The tech industry is a notorious graveyard for once high-flying startups that are now defunct, extinct, disgraced or simply ran out of funding and quietly went gentle into that good night. Startup churn is par for the course in Silicon Valley, with over 70% of startups failing, according to CB Insights.
In the process, however, some companies are more publicly shamed than others.
Quibi. Cambridge Analytica. MoviePass. Juicero. We’ve mostly forgotten about these spectacular failures, but do you know who hasn’t forgotten them? The people who worked there. Say you have the bad fortune of having one of these names on your resume: What do you do?
Barry Hamory knows the dilemma firsthand. For two years, he was a recruiter at Theranos. In fact, he was the company’s first recruiter, hired by Sunny Balwani and Elizabeth Holmes themselves. “I kind of built the entire hiring apparatus there and hired almost every recruiter we had,” Hamory said.
Hamory was lucky. His time at Theranos has since panned out to become more amusing cocktail party banter than truly uncomfortable conversations with potential employers. That might have had something to do with his perfectly timed exit. He left in 2014, many months before The Wall Street Journal exposed shortcomings with Theranos’ technology. “I had moved on before all the negativity came out,” he said.
When Hamory first started at Theranos in March of 2012, he was totally onboard. “[Balwani and Holmes] were really amazing when I first met them, especially that first year there …They were very dynamic,” he said. The company was exciting, and the growth was phenomenal. “I really thought I was going to be working with the next Steve Jobs,” he said of Holmes.
Then about a year into his tenure, he started getting hints that things were perhaps not as rosy as they seemed. “There were a lot of internal rumors,” and “turnover was just dizzy,” he noticed. He said Holmes went from being “very personable” to walking through the building with a security guard and entering through a secret entrance to avoid talking to any employees. “Something wasn’t right.”
That was when Hamory gave his notice. He remembers his father-in-law telling him he had made a mistake. Holmes had just been on CNBC, and the company had reached its peak $9 billion valuation. At the time, recruiters were calling him left and right about job opportunities. He secured his next job as a senior technical sourcing recruiter at Schneider Electric pretty easily.
After the news broke, the reception started to change. Hamory remembers being introduced at a new job based in Sunnyvale and hearing people laugh and snicker when his time at Theranos was mentioned. People started asking him questions about his experience there: “What was that all about? Is it all true?”
Today, Hamory is a senior talent acquisition sourcer for Cargill, one of the nation’s largest global food corporations, where he’s worked since 2019. When he first interviewed for the job, his hiring manager had never even heard of Theranos. The company is based in Minnesota and culturally far removed from Silicon Valley. “It doesn’t really make the news out there,” he said.
Despite his insistence that the reputation hasn’t marked him, he did take Theranos off his LinkedIn profile shortly after Protocol contacted him. He said he was spooked because another person had contacted him through LinkedIn that same week.
“I don’t think anybody would ever hold you accountable for decisions made by senior management,” Hamory said. He feels that he was shielded from a lot of the backlash because, as a recruiter, he wasn’t a technical decision-maker. He has observed more-senior colleagues who have experienced more difficulty finding a job post-Theranos.
As a recruiter himself, Hamory sees both sides of the equation. He recommends people who have a smear on their resume frame the experience in terms of the skills they picked up and the lesson they learned. “Approach it as a positive,” he said. Talk about what made that job interesting, what you learned from it and how it made you stronger.
Here’s how he said he would frame his experience in conversations with potential employers: “I’ve always been a risk taker. When I joined Theranos, it was a really exciting, dynamic company … I feel I did a good job in hiring people. I didn’t obviously know all that was going on behind the scenes because I was in talent. I mean, that’s the god-honest truth.”
As a recruiter, Hamory said there are no companies that he would never hire someone from. In some instances for technical recruiting, managers will tell him they don’t like a company’s technology or feel that it’s weak. “That will kind of sway me,” he said, but not necessarily a company’s reputation.
“The nature of the failure matters,” said Chris Toy, CEO of MarketerHire, a talent platform that matches startups with marketers. So something relatively embarrassing like Juicero is going to be less shameful than, say, an election-interference scandal at Cambridge Analytica. He also recommends that people focus on breaking down their work experience to “skills and expertise” rather than on the company itself.
“Startups fail all the time,” Toy added, and recruiters are more focused on “the story of your resume.” Were you at the company for years before it blew up? Did you do good work during that time? He doesn’t recommend that people take those names off their resume “unless it’s going to cost you the interview.” Once you’re in an interview, “you can handle it,” because you have the opportunity to explain and put your time there into context.
According to Toy, companies that use MarketerHire’s platform will on occasion filter out certain companies on candidates’ resumes, though not because of reputation. Sometimes, an early-stage startup might not want to hire someone who has only had experience at big tech companies, because they wouldn’t have the right skill set to work at a smaller startup.
Some tech executives even claim that having a failed startup on the resume is a good thing, revealing a healthy appetite for risk and a hungry bent towards exploration and creativity rather than taking the safe route. One CEO even seeks out failed startups on prospective candidates’ resumes as a sign of an “independent mind” and someone he’d want on his team.
Another ex-Theranos employee, Grace Ko, who worked on formulating reagents and is now a junior frontend developer at a cybersecurity company, wrote in a message to Protocol, “... most of my colleagues from Theranos were rather in demand. It’s because there’s a lot to learn from people who worked at a company that almost made it but didn’t, organization and technology wise. I mostly focused on the positive side of the experience as mine really was a good one, despite how the media portrays the company.”