"Disrupted" — A book about HubSpot's misadventure in hiring a comedy writer

East coast tech firm HubSpot hired a senior Newsweek reporter to create content marketing but then became the subject of a book critical of the tech and startup sector
Written by Tom Foremski, Contributor

I'm a big fan of Dan Lyons, the former Newsweek senior reporter who used to write the Secret Diary of Steve Jobs blog, and now is a comedy writer on the HBO show "Silicon Valley."

I'm looking forward to seeing him at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park, in the heart of Silicon Valley, promoting his book, " Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble."

I haven't read it yet but I've seen excerpts. It's very funny and reviewers have said it is very scathing about his 19 months at East Coast tech firm, HubSpot, which has done very well selling online "inbound marketing" services.

I heard Lyons on the PBS radio show "Fresh Air" making fun of the very white, frat boy culture of the twenty-somethings that worked the phones selling software, dressed in shorts, baseball caps reversed and starting the day with a cold beer. Most were just out of college.

Lyons was a fiftysomething year old Marketing Fellow on a good salary and tasked with writing articles that would attract people to inbound marketing.

He took copious notes of his surroundings. He says the HubSpot management had its own lexicon of made-up words like, "delightation" and it talked about "one plus one equals three."

And no one is fired but they have "graduated" from the company.

Lyons also said that HubSpot tries to convince its people that they are all together on a world-changing mission; yet the staff is constantly monitored, measured, and managed, and coldly dismissed according to the data collected on their work activities.

He recently wrote in the New York Times:

We were told we were "rock stars" who were "inspiring people" and "changing the world," but in truth we were disposable. Many tech companies are proud of this kind of culture.

From this short experience he claims it is typical of many tech companies. And he lays the blame squarely on Silicon Valley.

The model originated in Silicon Valley, but it's spreading. Old-guard companies ... see Silicon Valley as a model of enlightenment and forward thinking, even though this "new" way of working is actually the oldest game in the world: the exploitation of labor by capital.

But it's simply not true.

Silicon Valley did not originate the management practices of sales people working in call centers! Being monitored, recorded and measured has been standard fare for workers in call centers for decades. And a far better example of cultish companies can be found in the reports of journalists that have written about Zappos, the online shoe company headquartered in Las Vegas.

And the title of the book, "Disrupted" is inaccurate.

His job at Newsweek was disrupted by the media industry's failure to compete against the high-tech media companies of Silicon Valley: Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, etc. Lyons wasn't disrupted because of HubSpot, or its ilk, as the title suggests.

"My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble" is another inaccuracy. What start-up? HubSpot was founded in 2006, and successfully IPO'd in October 2014 raising $125m. Lyons worked there from April 2013 to December 2014.

And "Startup Bubble"? We've been asking this question in Silicon Valley for the past four or so years and we still aren't sure and that means we are not in a bubble -- yet.

Lyons speaks about rampant ageism in the tech sector - even though HubSpot hired him.

And it's all presented as if HubSpot was located 3,000 miles away in Silicon Valley and is the poster child of all that is wrong with tech and startups.

But Silicon Valley startups aren't like HubSpot, Lyons completely missed the engineering culture. Engineers might make up less than a third of the workforce of a larger startup but the engineering culture remains the dominant one. The HBO comedy show "Silicon Valley" does an excellent job in showing -- and lampooning -- this engineering culture.

And it is most definitely not a frat boy culture, no one is drinking a morning beer - but watch out Friday after 4pm! Engineers talk with each other respectfully, they listen, they work long hours. There is no cultish intent but an engineer's social life is not that great so they rely on company offsite events and on each other for entertainment.

You will rarely hear talk about a world changing mission inside startups but it does come up and it is very important in the hiring of engineers. When every company offers a free lunch and a ride to work, a big social mission helps tremendously in hiring.

But engineers are skeptical about everything and airy, huggy sentiments about changing the world won't work.

HubSpot took a risk with Lyons and it became a nightmare. But it should have done its due diligence.

It might have thought it was hiring a veteran reporter but instead it hired a comedy writer specializing in lampooning tech companies and tech industry personalities, as he did in plain sight on The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs and on HBO's "Silicon Valley" comedy sitcom.

It was HubSpot's misadventure. It expected articles about "inbound marketing" from Lyons. Instead, it ended up paying him a generous salary while he collected research for his book.

"Disrupted" should be seen for what it is, as entertainment and not as a damning indictment of the tech sector and Silicon Valley. We still need someone to write that book.

Editorial standards