Dan Lyons-Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble

Themes Explored: silicon valley, marketing, inbound marketing, startup culture, career, journalism, death of print, layoffs, graduation, corporate culture, utopia, digital marketing, spam mail, ageism, Fraternities, Sororities, college culture, Millennials,  Boomers, professionalism, corporate espionage, Nonfiction, satire, technology, Boston

Synopsis: For twenty-five years Dan Lyons was a magazine writer at the top of his profession–until one Friday morning when he received a phone call: Poof. His job no longer existed. Dan was, in a word, screwed. Then an idea hit. Dan had long reported on Silicon Valley and the tech explosion. Why not join it? HubSpot, a Boston start-up, was flush with $100 million in venture capital. They offered Dan a pile of stock options for the vague role of “marketing fellow.” What could go wrong? 

HubSpotters were true believers: They were making the world a better place … by selling email spam. With a cast of characters that includes devilish angel investors, fad-chasing venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and “wantrapreneurs,” bloggers and brogrammers, social climbers and sociopaths, Disrupted is a gripping and definitive account of life in the (second) tech bubble. (Adapted from Goodreads)

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Review: Ashley for President! 

Startup culture seems tailor-made to extend the fraternity-sorority lifestyle long after college graduation. Beer taps and candy walls do not necessarily appeal to experienced working professionals. Young college kids fresh from the high of graduation looking for a good time? They eat those types of rewards right up, quite literally. Never mind the fact that any money spent maintaining such a monstrosity of sugar and alcohol could go towards salary increases and performance bonuses.

Bring on the skittles!

Startups remain the domain of Under-30s for a reason, mainly the long hours, poor pay, and the fact that my generation seems perfectly happy working for complementary M&Ms instead of cost-of-living adjustments. All so we can work for a “cool” company that offers multi-colored lounge spaces that strongly resemble childhood rec rooms. Once the dreaded “thirtieth” birthday approaches, life in a startup world becomes uncomfortable. Silicon Valley and the technology sector in general craves youthful exuberance over experience. Hence, many young workers join startups under the lure of saving the world and then are spit out once they age out of the narrow box of Silicon Valley “age appropriateness”.

Enter the “diversity hire”. Dan Lyons, a 50ish former technology writer, finds himself jobless after Newsweek cut most of its editorial staff. Desperate for employment since his wife quit her job a week before he was laid off and they were about to embark on a non-refundable European vacation, Lyons took the first offer he could find. He entered the brave world of a local startup as a “marketing fellow”.

Behold the world of HubSpot, an “inbound marketing” company located in Boston, Massachusetts. Inbound Marketing supposedly encompasses blogs, and social publishing, but generally seems to dissolve into multiple emails sent daily in a vain attempt to get frustrated office workers to click on the links. Outbound marketing refers to traditional advertising channels: radio, print, television, and so forth.

If HubSpot did not actually exist, you would think Lyons created a clever parody of startup culture. However, HubSpot is a real company. Based upon Lyons’s descriptions, HubSpot culture draws inspiration from three sources: Orwellian doublespeak, the movie Office Space and Scientology.

One of the founders of the company brings a teddy bear (yes, a stuffed, child’s toy) to meetings to represent the average customer. Apparently, HubSpot believes the teddy bear accurately represents the intelligence and skill of the average customer. Like most internet companies, HubSpot earned a $2 billion valuation, even though it has never turned a profit and sells a lackluster product.

During the period described in Disrupted, HubSpot’s main office occupies several floors of a 19th-century furniture factory. The building features exposed beams, frosted glass, a big atrium, and modern art hanging in the lobby.

The actual office resembles a child’s playroom: bright colors, plenty of “adult” toys (Foosball tables, ping-pong, etc..) and a nap room with a hammock and palm tree murals on the wall. Google started the whole office-playground fusion trend that spread like a bad virus among technology companies. Work can no longer just be work, now work must also equal fun.

According to Lyons, the HubSpot office contains “neighborhoods” named after parts of Boston: North End, South End, and Charlestown. One neighborhood contains musical instruments, in case people want to have an impromptu jam session during the workday. Every neighborhood contains kitchens, with automatic espresso machines, and lounge areas with couches and chalkboard walls where people can scribe inspirational messages reminding each other how cool they are because they work at HubSpot. One gem included “There is a reason we have two ears and one mouth. So that we listen twice as much as we speak.”

On the ground floor, the main conference room doubles as the game room, or, more appropriately, the game room doubles as a conference room. This contains the fraternity staples of Foosball, Ping-Pong, indoor shuffleboard, and video games. The cafeteria contains industrial refrigerators stocked with cases of beer, cabinets with bagels and cereal, and the “candy wall”.  Prospective employees particularly enjoy visiting the candy wall. Teams go on outings to play trampoline dodgeball, race go-karts, and compete in laser tag competitions.

Multiple dogs walk around the HubSpot office because some therapist explained that animals bring a “calming nature” to the workplace. Every day at noon, a group of the young male initiates meet to do push-ups together. The second floor contains shower rooms, which the company installed as a courtesy for people who bike to work or jog at lunchtime. However, the showers quickly became the designated “sex cabins” every Friday when the happy hour went overly long. The janitorial staff did not appreciate this development.

Nobody has a dedicated office or desk. Every three months, everyone switches seats, even the CEO. HubSpot refers to this as a “seating hack”. Supposedly this reminds everyone that change is the only constant.

All HubSpot employees must follow the precepts outlined in the company’s culture code. The culture code is a 128-slide PowerPoint deck titled “The HubSpot Culture Code: Creating a Company We Love.”

The code’s creator is HubSpot’s co-founder, Dharmesh Shah. Inside the company, employees views him as a pseudo-spiritual leader. This code depicts a corporate utopia where the needs of the individual become secondary to the needs of the group. One slide declares that “team > individual,”—employees are encouraged to not worry about work-life balance because work is their life.

This seems to be a theme among startups.

Come to work never leave. A corporate horror story.  

All Hubspotters must strive to fulfill a concept known as “HEART”, an acronym that stands for humble, effective, adaptable, remarkable, and transparent. The ultimate HubSpotter employee can “make magic” when embodying all five traits of HEART.

This mumbo-jumbo culture code became an enormous PR coup for the company and a model that many other startups have emulated. When Dharmesh posted these slides online, they received more than 1 million views. He is now writing a book on startup corporate culture.

One quirk of HubSpeak involves “graduation”. Whenever someone quits or is fired, the event is referred to as “graduation.” The Vice President of Marketing would send out emails like “Team, just letting you know that William has graduated from HubSpot, and we’re excited to see how he uses his superpowers in his next big adventure!” Only during the next day would everyone notice that William is gone and his desk cleared out. Somehow, management arranged employees’ exits without anyone noticing.

Lyons started at HubSpot under the illusion that technology companies began with great inventions. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built a personal computer. Bill Gates and Paul Allen developed programming languages and an operating system. Sergey Brin and Larry Page revolutionized the internet with the Google search engine. Engineering came first, and sales came later. After all, how can you sell a product that does not exist?

HubSpot inverted this practice. The founder’s first hires included a head of sales and a head of marketing, even though they had no product to sell. HubSpot began life as a sales operation in search of a product. Not surprisingly, HubSpot operates at a loss. Another reason to hire the fresh college graduate, cheap labor.

How do you entice hundreds of people to work in sales and marketing for the lowest possible wages? You hire people right out of college and make work seem fun. Provide free beer, games, and decorate the place to resemble a grown up kindergarten. Then throw parties every Friday and on major holidays with complementary alcohol. Do that and voila, you can tap into an endless supply of fraternity brothers who will work 20 hour days in a telemarketing boiler room for $35,000 a year. (Most of the sales team is male, the women send the spam emails)

Supposedly, my generation does not care about money. At least, that is what the experts espouse, so they must be right.  Millennials want a sense of mission. Therefore, startups provide a mission. They tell their employees how special they are and that it is harder to get a job there than to get into Harvard. Make a team logo. Provide company branded swag, mainly hats and T-shirts. Dangle the prospect that some lucky few might get rich. Add beer, stir, and bake.

Lyons lasted one year at HubSpot. He left to write for the HBO show Silicon Valley.

Disrupted provides an entertaining, if rather sad, depiction of a startup that has to provide a candy wall to hide the fact that the product is sub par and basically just spam.

This is why your mother wants you to attend medical school.

Otherwise, you might find yourself sending emails about how Tiffani and Brittani rock. 

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, Hachette Books, 2016, ISBN: 9780316306089

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