In his memoir “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” William Goldman famously summed up Hollywood — and also pretty much every other business entity around — by saying “Nobody knows anything.”
Nowhere is that case made more transparent (to use another meaningless buzzword) than in “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble,” by Dan Lyons, which was released last month and is already a bestseller.
Lyons is in a position to know. “Unceremoniously dumped” as he puts it, as the technology editor of Newsweek (hey, dude, it was sold for a dollar!) the gray-haired, then 50-year-old father of young twins, with a wife who wasn’t working at the time, does what many out-of-work, former star reporters do: he joins the people on the other side of the curtain, in the booming wealth-making industry he used to cover (sometimes covetously.) He’s there for the money, thinking, “hey, how hard can this be?”
In this case, he lands a job at HubSpot, a Boston start-up that sells cloud-based software to marketers. Located in a handsome, artfully restored, old red-brick-walled industrial factory, the company lives up to every cliché in the known digital world. (Beanbag chairs, nap rooms, free beer, rows and rows of earbud-wearing, low-paid Millennial slaves manning the galleys, etc.) Churn baby, churn.
The book is a fantastic read. Though it does bog down and get repetitive in the middle, seldom has the world of second-generation start-ups been described in a micro, day-by-day basis with such perceptive skill.
Actually, that’s not true either. The same sort of masterly observations are dramatized on HBO’s “Silicon Valley,” for which Lyons left HubSpot (also unceremoniously) to become one of the writers.
Set in Palo Alto but using the term “Silicon Valley” broadly, the nerd/bro-based show is hilarious, in a deadpan “Office Space” way that suggests it has to be a parody. But the sad thing is, it’s not even exaggerated.
In a writing room that also includes Dick Costolo of Twitter fame, Lyons is on board for Seasons 2 and 3. It seems he contributes some of the Orwellian nuggets freshly mined from this book, like using the term “graduated” for “fired.”
In an almost-daily happening at HubSpot, the whole company gets a peppy corporate email that announces “we are super excited to see what [graduated guy] does with his superpowers on his next rock star adventure.”
Also, since “unlimited vacation” is one of the perks, that means you don’t get paid for the days you never took while trying to make your impossibly punishing numbers.
Previously, as a tech writer at Forbes, Lyons got semi-famous writing the “Fake Steve Jobs” blog, which was so good that some thought it had to have been written by an Apple insider.
So there is no one in the known universe in a better position to skewer the mix of frat house/kindergarten/ Scientology culture that is the modern start-up.
Journalists are generally a dark, sardonic bunch, so I was beaming and nodding my head in “delightion” over what Lyons made of all the nonsense, group-think language.
Yes, “delightion” is one of the HubSpot co-founder’s favorite terms. Another is “one-plus-one equals three.” In meetings, HubSpot staffers would ask, “Yes, but is it one-plus-one equals three enough?”
This is the kind of stuff that makes your skin crawl if you’re not drinking the company Kool-Aid. Actually, I have had the same experiences interviewing some of these start-up guys (and they are nearly always guys.) I remember a terrible Emperor’s New Clothes moment, interviewing someone who was about to release one of the stupidest, most offensive Super Bowl spots of all time, and he didn’t have a clue.
Then again, Lyons himself can get mighty annoying. We hear that he used to work at Newsweek, wear a suit, have an office, and interview Bill Gates, a few too many times.
Yes, his talents and potential at HubSpot were horribly wasted and mismanaged. Still, the founders of the company took him in and paid him well.
It becomes clear that HubSpot is one of these second-generation start-ups that is hardly progressive or world-changing — it’s pretty much the opposite. Its pedestrian software is buggy, and no matter how many euphemisms you come up with for “spam,” that’s what they’re selling.
Rather, it exists more as a financial instrument, a sales and marketing operation that has to scale quickly, to get to an IPO for a several-billion-dollar valuation, while the company itself still operates in the red. So you inspire all the terribly paid sales and marketing serfs with company games, candy walls and orange hammocks to keep it going.
Lyons at one point testily says to one of the Millennials, “You guys are the first generation that’s willing to work for free candy. My generation would never have fallen for that. We wanted to get paid in actual money.”
She responds that candy doesn’t cost much, that she probably would not be paid more without it, and that it makes work fun. It’s hardly this kid’s fault that this culture exists, of having to endure a “tour of duty” with no security at all, and companies who have no idea how to manage, skirt the rules, and fire staff willy-nilly without appreciating their hard work or loyalty.
Still, after a while, you just want to shake this guy and say, “Hey, you’re staying there for the same reason that the higher-ups are pumping up the staff: for the money!”
In the end, HubSpot did go public, and Lyons ended up extracting about $60k from his shares. That’s lunch money by Wall Street standards, but to the rest of us working stiffs, it’s a pretty nice chunk of change to receive as gravy.
Lyons also makes terrible fun of the sad frat sales bros who are working the phones for chump change and free beer, in what are little more than ‘70s style call centers.
As a writer for HBO, Lyons lives in a much more exclusive world that’s no less bro-y. So he delights in the fact that the "Silicon Valley" show writers are obsessed with dick jokes.
So much so, in fact, that in the last episode I watched, they went to the trouble and expense of having a scene with actual equine intercourse happening in the background — and believe me, it’s quite a diversion. (I suppose it could be a metaphor for the flummoxed Richard character seeking out an answer from his race-horse-collecting new boss and not getting one.) Frankly, though, I found it gratuitous. This is the kind of stuff that only very privileged boys get to do.
But back to HubSpot. The most depressing takeaway is that in this new tech economy, a company doesn’t need to become profitable, or make anything that works very well. It just needs to get big fast, stage its initial public offering and pay out for investors — while the rest of us are left holding the bag, and waiting for the bubble to burst.