Confession: I have never seen the show Silicon Valley. (A good friend swears she has a character based on her… I won’t say which one!) People love it. I hypothesize it’s because its writers are a mix of natives who’ve drunk the heady tech Kool-Aid, as well as skeptics who never have, so they can still easily see the lack of emperor’s clothing when the occasion calls for it.
One of its writers, Dan Lyons (widely noted for his time at the helm of the Fake Steve Jobs blog), definitely falls into the skeptic camp. He recently penned a book about his time inside one of present day’s high tech “unicorn” companies, Hubspot. The book is called Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble.
Another confession: I love Hubspot’s software and philosophy. While no company or product is perfect, I have been continually impressed with the product, the people and the results they can deliver. Mr. Lyons did not enjoy his time in the company. But despite this seeming disparity, I found the book worth reading on several levels. A few notable chapters:
Chapter 1 – Bleached White Male
Mr. Lyons, a tech editor at Newsweek, falls casualty to the cutbacks in the publishing industry. He goes from a great job he loves to looking for a job in the wild world of tech. He takes a telling look at the issues many people of a certain age are finding with their careers — needing to re-invent themselves at a time when they had thought they might be better able to enjoy their time in the top rungs of the ladder they’d spent decades climbing.
Chapter 4 – The Happy Awesome Fun Startup Culture (with a host of “!!!!” interspersed)
Having come up through the ranks of journalism — with cynicism and profanity common — the over-the-top, positive corporate culture gives our author pause. In short, he can’t help poking fun at it, and is surprised when his co-workers feel uncomfortable in the face of this. He is equally uncomfortable in the office-less, free-candy environment which feels unprofessional to him.
Chapter 13 – The Ron Burgundy of Tech (subtitled “A Disturbance in the Dreamforce”)
One of the more interesting features of this book (where you can tell that Mr. Lyons was a talented journalist) is his use of colorful characters to illustrate larger trends. In this case, he gives us an in-depth look at the start of Salesforce.com — the original SaaS company — and its dear leader Marc Benioff. He paints an interesting/damning picture of the revenue models and executive compensation combinations that give many pause. In a later chapter entitled “The New Work: Employees as Widgets,” he describes the term VORP (Value Added Over Replacement), a.k.a. how companies overwork new employees (in this case, the inside sales team) because the replacement cost is so low.
A Mockery of All Sorts
In short, you can see a very interesting picture from an ‘almost insider’ colorfully illustrating many of the foibles of the modern workplace. He mocks Hubspot’s management techniques, derides the business model and describes his co-workers less than respectfully. He mocks Content Marketing. He mocks Inbound Marketing. He mocks their Halloween party.
I first got my sense of an impending clash when he got the job and told the reader, “They make marketing software — I hear it’s good, or so my friends who use it say.” And later he refers to the company’s e-marketing tools as “Spam Makers.” He was underwhelmed from Day One with what the company did, on how they wanted to use him, and told many stories of trying to accomplish big things that didn’t happen because of upper management focusing on shiny new things.
And a Touch of Scandal
One thing about this book that has drawn a lot of press is that when he finally decided to leave, and did not sign the customary non-disclosure agreement, management had a sense he was writing a tell-all book. Their attempts to hack his computer for a sneak peek actually led to criminal charges and two of the executives at the company being let go.
Not touched by the scandal but mightily scathed in the book, Hubspot founder Dharmesh Shah penned a thoughtful reply on LinkedIn about things Mr. Lyon pointed out (lack of diversity and ageist issues chief among them). He was heartfelt about his sincere belief that Hubspot was providing very real value. I was impressed. But Mr. Lyon would also point out that Mr. Shah made $80 million dollars on the day of the IPO, so he certainly can argue with great sincerity.
I personally enjoyed Mr. Lyon’s work on the book — as I had enjoyed his writings on behalf of Hubspot. I was sad for him that he had not enjoyed his time there. Knowing the behind-the-scenes reality of startup life, I shall have to watch Silicon Valley at some point… I’m curious if I’ll see a character based on me!