[book report] Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons


For a couple of years around 2006 I was desperate to work at a web start-up. Well not desperate enough to leave Bristol but pretty interested in the idea anyway. I read Techcruch and Mashable (when it was still a tech blog) and had dreams of working in a truly Internet-era company and escaping the constant need to explain the opportunities the Internet offered to managers / colleagues at the more traditional institutions I was working at. I was never obsessed with the money but I did buy in to that Silicon Valley pitch of ‘changing the world’ and working in quirky, fun offices with interesting, creative people.

In the end I spent a year working for a very Bristolian start-up with a bunch of great and talented people where I soon realised I was totally not a start-up kind of guy. I was, and am, totally uninterested in things like profits and found much of marketing a little unsavoury. I learned loads — not least that I was a bit of a lefty when it came to work and would forever be happiest doing my thing in the realm of ‘public service’ rather than ‘betting on equity’. Still it was fun for a while.

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble is the story of Dan Lyons and his short and slightly brutal experience of working at online marketing startup HubSpot. Lyons was a well respected tech journalist and had made a bit of a name for himself about a decade ago as the (initially) anonymous author of the ‘Fake Steve Jobs’ blog. He is now one of the writers on Mike Judge’s hilarious Silicon Valley HBO show. Now with a fake blog and a career as a comedy writer on his CV I won’t lie and say I started off reading the book willing to take a lot of it with a pinch of salt — it seemed likely that there would be a fair amount of exaggerating for effect. After completing it — I have basically read it all in a day — I’m not so sure now.

All in all the book is a total indictment of the way ‘tech’ start-ups operate today. The VC/IPO financial shell games, the founders who believe they are the new moral guardians changing the world while acting amorally on a day to day basic, the hidden boiler room sales operations mimicking Frat Houses, the lack of diversity at any senior levels and the constant cult-like adherence to manufactured ‘cultures’ where non-believers are ‘graduated’ like something from ‘Logan’s Run’.

Dan’s story is by turns hilarious, terrifying and a little uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because some of the dysfunctional behaviours highlighted in his experiences have spread beyond Silicon Valley (or Boston where the book is mainly set) and are observable in all the branches of the ‘internet of public service’ as well. The world of digital transformation of institutions has taken a lot of positive from these internet-era organisations but clearly some of the negatives have seeped in as well — and god knows we have enough legacy of culture problems without just adding new ones!

The office politics, poor untrained management and lack of role clarity is hardly unusual though does seem extreme in the case of HubSpot. Do newsrooms not suffer from those problems? Lyons does seem a bit naive at times in his lack of nowse to navigate the personalities he is faced with — especially for an intelligent, experienced 52 year old. The innocent abroad bit does make for a fun read though.

Anyway the epilogue sheds something of a different light on the whole book and suggests that rather than exaggerating the author may have been playing down the level of toxicity at the company (apparently one of the best places to work in America according to Glassdoor!). Accusations of extortion and hacking by executives to get an early sight of the book is pretty extreme!

As a Brit I am raised to be distrustful of all the happy, happy, clap, clap, awesome, Californication that often emerges from the Bay Area plus I’m 43 and thus well past it for somewhere like HubSpot so clearly my sympathies are going to lay with the cynical, old hack. Your mileage may vary. Either way I recommend reading the book.

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