Disrupted - Dan Lyons' ill fated trip through the startup world

I enjoyed reading Lyons' take on our startup world and found that it lead to some interesting discussions around the office.

Posted by Tejus Parikh on April 26, 2016

Ironically, it was the hype that compelled me to buy this book. Dan Lyons was everywhere the week before our trip to the beach: tech blogs, NPR segments, and random internet comments. Lyons, of Newsweek, Fake Steve Jobs, and Silicon Vally fame, decided to leave the formerly staid world of business journalism and enter the cauldron of the marketing department of the marketing startup HubSpot. Hilarity ensued, if not Dan himself then the reader. In his misery, Lyons takes to task some of the most valued startup myths and the culture they create. I enjoyed reading his take on our startup world and found that it lead to some interesting discussions around the office.

To Lyons the lunatics are running the asylum. To him the majority of managers are too inexperienced to manage, a fact compounded by individuals flat out ignoring the requests of their superiors. What Lyons fails to recognize is that when you're a young 20 something at a startup, you are told from day 1 that you aren't just an employee, but an owner. After all, that's why one takes less salary in exchange for equity. If you are told you are an owner, you are likely to start acting like it, especially around your domains. Twenty-two year old fresh recruits don't have the bullshit filter of a veteran journalist.

Having been that person, what Lyons fails to recognize is that when you're a young 20 something at a startup, you are told from day 1 that you aren't just an employee, but an owner.

So while I sympathized with the antagonists, I sympathized a lot more with Lyons calling out the myths of startups. I'm in my mid -thirties and I've lost my wide-eyed awe of young enterprises.

Startups promote a myth of strong progressive cultural identity, that they are for everyone with emphasis on codes of conduct and gender neutral pronouns. Yet they look like engineering schools did in the 90's, although there are plenty of non-engineering roles or roles for non-executives with grey hair. Even HubSpot acknowledged this. Most startups hype their culture, which all too often looks like greek brothers and sisters forgot they graduated. That becomes a problem when the team takes an exclusionary attitude towards those that don't fit the vibe and Lyons just wasn't Kappa material.

The strongest contention in the book is that these types of startups aren't the productivity enhancing boons of yesteryear, like Apple, Intel, and Microsoft.

Another startup myth is that everyone benefits. The strongest contention in the book is that today's hyper-growth startups aren't the productivity enhancing boons of yesteryear, like Apple, Intel, and Microsoft which minted millionaires. They are "... not a software company so much as it is a financial instrument, a vehicle by which money can be moved from one set of hands to another." Unicorns, which are high valuation privately held companies, are a prime example. Since they are private, common stock is not liquid, yet it is common practice for key executives and founders take money off the table with every funding round. All credit to HubSpot where it's due, they did get to an IPO.

Lyons' book is more Anthony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential" than Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." Everyone ends up okay. Halligan, Shah, and HubSpot's VC's made a lot of money. HubSpot's employees got to climb the corporate ladder much faster than they could at a fortune 500. Lyons ended up with a bestselling book and a gig as a writer for a TV show. Even mom-and-pop investors are doing okay with HubSpot's stock price remaining pretty steady above the post-IPO bump.

Even so, reading this book has changed a few of my thoughts. This, combined with other incidents like Zenefits has me reevaluating the desire for hyper growth. As a startup founder, there's always a desire to see the company get big, but it might not be worth it if the cost is sustainability and culture. It also makes me more comfortable with our current approach of building sales and marketing in conjunction with product. I think it easier to take business risks when you have a safety net of dedicated customers that will not churn that can more than cover the costs of operation.

If you are in the startup world, this book is a must read. At very least it's entertaining. At best it can fuel interesting discussions around the kind of company you want to build.

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Tejus is the CTO and co-founder of WideAngle and writes weekly about building startups and the technology that powers them from Atlanta, GA, the startup capital of the south. Get my content on twitter, via RSS, or in your inbox:

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