It's been hardly a week since since the publication of his book Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, but Dan Lyons sounds tired. Mostly, he's tired of explaining that the book is more than just a salacious takedown of HubSpot, the Boston-area startup he joined at age 52 after being laid off from Newsweek. As he sees it, the book is more like his memoir, as a midlife professional trying to earn a living after a vocational derailment.
"I think it's a book about a 50-year-old guy trying to reinvent himself and create a new career," he says. "That's the part of the book that's resonated for people. I've been amazed by my inbox. I have all of these letters [from readers] saying they've gone through the same thing."
Indeed, anyone who has ever lost a longtime job can relate to the circumstances that led Lyons—a career business journalist—to apply for a position at HubSpot, a maker of marketing software with a market cap exceeding $1 billion.
When Lyons joined the company in 2013, HubSpot was a high-flying startup ramping up for its IPO. On the surface, you might wonder: What would entice a fiftysomething journalist to join a sales machine full of twentysomethings? As it turns out, there were several circumstances. For one, HubSpot was in the Boston area, where Lyons and his family lived. For another, he disliked his first post-Newsweek job, at a technology website in San Francisco called ReadWrite. The twice-weekly cross-country commutes were, to put it mildly, a drawback.
But spending time in the Bay Area whetted Lyons' curiosity about joining a high-potential startup for the sake of cashing in. A few of his journalist colleagues had already done so, for Evernote and Flipboard. HubSpot gave Lyons the chance to do the same—and remain closer to his family. He met with HubSpot co-founders Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah, and liked them a lot. He met with then-HubSpot CMO Mike Volpe—referred to throughout the book under the pseudonym "Cranium"—and liked him, too. So he joined the company for a "pile of options" and a salary he does not disclose. (With the exception of Halligan and Shah, Lyons uses pseudonyms in the place of actual names for all HubSpot employees, though he does name additional names in the epilogue.)
While Disrupted is largely Lyons' memoir of a career transition, his accounts of day-to-day life at HubSpot are far from flattering. One critic with close ties to HubSpot—MIT Sloan professor Michael Cusumano, who taught Halligan and Shah when they were students there—believes Lyons "had every intention of writing a negative 'inside story' type of book, and abused the access and trust he was given."
Lyons was reluctant to get into a back and forth with Cusumano or anyone else critical of his book or approach. "But I promise you I didn't do what he says," Lyons says. "I did go in there to start a new career."
In many ways, the publicity about the "tell-all" book—not to mention last summer's scandal in which former HubSpot executives allegedly attempted to obtain a predraft copy—has usurped the tale told in the book itself, of Lyons' career reinvention. Though federal investigators dropped the case without pressing any charges, the incident caused HubSpot to fire Volpe, who'd worked as Lyons' boss. The incident also led to the resignation of vice president Joe Chernov and a pay cut for Halligan, "who knew about Volpe's actions but failed to bring the ethical violation to the board's attention in a timely fashion," reports the Boston Globe.
This past week, HubSpot's co-founders responded on LinkedIn to some of Lyons' unflattering accounts, mostly taking the high road. "Life is too short to hold grudges," they wrote. But the co-founders ignored some of Lyons' more serious complaints and the scandal itself. "It had the tone of being heavily edited and perhaps even partially or significantly written by the PR professionals and the legal staff," observes Cusumano, their former professor. "It would have been better to address the issue of Lyons' manuscript directly but I am sure they have good reasons not to have done so."
Ask Lyons about HubSpot's response on LinkedIn, and he curtly says: "They did a good job." Ask him if anyone from HubSpot has apologized to him for trying to purloin a predraft copy of the manuscript, and he simply says: "No." Ask him if he feels vindicated regarding all of the points that HubSpot did not respond to, and he says: "I really don't think of the book as a victory. I don't think of it as being me in an argument with HubSpot."
Reading Disrupted strictly as a memoir of career transition—rather than as some sort of exposé of life at HubSpot or life "in the startup bubble," as the title provocatively puts it—will open your eyes to many of the book's finer points. For example, there's a scene in the book's fifth chapter in which Lyons discusses an article Shah has written on LinkedIn about the wisdom of bringing a teddy bear named Molly to meetings as a stand-in for the customer, so that staff will always remember to keep the customer top of mind. Lyons writes:
Here are grown men and women, who I presume are fully sentient adult human beings, and they are sitting in meetings,talking to a teddy bear. And I am working with these people. No: Worse! I am working for them. At Newsweek I worked for Jon Meacham, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Andrew Jackson. Here I work for a guy who brings a teddy bear to work and considers it a management innovation.
Lyons wonders why no one at HubSpot makes fun of this. In a nutshell, the reason is because HubSpot's culture—full of young, team-oriented employees who put their faith in its ways and means—is not like the cultures you'll find at magazines, where employees are quick to question and ridicule and play devil's advocate.
Perhaps most telling is that Lyons had reservations about joining HubSpot in the first place. He details these reservations throughout the early chapters of the book. But he ignored them, for the sake of a paycheck and a job that would keep him close to his family. If there's a lesson here, for both employers and employees, it's a simple reminder not to overlook the importance of evaluating the cultural fit. Ask Lyons if he underestimated how difficult it would be to acclimate to a younger, nonjournalistic culture, and he says: "I definitely underestimated it."
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