In Disrupted, Dan Lyons tells the story of his time working as a writer (mostly blogs) for the tech startup company HubSpot. Prior to working at HubSpot, Lyons had a number of writing gigs and most of them were technology related. His previous work included writing for Newsweek, New York Times Magazine, GQ, Vanity Fair, Wired, and writing the Secret Diary of Steve Jobs blog. When his position at Newsweek was eliminated, he found himself looking for work at the age of 50, while married with two kids to take care of (his wife had medical issues and was not working at the time). He started the search for new employment and eventually landed at HubSpot, a company that provides software for “inbound marketing.” Disrupted tells the story of Lyons searching for and then subsequently obtaining new employment (and the challenges that go with that) as an “older” adult (and with much younger colleagues), but also his general experience working within the unique tech environment. While not geographically Silicon Valley (HubSpot is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts) Lyons provides an apt description of an insider’s view from within a tech startup.
Lyons, albeit somewhat reluctantly, accepted the job at HubSpot for a few different reasons. For one, it was geographically close to home and his family. Secondly, he had a number of friends who reaped large financial benefits from working in tech startups (and had vouched that HubSpot was indeed legit), so there was a motivation of financial self interest. And thirdly, after writing about tech issues and companies for so long he was curious about experiencing the culture from an insider’s perspective. His experiences, as Disrupted details in often humorous and depressing fashion, were overall less than stellar. As he became immersed in the HubSpot culture, the realism of the organization he now was a part of settled in:
“This is the peppy, effervescent, relentlessly positive, incredibly hubristic and overconfident attitude that everyone in the HubSpot marketing department exudes from [the head] on down. These people are super cheery cheerleaders. The whole world of online sales and marketing is filled with people who listen to Tony Robbins audiobooks on their way to work and dream of unleashing the power within themselves, people who love schmaltzy, smarmy motivational-speaker guff about being passionate, following your dreams, and conquering fear.”
Lyons has now moved on from HubSpot, subsequently writing for HBO’s Silicon Valley (a gig he started while still at HubSpot). The thing that Lyons nails is his apt portrayal of the culture, including how these startups often don’t really make money, the lack of diversity (and apparent non-concern about it), sexism and ageism (Mark Zuckerberg once said that “Young people are just smarter”), and more concern with the fact that employees have bean bag chairs, ping pong tables, and unlimited supplies of beer, candy, and hype than actually producing a decent product that the average person understands. Lyons sums this up when mentioning the co-founders of Twitter (incidentally, Twitter hasn’t ever turned a profit), specifically Biz Stone, who has an estimated net worth of $200 million. Since leaving Twitter, Stone started two companies, Jelly and Super. As Lyons notes, no one understands what the companies actually do, including Stone himself:
“I know this is eye-rollingly, hallucinogenically optimistic…but our mission is to build software that fosters empathy.”
If you are interested in an insider’s view of tech startups, Disrupted is an easy and most entertaining read. If you liked HBO’s Silicon Valley, you would also like this book. And for the record, if you want to foster empathetic relationships, begin with your day to day interactions with real life human beings. Start with Hi. You don’t need software for that.