Disrupting the narrative that tech start-ups are a great place to work

Former tech editor of ‘Newsweek’ has written an insider’s account of joining a fast-growing new company and its culture

In the summer of 2012, Massachusetts-born Dan Lyons was at the top of his profession. A vastly experienced magazine writer, he was technology editor of Newsweek, a prestigious role which regularly brought him into close contact with Silicon Valley's biggest movers and shakers.

Lyons lived in suburban Boston where his wife Sasha had recently left her teaching job due to ill health and was spending time with their two young children. It was an otherwise normal Friday morning when he got a call to say his job was gone forever.

The New York Times business best-sellers list describes Disrupted simply: 'A longtime tech writer, age 52, takes a job at a start-up called Hubspot. ' What might the author add?

“It’s also about an older person trying to reinvent themselves in a new company and not finding it that easy,” says Lyons, before adding with characteristic even-handedness “but it’s a pretty good synopsis given the space limitation”.

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Lyons was no mere observer of the digital world, having written, anonymously until outed, as Fake Steve Jobs in a popular blog that was receiving 1.6 million visitors monthly before Lyons suspended it out of respect for the real Steve Jobs' ill-health.

Lyons had seen millions of dollars being made by others in tech and in search of a new livelihood, thought he would join the industry he knew so well as a journalist. Opportunities were thin on the ground despite his skills and experience and one option was to take a punt on an opening in California that would mean uprooting his young family. But when a job came up in local Boston start-up Hubspot, it seemed the ideal chance to re-launch himself without enduring too much upheaval. It wasn't.

Disrupted is a book of two halves; a witty and insightful skewering of the pomposities of a tech start-up, and a thoughtful analytical discourse on ageism and the nature of the employer/employee contract in the contemporary labour market.

Lyons found himself in a cult-like start-up where Hubspot's company colour of orange seemed to run in the blood of the twenty-somethings who filled offices corresponding to every cliché of what a tech start-up should be: all frosted glass, exposed beams and modern art, in a renovated 19th century furniture factory, where de rigueur pet dogs roam the kindergarten décor halls.

Hubspot (whose European headquarters in Dublin announced 320 new jobs in April last) is in the business of in-bound marketing. In a nutshell, that promises an end to advertising for small business, turning them into a ‘magnet instead of a megaphone’ through targeted search engine optimisation.

Unquestioning culture

Yet Lyons rapidly found out that this wasn't how 'Hubspotters' saw themselves. In his quest to become a marketing wizard, he regularly came up against age bias combined with a humourless, unquestioning culture that took itself way too seriously. "I knew Apple people to be unquestioning but didn't expect it in Hubspot," says Lyons.

Hubspot recruited zealous people who believed their jobs had a higher purpose, a kind of spiritual worth. They also systematically rid themselves of the more sceptical and fostered the cheerleaders. The company described the sudden disappearance of staff members who had been unceremoniously dismissed as ‘graduation’. As sceptics were graduated, more zealots were hired. ‘The Kool-Aid gets more concentrated” says Lyons.

After the laugh-out-loud lampooning of Hubspot's ridiculous culture with its 'Fearless Fridays' and talk of 'Delightion' (sic) in the first half of Disrupted, Lyons takes a clear-sighted look at employees of start-ups, observing that the lives of the workforce in the renovated 19th century factory are not that different from their historical counterparts.

The Irish government eagerly welcomes Hubspot and the tech industry in general, yet these companies offer jobs for people under 30 rather than careers. Should we be worried?

“It’s expected that people will move on after a couple of years, but I think there’s a net positive,” says Lyons. He’s interested to hear of the start-ups in Dublin that have sprung from people meeting in the giant tech firms.

Lyons worked hard to integrate in Hubspot, but as one used to the ethos of a hard-boiled newsroom, combined with constant reminders of his age as barrier, his spell in the Logan's Run-like bubble was doomed. A turning point came when, nine months in, he aired his misgivings over coffee with a friend who urged him to adopt the viewpoint of an anthropologist, recording the strange practices and customs for future use. Lyons took the advice but by December 2014 he came to the end of the line and resigned – he 'graduated'.

Strange goings on

Shortly after leaving, in part to write on the HBO show Silicon Valley, he announced his plan to write a book about his time at Hubspot. That was when things got a little more strange.

"It still isn't clear what happened" says Lyons. Apparently attempts by Hubspot to illegally obtain a copy of the manuscript of Disrupted led to an FBI investigation into email-hacking and extortion. As a result, Hubspot terminated their chief marketing officer while another senior executive resigned abruptly.

Does Lyons fear the 'Tech Lords' as Nick Denton, founder of recently crushed Gawker, has dubbed them? "I think they lost interest once the book came out and they realised I didn't know whatever they thought I knew".

Disrupted is a hugely entertaining insider view of the vainglorious world of tech, yet it is also an important rumination on the values of our age, reminiscent of Studs Terkel's 1974 classic Working. It also insightfully highlights the growing problem of institutionalised ageism. Since publication in the US, Lyons has received scores of emails from people who feel superannuated before their time and appreciate the problem being aired. Lyons, for his part, seems sanguine enough.

So is he glad his time in Hubspot allowed him to transmute a bad experience into a lauded bestseller?

He thinks for a moment before answering with a hint of true regret: “I think I should have pursued that opportunity in California.”

Eoghan Nolan is an advertising copywriter and founder of Brand Artillery