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What Marketers Have to Learn from America’s Youngest Billionaire

What Marketers Have to Learn from America’s Youngest Billionaire


Elizabeth Holmes, at the ripe age of 19, founded a blood diagnostic company called Theranos. Today, she’s 30 and runs an organization that is poised to turn the country’s health diagnostic industry on its head–and improve outcomes for millions of people. Theranos is valued at $9 billion. Holmes herself?

Elizabeth Holmes Net Worth


The irony is that everyone–friends, former professors, partners, clients–agree that Holmes was never in it for the money. Nevertheless, she certainly seems to have found her way there. As marketers whose jobs often center on ROI and making more money for our companies, what can we possibly learn from this 30-year-old prodigy who was never in it for the money?

As it turns out, a lot. Let’s take a look at the environment we’re operating in. If you’re familiar with the concept of Blue Ocean strategy, you’ll understand that content marketing is no longer a blue ocean in and of itself.

It was, once.

When I was getting started in the early 2000s, we content marketers were swimming in opportunities. We were standing at the edge of a broad, unexplored sea eagerly awaiting whatever we chose to offer. If we wanted to become the leading authority on data storage solutions, all we had to do was start a blog. Want to reach more customers cheaper? Use Facebook.

Now, however, the ocean is full to the brim with competition, and red with the blood of battle for “mindshare.” More and more, marketers are asked to push more content, faster, in order to grab a diminishing slice of the public’s attention. Social media marketers simultaneously have to juggle all the now-standard platforms–Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Pinterest–and all the new and emerging ones that change on an almost weekly basis. How can we possibly keep up?

The answer to that question can be found in the story of a 19-year-old college student who built a $9 billion company in 11 years in a market saturated with behemoth competitors quite literally out for blood.

Secret #1: Stop Selling

When her chemical engineering professor at Stanford asked Holmes why she wanted to drop out of college to start a company in the hyper-saturated world of bio-technology, she said, “Because systems like this could completely revolutionize how health care is delivered… I want to create a whole new technology, one that is aimed at helping humanity.” [Source]

Let that sink in. Self-made billionaire Elizabeth Holmes revolutionized the health industry and catapulted herself onto the cover of Forbes, Fortune, and Time magazines… and all she was trying to do was help.

To many established business people, helping doesn’t sound like a particularly viable business strategy. Fortunately, the market disagrees with them.

An example from our own industry: Brian Halligan, founder and CEO of Hubspot, a marketing automation platform that was valued in August 2014 at $1.3 billion. At the September 2014 Inbound conference, he revealed that in the early years of the company they looked for “ABC” salespeople–those who would Always Be Closing. They learned quickly, however, that it is much more effective to hire ABH salespeople: Always Be Helping.

Many major companies fight over segments of red ocean by spending on massive content campaigns—more content, more platforms, more people, more advertising aimed at closing more sales. Unless you’re Apple or Google or GE, you can’t outspend those guys. And even if you are one of them, you don’t want to fight that bloody battle.

The most innovative companies don’t. Instead, they focus on creating new, blue oceans by out-helping.

What exactly does that mean for marketers? It means we have to start with the buyer, with understanding who our buyer is and what the buyer genuinely needs. Buyer personas and buyer journey mapping are our tools to getting there. The most important thing we can do is listen and understand the questions the buyers are asking, where they’re asking them, and how they want them answered. More now than ever before, a marketer’s most powerful tools are her ears.

Secret #2: Stop Competing

In the markets it currently serves–in and around Palo Alto–Theranos essentially has no meaningful competition. This is not because competition doesn’t exist in the blood diagnostic world. It’s because Theranos offers a technology that makes the competition irrelevant. Theranos can run as many as 70 tests on a sample the size of a pencil eraser, for 1/10th the cost of traditional tests.

Sure, you think, if I could convince our sales department to lower prices by 90%, I could lure in a lot more sales too. And drive the company out of business in the process.

But we’re not talking about your company’s competition. We’re talking about the competition for the market’s attention. So when we discuss lowering cost, we’re talking about what it costs you–the marketer–in terms of time and resources, to reach that market. In other words, we’re talking about how to connect with your target buyers in less time and for less money.

To do this, we must again return to our buyers. While the exact methods will vary by company, here are a few core approaches:

  • Stop investing in every social media platform. Focus on those your buyers frequent at times that they are in the right frame of mind to make purchasing decisions. Re-invest your resources where it will have a heavier impact. For Scopcity, we focus on Twitter and LinkedIn. That’s it.
  • Stop creating sales-oriented content that nobody wants to read. Focus instead on creating a few central pieces of deep content that answer questions your audience is really asking, and then use those to start conversations and spark new types of content on the same topics. We produce in-depth resources on topics such as writing ebooks and hiring copywriters, and we use them as the foundation for blogging, Tweeting, and engaging in LinkedIn.
  • Curate relevant news and updates in your industry. Become a go-to resource for the latest insights. Instead of struggling every day or every week to generate new blog topics, let the news inspire you and keep it short and sweet. We read voraciously in our industry and share the best content we find with our readers on our Twitter feed.
  • Invest in analytics that give you a clear picture of what efforts are working, and prune any but the top 10% of performers. Re-invest in high-performing efforts. We use a combination of Crazy Egg, Google Analytics, and Hootsuite. For larger organizations, we highly recommend Hubspot.

Secret #3. Stop Producing Garbage

The reason Theranos has risen so fast has a lot to do with cost, but not everything. It also offers a service that is far superior to the alternatives. Instead of multiple blood draws, it diagnoses up to 70 ailments with a single, painless finger prick. For infants, the elderly, and those with compromised immune systems, this is a significant safety benefit. Best of all, the tests can be run faster than any alternative, allowing fast diagnoses and prompt, potentially life-saving treatment.

In other words, Theranos offers massively higher value.

Business decision makers would often rather have blood drawn than click through yet another catchy headline that leads to crappy content. If you can instead provide them with well-conceived, useful content that gets to the heart of what they need, with enough value to keep them engaged… then you’ve created your own private Theranos.

And, as with the other secrets, accomplishing this comes back to the buyer.

The good news is, even with limited resources, you don’t have to choose between quantity and quality. With a smart strategy, speed hacks, and–if your resources permit–savvy outsourcing, any marketer can create a blue ocean of their own.

If you’d like to learn how to create your company’s blue ocean content marketing strategy, please join the BMA Carolinas Connect2Education workshop on Thursday for an intensive look at marketing automation with Jen Stretch, creative development process with Peggy Brookhouse, LinkedIn strategies with Ira Bass, and a workshop by yours truly on content marketing hacks you can put to use right away.

Or get in touch with us to find out how we can help.


Fen Druadìn Head (formerly Heather Head) is an author, as well as the founder of Scopcity. When she is not writing, running the business, or chasing down bad guys on Twitter, she enjoys hiking, snuggling with her husband and three boys, and avoiding the kitchen.

Autumn Nicholson on January 21, 2015 AT 02 pm

I loved this article. I just read a similar article at about the value millennials place on caring in leadership. I’m interested to see how millennials affect change in marketing, and I’m curious about your opinion on whether this is a millennial movement or just a “trend.”

    Heather Head on January 22, 2015 AT 12 pm

    What a great question, Autumn! I think Millennials have something to do with it. They’ve grown up in a very different economy from what anyone has seen since WWII, and a different world technologically than has ever been seen, and they understand the value of relationships over money better than anyone has since the Great Depression (this is all speculative, of course). They are more skeptical of being “sold,” and they demand transparency. But they’re not the only people demanding these things–we’ve all undergone a sea change through the Great Recession, and so it’s a both/and situation: Millennials will continue to have a profound impact on marketing, and the marketplace in general will continue to trend this direction due to technology, cultural shifts, and economic factors.

    Of course, in one fundamental way, none of this is actually new–it’s still the same simple principle of finding out what people want to buy (consume, read, etc.), and delivering it.

    Thanks for your comment. Would love to keep up with each other. Find me on Twitter (@scopcity for work and @HHeadWrites for pleasure) and I’ll follow back so we can keep up. Or just keep hanging around here. 🙂

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