“Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble” Review

The Dark Side of the Startup World

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Dan Lyons has a steady journalism job at Newsweek, two kids, and a great marriage. He’s exactly where you want to be in your mid-50’s. Except one day his world is sent into a tailspin. Just as he is planning a family excursion to Europe, he loses his job.

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He bounces around a few jobs, one of which forces him to commute from Boston to San Francisco, but he eventually comes across an interesting opportunity to work at Boston-based startup called HubSpot. Despite being more than 20 years older than the average employee, he receives an amazing opportunity for a job in marketing at what is supposed to be one of the coolest startups in the city. The management is excited for him to come on board, and he thinks he could do a lot there given his experience. He jumps on the opportunity because what possibly could go wrong working at a company that has the look of a “Montessori preschool” (4). He realizes quite quickly, however, that he is in for a lot more than just themed parties and ice cream.

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Right off the bat, he is off put by the management of the company. In his eyes, his managers are kids, only a few years out of college and no other work experience, yet at HubSpot, they are entrusted with running teams and managing budgets. In addition, for a company that prides itself on diversity and inclusion, the employees are mostly white, and there are very few women, especially at the executive level. Aside from gender and ethnicity uniformity, there is also a clear age bias. By far the most odd, however, is the concept of “Graduation Day” which is what they refer to when someone gets a new job or is fired. There is never a warning of someone leaving. There is just an email sent out when they leave, and their desk is immediately cleared out. Not only is the company’s culture and management problematic, but the product itself is too. They spend more money to make, sell and deliver their product than customers are willing to pay for it.

Dan is given no chances to progress at the company. He pitches ideas to his manager and despite them being approved by the CEO, he is never allowed to bring them to fruition. In fact, his ideas are even taken over by his manager as if they are his own. He is at a complete standstill. He is writing pointless articles, his coworkers ignore him, and he is eventually banished to the telemarketing center, which he nicknames “the boiler room” (96). After repeated demotions and cruel treatment, Dan becomes miserable at HubSpot. He experiences extremely passive aggressive behavior and backstabbing and exposes several scenarios that would make anyone wary of working at the company.

Eventually, he is able to get a new job lined up, so he puts in his six weeks notice. However, he doesn’t make a peaceful exit without the company’s attempt to fire him and take away his last six weeks of pay and health insurance.

In Depth: The Influence of Investors

Dan discussed quite a bit in length the changing role of venture capitalists in startups. While their main purpose, which is to invest capital, has not changed, their input and involvement in the companies they invest in has generally decreased over time. There is a strong push to allow young entrepreneurs pursue their ideas with minimal input. However, Dan realizes that despite this lack of input, there is no shortage in compensation when the company does well. He begins to uncover that technology companies, specifically tech startups are “a world where wealth is distributed unevenly and benefits accrue mostly to investors and founders, who have rigged the game in their favor” (115).

Later on in the Epilogue, Dan talks about how surprised he was that investors did not come out to respond to his book on HubSpot. As trusted people in the technology world, they should be concerned with the ethicality of their investments and the treatment of employees. The Board of Directors clearly knew about his manuscript, but not one ever contacted him, and he had even met these people before. As backers of a company that prides itself on “radical transparency”, they are clearly not holding themselves to that same standard (254).

My Review

Just as I am getting excited to take this class so I can learn about startups, I read this book that exhibits a pretty gut wrenching experience. Unlimited vacation, free meals, game rooms, nap rooms, these are all the things that come to mind when thinking about startups today. However, Dan Lyons shows a much darker side, and he makes it clear that he believes the cons do not outweigh the pros. I think it’s important to read this book since it forces some skepticism before “Drinking the Kool-Aid” (51).

I am somewhat cautious, however, to completely endorse his viewpoint. While I think he did have some terrible experiences at the company, I do think that his experience as a 50 year old would be different than someone’s in their mid-twenties. Therefore, I think that it may be hard to transition into the startup life coming from a structured company. However, I do indeed see where the author is coming from when he voices his concerns about ageism because clearly it was not a welcoming place for people of all ages. Being forced to stay for happy hours is not as appealing to someone with a family as it might be to a recent college grad. I think this book taught me to look beyond all the exciting perks and to understand all facets of the industry. At the same time, I have yet to discover a single industry that does not struggle with some sort of workplace discrimination, and it is important to understand this before entering into a new job.

6 thoughts on ““Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble” Review

  1. Bold to take on this book. I do keep it in the lineup, just to make sure we see the other side of things as well. I have read this book, and I was somewhat torn. I do appreciate his skeptical viewpoint, but his problem wasn’t just that he was a 50 year old but that he was a 50 year old with no experience in tech or corporate world. Some of his ‘bah humbug” attitude also stemmed from that different background, not just his age (we’ll meet some amazing 40, 50, and 60 year olds working in these companies).

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  2. What an interesting book. When I join a company and begin my career, I wish my boss could be someone who has a long-time experience in the industry and in life. Although those young entrepreneurs in tech startups have ambitions and intelligence, they don’t have enough awareness to treat know how to treat their employees and run a business.

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  3. This book sounds very interesting and informative. As a college student not ready for a traditional career, I often view the culture of the startup world as the ideal structure for me. However, as Dan Lyons reveals in this book, a laid-back culture sometimes is not as great as it’s hyped up to be. For example, I was once told by a professional at a startup with a limitless vacation policy that most workers took fewer vacation days than people at a traditional company with a structured vacation policy. Maybe there is a reason that most established companies have a more traditional structure.

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  4. It’s always interesting to hear another perspective about the startup scene; a lot of the smaller scale issues are rarely talked about or just simply overlooked. Although it hasn’t deterred me from pursuing a career in tech, this book has been very eye-opening and reinforces the importance of looking at everything from multiple perspectives.

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  5. Great summary! Dan Lyons offers a jarring, yet refreshing perspective on the often romanticized tech startup world. It is certainly worth taking note of his criticisms and skepticism, but I would refrain from analyzing Lyons’ experience in isolation. When we go to NYC, it will be easy to “drink the Kool-Aid”, but it’s equally important to keep Lyons’ advice in mind as a reality check if necessary.

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  6. Wow, what a fascinating perspective on the startup world. Like you, I had only ever heard of the amazing benefits of a startup workplace and hadn’t ever really considered the drawbacks of a work environment that is so laid back. This definitely offers a great perspective to keep in mind as we tour many companies like the one you described.

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