I had mixed feelings when I first heard about Dan Lyons’ new book, Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble.
The book focuses on Lyons’s short, 1 ½ year tenure as a content person at HubSpot, the much admired SaaS (Software as a Service) company for SMB Inbound Marketing that successfully IPO’d in 2014. Lyons clearly had some scores to settle with the company, where at 52, he was twice as old as the average employee. As a lifelong journalist who rose to be Newsweek’s Tech Editor and the secret writer of The Fake Steve Jobs blog, he was unlikely to drink the non-critical, cheerleading Kool-Aid that he claims the corporate leadership demanded in exchange for little supervision, endless snacks and beer, and “unlimited vacations.”
In my own experience, the HubSpot leadership team has done a great deal to articulate the opportunities of social media and content marketing focused “Inbound marketing” as a cheap and efficient substitute for advertising. But Lyons lands many punches against the company, whose executives he derides as “charlatans.”
According to Lyons, the new concepts of Inbound Marketing are a cover for little or no controls, and in fact, the company doesn’t even abide by them internally. Lyons observes that its sales and marketing costs aren’t based on inbound marketing. The high levels of SMB churn that the company experienced required endless pitching by the company’s telemarketing center to bring in replacement customers.
Lyons also notes that companies like HubSpot tend to get a free ride from critical eyes, with the tech press looking for exciting VC heroes like Marc Andreessen and John Doerr. The VCs are really just glorified salesmen, he feels, with little concern for making profits or rewarding mom and pop investors.
Much of the book focuses on a terrible human resources situation at Hubspot for Lyons, who was a prize catch to join the team as TheFakeSteveJobs celebrity blogger and was given a very senior level salary (never disclosed). He never really fit in at the startup with its cult-like culture (he claims), lack of a hierarchy that would reward senior level people, and constantly shifting strategies.
To be sure, Lyons, while often funny, can be a self-righteous whiner at times. But in this account, he takes no prisoners, and raises many important points about the need to look beyond the rhetoric when evaluating new, high-flying tech companies.