What happens when you are a 52-year-old journalist laid off and struggling to find work in an industry that is struggling itself? What happens when after covering technology companies for years you decide it’s time to jump into the industry yourself? What happens when you get that coveted position in a start-up and you get to peek behind the curtain of one of the hottest players in Silicon Valley? You get Dan Lyons’s Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, a true account of how he tried reinventing his career by joining inbound marketing and sales software developer, HubSpot. This book follows his journey throughout his short tenure at the company and contains his many harsh criticisms of not only HubSpot, but of the Silicon Valley start-up culture as a whole.
Founded in 2006 by MIT-graduates Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah, HubSpot is a Cambridge-based cloud computing company that sells its software as a service to small to medium-sized businesses. As it is just around the corner from us at BC, technically HubSpot is not located in the physical Silicon Valley region in Northern California but is none the less a part of the industry that moniker has come to embody. HubSpot’s business model functions by connecting customers over the internet to their software (which includes a content management system, email campaign program, database for customer contacts, website traffic tracker, search engine optimization tool, etc.) for a monthly subscription fee.
When Dan Lyons joins in 2013, he has lost his prestigious position at Newsweek as a tech journalist and has been dabbling in jobs he finds unsatisfying. He joins HubSpot with some romantic ideals of what it will be like starting over in a cutting-edge company, despite his experience reporting on the Silicon Valley companies of past and present, and the hope to be able to cash in stock options for profit with HubSpot’s promised IPO. The culture he immerses himself in, the characters he meets, and the truths he learns about what it takes to make it in this industry ensures that he stays for less than two years and eventually inspires him to write this exposé.
The Gold Standard for Company Culture?
Lyons’s brutally describes joining HubSpot in the following way: “Arriving here feels like landing on some remote island where a bunch of people have been living for years, in isolation, making up their own rules and rituals and religion and language- even, to some extent, inventing their own reality.” Throughout the book, he constantly refers to the company culture as most comparable to a frat or cult. Sure it is a cult that has candy and beer on tap, kayaking excursions, and dress-up Halloween parties. Its members may enjoy a casual dress code, unlimited vacation days, and the ability to work from home any day. But it is a cult, just a cult centered around marketing. Their language is “HubSpeak,” a collection of acronyms, praise-words, and excessive use of the exclamation point. Their religion is the Culture Code written in a 128-slide Powerpoint presentation centering around the HEART (humble, effective, adaptable, remarkable, and transparent) characteristics. Their devotion is to HubSpot above themselves and others to an unhealthy point. The greatest failure is not to be inadequate at your job (as Lyons argues most of the inexperienced employees and management of HubSpot are) but to fail to be loyal to the team.
Flashy benefits like on-site dry cleaning services and professional massage therapists also aim to hide much bigger cultural issues. Issues like the fact that at 52, Lyons is twice the average age of a HubSpot employee and has to face deliberate and subconscious age discrimination. Issues like the string of professional women in their thirties that he witnesses being senselessly fired and the lack of female leadership in the company. Issues like the lack of racial diversity in a sea of young, white people that all dress, talk, and act the same. Lyons argues that start-up culture is only really a dreamy experience for a select few.
Gold v. Gold Plated
One chapter I found particularly interesting and relevant to Lyons’s core message is Chapter 12 “The New Work: Employees as Widgets.” In it, he describes the changing nature of how start-ups are founded. While it used to require an ingenious product to launch a company, many, he says, are beginning as sales operations in search of a product. It has become all about how a business model can scale quickly and become big, but not necessarily profitable. The Silicon Valley motto has become “grow fast, lose money, go public.”
The key to this business model is hiring young, cheap labor and selling them an ideal: “Everything about this new workplace, from the crazy décor to the change-the-world rhetoric to the hero’s journey mythology and the perks that are not really perks- all of these things exist for one reason, which is to drive down the cost of labor so that investors can maximize their returns.” Instead of money, they are giving their millennial targets a mission to cling to, a “fun” culture to be a part of, and the temptation of getting rich even though the wealth is heavily distributed to founders and investors.
The story is capital once again exploiting labor. Lyons believes employees, if they are even granted employee status (*cough, cough* Uber), are becoming widgets or “freelancers, selling our services in short-term engagements.” A job becomes like a tour of duty with no job security and we can expect dozens throughout our lives. Employees are expected to be loyal to the company even though the company isn’t in return. Lyons concludes that this new model of work was born from the Silicon Valley ecosystem but has the potential to spread to all industries as technological disruption grows.
So, Was It Worth It?
In my opinion- yes.
I really enjoyed this book, because of its content and style. I found Lyons’s message to be very insightful and disillusioning. It sometimes seems that Silicon Valley is the Promised Land. Start-ups and tech companies are often portrayed as ideal companies: they produce the latest innovations ready to change the world, their employees are treated to a company culture full of exclusive perks, and there is the potential for big money to be made. Working for such a company comes with a certain prestige. The buzzwords “Silicon Valley” and “start-up” get a lot of people excited. But Lyons writes from an outsider-brought-inside perspective that really illuminates how these companies are not always the breeding grounds for opportunity and wealth, especially not for everyone equally. Lyons’s biting humor, conversational tone, and captivating storytelling make Disrupted an enjoyable read for anyone, especially for anyone interested in the mystery surrounding working in tech.
I do think it is important, however, to remember to take Lyons’s words with a grain of salt. He is one person with one experience at one company and he definitely has his own ingrained biases.
Would I not work in a start-up after reading this book? Absolutely not. Do I have a lot more to think about and debate if I do go work for a start-up? Absolutely.