How Elizabeth Holmes became Bill Gurley’s hero

On June 25, three months after the California Supreme Court determined that she was a convicted felon for her role in the fraudulent marketing of her upstart blood-testing company, Theranos Inc., Elizabeth Holmes became the subject of a New York Times profile. Like most of her previous profiles, it was a sad piece of writing. Deservedly so. The details in the profile are painstakingly reported, always fact-checked and sourced, but they’re also that rare thing: boring. The mention of her crimes, conviction and oblivion are nothing particularly new or surprising.

One reason no one is surprised — or, of course, aware of what’s been happening — is that Holmes’ only relevant story line is her rise and fall. And her rise and fall has been embedded in the myth of Silicon Valley and its celebrated tech-arbiter, Bill Gurley, long before we actually knew anything about her. This article was the first act of their epic tale — and just that — and it’s with all that in mind that it’s worth noting why, three months after the reckoning, the story is boring.

In February 2015, Armstrong Williams, a failed Fox News political commentator who had worked with President George W. Bush and has now become an associate in the Trump administration, wrote a letter urging Congress to come to the defense of Theranos. “As I am sure you are aware, Theranos is one of our country’s leading innovators — one of the most promising companies ever to emerge from the state of California,” Williams wrote in his appeal. And because she was steeped in Silicon Valley lore, Holmes was of course best suited to appeal the case before Congress, namely Bill Gurley, the venture capitalist she called her “hero.” Holmes hired him to help educate lawmakers about Theranos’ revolutionary technology and he was.

Gurley was not only insistent, he worked in support of Theranos’s SEC complaint and got the then-13-year-old company on his payroll. And while she was behind bars in a solitary unit, Gurley stayed on. In March 2015, he wrote a column in Forbes defending the company, insisting that it was “determined to pursue its bold vision of providing consumers with simple, reliable healthcare, independent of the health system” and even that it “has accomplished everything that Theranos has set out to accomplish.” He called them the “almighty tech company” and “one of the biggest achievements since the invention of the GPS.” By now Holmes was behind bars.

An insider in the venture capital world for over two decades, Gurley had a role in a number of the earlier stories about Silicon Valley’s arms race and one of its greatest coups. In 2008, during a secret meeting, he brought Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Eric Schmidt together in what would become Alphabet. He was instrumental in fostering the vision of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel that the internet was the way forward, and played a role in starting Gawker. Prior to that, he was still very much in vogue. The fact that a Wall Street Journal reporter alleged the Silicon Valley booster had doled out kickbacks to oil companies in the 1990s was shrugged off. By the time Gurley was working on Theranos, the New York Times reported that his salary had climbed to more than $2 million in 2016 from about $225,000 in 2014, a story full of glowing puff pieces.

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