Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Book review: "Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble"

Dan Lyons was 52, with a wife and kids to support, and suddenly needed a job.

Lyons had recently been laid off as technology editor at Newsweek in 2012. He could have sought another job in journalism, but that field was imploding. Besides, he was intrigued with the world of high-tech start-ups. He'd interviewed many people at such companies as a journalist, and even though many of them didn't seem that bright, everyone was getting rich.

He wanted a piece of it.

So Lyons accepted a job with a 5-year-old Boston company called HubSpot as a "marketing fellow." Thus began Lyons' strange odyssey that he describes in his 2016 book, "Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble."  It's a book that, at turns, is funny, disturbing and sad.

Lyons had high hopes for his new job, but from day one -- literally -- things go awry. When he arrives for work, neither of the managers that hired him are there to welcome him and no one quite knows what to do with him. He is startled to discover that a 26-year-old who he first assumed was an administrative assistant is actually his new boss.

The average age of a Hubspot employee, Lyons learns, is 26, and he is twice that. It is a workplace designed for the young. The company stocks the cafeteria with snacks, beer and a "candy wall" -- all free. There's a foosball table, ping-pong table, indoor shuffleboard, and a set of musical instruments, "in case people want to have an impromptu jam session." Some employees work while sitting on large rubber balls; conference rooms have beanbag chairs.

Lyons struggles to fit it, but he never does. He's the "old guy" in the office and at any rate, age is only one of the things that set HubSpot apart. There is a forced perkiness in the work culture -- the "HubSpotty" way of doing things  and its own HubSpeak  When someone quits or is fired, it is called "graduation."

"HubSpotters talk about 'inspiring people,' 'being remarkable,' 'conquering fear,' and being 'rock stars' and 'superstars with super powers' whose mission is to "inspire people" and 'be leaders,'" Lyons writes. "They talk about engaging in delightion, which is a made-up word, invented by Dharmesh (a company co-founder), that means delighting our customers. They say all of these things without a hint of irony."

And: "They use the word awesome incessantly, usually to describe themselves or each other. That's awesome! You're awesome! No you're awesome for saying I'm awesome.
  
"They pepper their communication with exclamation points, often in clusters, like this!!! They are constantly sending around emails praising someone who is totally crushing it and doing something awesome and being a total team player!!! These emails are cc'd to everyone in the department. The protocol seems to be for every recipient to issue his or her won reply-to-all email joining in on the cheer, writing thing like 'You go,girl!!' and 'Go HubSpot, go!!!!' and 'Ashley for president!!!'"

To Lyons, it seems a lot like a cult.  His unease deepens whern he realizes that HubSpot -- for all its talk about "being remarkable" -- is in the unremarkable business of helping other companies send out spam email. Billions and billions of spam emails. Except they call "lovable marketing content."

A key question is whether HubSpot is a uniquely bizarre company, or whether it is representative of other start-up tech companies. There's mixed evidence in the book. Yes, there are some cases where HubSpot seems way outside the norm -- on Halloween, everyone dresses up in costume -- but in other areas, such as a preference for young, cheap employees, it seems to fit with others start-ups.

In some ways, Lyons' difficulty in fitting in with HubSpot is due less to the company being a start-up than the fact that it is marketing and sales. This is far from the journalism that Lyons was used to.

Lyons did, in some cases, contribute some of his work problems. When a top executive asks him to assess the company's blog, Lyons responds with a detailed email critical of the blog and, by implication, the people who run it. Guess what? The email is forwarded to the people who run the blog and they turn cold on Lyons.

(A good rule for any workplace: If you are going to criticize someone, don't put it in writing.)

There are larger issues that come to mind in reading "Disrupted": ageism in the workplace, the house-of-cards nature of the whole start-up world, and why we put so much of our personal information in the hands of such ditzy companies.

Still, what I enjoyed most about "Disrupted" is that it gives you an inside look at another workplace. Most of us, buried in our own jobs, have little idea how different the culture can be elsewhere.

Lyons puts you there,  as if you yourself were suddenly working at HubSpot. As Lyons went through this experience, I felt like I was there with him, feeling the confusion, the amusement, and the pain.

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