesses.  Our first two cases in first year business strategy were an incredibly sexy electronics company, followed by a dull-as-dirt water meter company.  But it turned out that the water meter company minted money, with little technology change and huge moats against competition, while the electronics company was having to invest billions every few years just to stay in the game and never really earned a return on capital.

Another factor that shapes a lot of my thinking was that in-source / out-source decisions were very much in the spotlight at HBS at the time.  It was a time when the very nature of the industrial conglomerate was in question, and we were constantly made to ask whether a company really had to own function X to be profitable and successful.  Over and over and over, in company after company, we were asked to think about what were the critical success factor for a business, as well as what the most profitable elements of the vertical value-delivery chain were, and to think about structuring companies solely around these key elements, and outsource everything else.

To a large extent, this has been a key to Apple's success.  As I observed in comparing Tesla to Apple:

But as far as the iPhone is concerned, Apple is a design and software house.  It does not build the phones, it has a partner do it for them.  It does not write most of the applications, third parties do that.  And (at least in the early days) it did not [sell] through its own stores, it sold through 3rd parties.  An Apple-like Tesla would NOT be trying to build its own manufacturing, service, and fueling capacity -- it would leverage its designs as its unique value-add and seek others to do these other lower-margin, capital-intensive tasks.

Yes, we have Apple stores now, but this was NOT part of the initial strategy and success.  The initial Apple iPod and iPhone strategy basically had Apple outsourcing everything from manufacturing to sales as non-strategic, and keeping in-house the design and software functions.   As it turned out, they were right, because they certainly made much better margins than anyone else in the vertical value chain.

But for all Tesla compares itself to Apple, it has take a totally different approach.  Like most manufacturers, it designs its products (which it is pretty good at).  It also manufactures them (which it is not so good at).  But unlike other auto makers it also owns its own sales and service network (instead of third party dealers) and it is not very good at this and this activity consumes a lot of capital.  Also unlike other auto makers, it also is building out its own fueling network, something GM and Ford can rely on Exxon for. AND, Elon Musk at various times has said we would in-source building of car carrier trailers, car transportation trucking firms, and body shops.  I have argued for years that one of the things that Tesla fanboys love about Tesla -- that it is so integrated vertically -- is an Achilles heel because it greatly increases the capital it needs to grow, takes it into low-margin business segments, and forces it to do highly-technical functions like auto manufacturing it does not have the skills for.  If Tesla really were like Apple, it would have developed a 3rd party dealer network, it would have partnered with someone else to do the charging stations (as VW has) and it would have farmed out the actual manufacturing to an auto-equivalent of Apple's Foxcon (maybe Kia?)

I wish I had the guys name but the person in this blog said it far better than I have been able to say it to date.  From "Credit Bubble Stocks"

The test of whether you are an electric vehicle “disrupter” is: how many manufacturers are licensing your battery? If you’d actually invented a better electric battery or other EV technology (battery is the only technology that matters though), you could license them and have a 10x book business. Tesla not only did not do a battery licensing model, but they effectively did the opposite. Consider the parts of the vehicle industry that they have decided to in-source versus the ones they have decided to outsource. As we know, they decided to in-source and compete head-to-head on manufacturing. The results have shown that they are worse than their more experienced competition. They decided to in-source the automotive retail, which had not been done before and was not legal in most states. (And still is not legal in eight states). This had been a huge distraction from the manufacturing side and has resulted in abysmal customer service. But of all things to outsource, they outsourced the battery production to a joint venture with Panasonic. What should be the entire premise of an electric vehicle company is not even enough of a competitive advantage to do in house.

I am not totally sure I agree -- I think Tesla would argue the key is in design and software, just like Apple.  But even if that is true, why are they doing all this other stuff that they don't do very well and is a total distraction and sucks up needed capital?

Elon Musk Combines the Social Media Maturity of Donald Trump With the Business Ethics of Elizabeth Holmes

Frequent readers will know that I have expressed both admiration and skepticism for Elon Musk's various business ventures.   SpaceX is cool.  I am extremely skeptical of the hyperloop, which looks like the technological equivalent of the emperor's new clothes.  I thought Tesla's acquisition of nearly-bankrupt SolarCity was corrupt insider self-dealing.  I think the initial Tesla cars were terrific products but that Musk's management is likely to kill the company.

Lately, I have tried to avoid discussing Tesla and Musk much because I don't want to turn this into a dedicated blog on those two subjects.  Also, with all the press (positive and negative) that it gets, another article on Tesla is about as necessary as another article on Stormy Daniels.  I even resisted the urge to comment on Musk's childish need to insert himself into the Thai cave rescue story and his subsequent rant on Twitter petulantly calling one member of the rescue team a pedophile because he did not use Musk's submarine.  Lol, a submarine for a rescue where one passage was so narrow a diver wearing tanks could not even squeeze through.

My will to avoid Musk and Tesla on this blog collapsed the other day when Musk personally called the employer of one of Tesla's harshest (and I would add most intelligent) critics pseudonymed Montana Skeptic, and threatened to sue the critic and get him fired unless he shut down his criticism.  He succeeded, as Montana Skeptic was forced to shut down and issue this statement:

Yesterday, July 23, I decided to cease writing about Tesla (TSLA) here at Seeking Alpha web site. I also deactivated my Twitter account, where I was @MontanaSkeptic1. Here is what prompted those decisions.

Yesterday afternoon, the principal of the family office in which I am employed received a communication from someone purporting to be Elon Musk. Doubtful that Elon Musk could actually be attempting to contact him, my employer asked one of my colleagues to investigate and respond.

My colleague then spoke by phone with Elon Musk (it was indeed him). Mr. Musk complained to my colleague about my writing at Seeking Alpha and on Twitter. Mr. Musk said if I continued to write, he would engage counsel and sue me.

My colleague then spoke with me about the phone call. We both agreed that Mr. Musk’s phone call and threatened lawsuit were actions that would tend to involve our employer in matters in which he has had no part. To avoid such a consequence, I offered to immediately cease writing at Seeking Alpha and to deactivate my Twitter account.

How did Mr. Musk learn my identity, and that of my employer? It appears to me his information came thanks to the doxing efforts of some of his followers on Twitter.

Neither Mr. Musk nor Tesla has ever attempted, at any time, to contact me. Instead, Mr. Musk determined to go directly to my employer.

I do not know what Mr. Musk’s precise complaints are about me. I do not believe he has any valid legal claim, and I would have no trepidation in defending myself vigorously were he to bring such a claim. My response to his threats were simply to protect my employer and preserve my employment.

And so, you might say, Elon Musk has won this round. He has silenced a critic. But he has many, many critics, and he cannot silence them all, and the truth will out.

Folks who have read the book "Bad Blood" about Theranos will recognize this behavior immediately.  Musk took advantage of the work of some of his fanboys who bravely doxxed Montana Skeptic and allowed Musk to determine his true identity.   Musk is certainly a child (emphasis on "child") of his age, preferring to force critics to shut up rather than respond to them in a reasoned manner.  And by the way, where the hell is his board of directors?  Just like at Uber, it is time for the grown-ups to come in and take over the visionary but flawed company started by their founder.

If you have a chance, you really should look at at least some of Montana Skeptic's work.  He was fact-based and analytical -- this is not some wild crazy social media guy going off on biased rants.  I would take Musk's action as a ringing endorsement of Montana Skeptic's analysis, most of which you can find here but require a Seeking Alpha membership.  However, if you have time to listen, the Quoth the Raven podcast has two good episodes with Montana Skeptic on Telsa (#23 and #28).

By the way, Elon.  If you wish, you may contact my employer here.

Book Review: Bad Blood

Over the weekend I read John Carreyrou's book Bad Blood, which is a narrative of the fraud at blood analyzer startup Theranos that Mr. Carrreyrou broke in the WSJ.  To save me summarizing the story, here is the Amazon description:

 In Bad Blood, the Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou takes us through the step-by-step history of Theranos, a Silicon Valley startup that became almost mythical, in no small part due to its young, charismatic founder Elizabeth Holmes. In fact, Theranos was mythical for a different reason, because the technological promise it was founded upon—that vital health information could be gleaned from a small drop of blood using handheld devices—was a lie. Carreyrou tracks the experiences of former employees to craft the fascinating story of a company run under a strict code of secrecy, a place where leadership was constantly throwing up smoke screens and making promises that it could not keep. Meanwhile, investors kept pouring in money, turning Elizabeth Holmes into a temporary billionaire. As companies like Walgreens and Safeway strike deals with Theranos, and as even the army tries to get in on the Theranos promise (there’s a brief cameo by James “Mad Dog” Mattis), the plot thickens and the proverbial noose grows tighter. Although I knew how the story ended, I found myself reading this book compulsively

In short, I really enjoyed the book and found it hard to put down.  Carreyrou has made it an interesting narrative, that gets bogged down only slightly by the fact that there are just so many people's names that pass through the narrative, an unavoidable problem given the huge employee turnover at Theranos.  There is a meta-narrative that repeats over and over:  new employee shows up full of passion, new employee starts seeing bad stuff, new employee reports bad stuff to visionary founder, visionary founder fires employee on the spot, employee gets harassed for months and years by Theranos lawyers.

I will warn you that a book like this was always going to be catnip for me.  I love business craziness and disaster stories (e.g. Barbarians at the Gate and the Devil's Candy).  Possibly this is just schadenfreude, or possibly it was from my personal brush with another one (I worked for Jeff Skilling briefly at McKinsey & Co. on the Enron study).  But I think many will enjoy it, if for no other reasons that while Skilling at Enron or Johnson at RJR were not well known to the average person, Elizabeth Holmes was a household name, almost a pop culture figure.  She was  on the cover of every magazine and on every talk show.  She was both admired and envied, both as a young female billionaire and as someone who had a real vision to help humanity.  How did she go so far off the rails?

I followed this story originally in the pages of Carreyrou's WSJ articles, and as it unfolded I was asking, like most everyone, could this be true?  As he continued to report, it became steadily clearer that there was real fraud involved.  So I wanted to read the book and see where the fraud started.  I assumed that the central mystery of the book would be when that fateful step over the line occured.

But it turned out that Holmes was going over the line almost from the very beginning.  The real mystery became:  when and how is someone finally going to blow the whistle on this?  And also, given that I knew the whole thing doesn't start to unravel until 2016 or so, how is it going to take that long for this to come out?  Part of the answer is the insane security and non-disclosures put in place in addition to borderline-unethical legal pressure brought on potential whistleblowers by lawyers like David Boies.  But there are other causes as well, including:

  • People wanted her vision to be true.  My wife is a borderline diabetic who has to give a lot of blood -- she was very passionate about this technology.
  • Companies like Walgreens operated from a fear of missing out.  They had a lot of clues there were problems, but if they didn't pursue it, what if it really did work and their competitors did the deal instead?
  • The oddest cause of all (and one Carreyrou does not really dwell on) was that rich older men fell for Holmes hard.  Hardened, seasoned business people time and again fell under her sway and followed her almost like a cult leader and helped protect her from accountability.  The list is like a who's who:  Larry Ellison, Steven Burd (CEO of Safeway), Rupert Murdoch, David Bois, James Mattis, George Schultz, Henry Kissinger -- the list goes on and on.  She had the highest power board I have ever seen at any company ever and she completely dominated them.  On the other hand, I don't think there is a single young female in the story who fell for her BS for more than a few months.

One other note that I think is worth mentioning:  Rupert Murdoch gets a lot of cr*p for being the poster child of destructive corporatization of media.  In this story, he was the single largest investor in Theranos with $125 million of his money in the company.  He was one of the older men who fell totally for Holmes.  But when Holmes came to him several times asking him to shut down an out of control reporter at Murdoch-owned WSJ, Murdoch said no, despite the fact that this reporting would eventually make Murdoch's $125 million investment worthless.

Our Double Standard on White Collar Fraud

Nobody really liked Jeff Skilling of Enron and he sits in jail for 20 years.  We think Elizabeth Holmes is attractive and cool so that despite the fact that she committed serial fraud in lying about her company's technology and financials (far more baldly and egregiously than Skilling) and actually put people at risk through faulty medical testing, she got only a slap on the wrist.

And then there is Elon Musk.

I am not sure how I got in the role of fact-checking Elon Musk, but given the company's stated results to date and announced operating plans and strategies, there is simply no way for the Tesla to be profitable and cash flow positive in Q3, barring some deus ex machina like a massive energy credit or California subsidy windfall.  It's possible I could go in there and shut down R&D and model 3 production and milk the Model S and X for cash and might make this be true, but that is certainly not their announced business plan.  On their current path Tesla has to continue to burn cash through the rest of this year.  I am not even sure that if you stated their gross margin the same way that other automakers state their numbers that even it would be positive right now -- there is an argument to be made they are still losing money at the margin on every car they produce**.  I would add that in this point of their ramp, if you want to see Tesla the huge success that is baked into its current stock valuation, you don't want Tesla to be cash flow positive in the third quarter, you want it continuing to invest.   Amazon rules the world because it deferred profitability for years in favor of growth.

Tesla pretty much never ever lives up to Musk's promises, at least for the dates he promises them.  That is probably OK with things like deliveries of new products -- people understand he is pushing technology and new products can be delayed and they forgive entrepreneurs for being -- shall we say -- overly enthusiastic about such things.   But on financial stuff like this his statements are bordering on fraud.  But he'll never get called on it, because we like him in a way we didn't like Skilling.

I will add that if Musk wants to get snippy about the media's guesses about his company's prospects, and thinks we are all getting it wrong, he could sure be a lot more transparent about Tesla's financials and plans.  Go watch an Exxon-Mobil analyst presentation and compare it to Musk's quarterly arm-waving.  Also, one final memo to Musk:  responding to your critics on Twitter emulating Trump's style is not recommended.  Though it might be interesting to compare the irrational populist wave behind Trump with the populist wave behind Tesla.  Though the two Venn diagrams of supporters probably do not overlap much, the whole relationship feels similar to me.

Disclosure:  I have been short TSLA in the past but right now have no position.  To be honest, I am going to let Musk urge his fanboys to pump the stock a bit further before I short again.  The fanboy effect makes TSLA a dangerous short, as TSLA stock holders will defy reality for far longer than will holders of say GE or XOM.

 

** gross margin at TSLA is interesting because TSLA has no dealer network, something I like them for.  GM discounts its cars to their dealers (10% or so?) but in turn they offload a bunch of selling and support costs to the dealers.  In their gross margin, TSLA banks in their gross margin the extra 10% from not having to discount their cars but in turn does not charge gross margin for a lot of the extra sales and support costs they have to take on -- instead they drop these costs into SG&A overhead. The situation with gross margin is even more complicated because Tesla not only has to build out and operate its own warranty service, sales, and delivery network to replace traditional dealers, it is also building out its own fueling service to replace gas stations.  Here is one guy who thinks Tesla gross margin is really negative.  I have zero idea who he is but for the last year his predictions about Tesla have been a lot more reliable than Musk's statements.

The Madness of Shareholder Lawsuits

At least one investor (and likely soon many more) in Theranos is suing the company:

When Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes announced that the company was shifting its focus, she said her team is lucky to have investors who believe in its mission. But there's at least one major investor who doesn't, and it has already sued the controversial blood-testing provider. According to The Wall Street Journal, Partner Fund Management (PFM) LP is accusing the startup of convincing it to pour $100 million into the startup by feeding it a "series of lies." The San Francisco-based hedge fund firm filed the lawsuit in Delaware today and sent out a letter to its own investors.

In the letter, the firm said:

"Through a series of lies, material misstatements, and omissions, the defendants (Theranos), engaged in securities fraud and other violations by fraudulently inducing PFM to invest and maintain its investment in the company."

At some level, shareholder lawsuits are utter madness.  Consider the case where all owners of a company are suing the company.  If they win, the amount they win from the company is offset by a drop in value of their ownership in the company.  At best this is a break-even proposition but when lawyers fees are included, this is a recipe for immense value destruction.

I am not really an insider on these things, but my guess is that the explanation for the madness comes by relaxing my assumption above that "all owners" are suing.   If only one owner is suing, then this becomes a potential mechanism for transferring value from other owners or investors.  There are of course real situations where a certain minority class of shareholders is screwed by the majority, but I don't think that is the case here.  In the case of Theranos, I assume the whole company is headed into a messy bankruptcy, and PFM is racing to the courthouse to be first in what is sure to become a messy litigation-fest.  They likely have one or both of these goals

  • Since they likely cannot sell their equity and cash out normally, given the uncertainty about the company's future,  they may be able to effectively cash out by getting other owners to pay them off in a settlement of this suit.
  • Since their equity may be worth zero soon, if they can win a lawsuit the payout becomes a much more senior form of indebtedness and might move them up towards the front of the line for any value that still exists in the company

Update:  From one of my readers at a CPA firm:  A key reason for shareholder suits is to trigger insurance coverage payouts for management and/or Board errors and omissions.  This in theory both increases the company’s assets and creates a senior claim by the plaintiffs to those particular assets.