There’s much to like about the book “Disrupted: My Adventures in the Start-Up Bubble” especially if you are tired of the nonstop hype around tech start-ups with wildly high valuations and which never turn a profit.
Author Dan Lyons, a colleague from long ago and friend, reams his former employer HubSpot, a profitless digital marketing company in Cambridge, Mass. Lyons worked there in 2013-14. He was a misfit from the start and his hyper sensitive bullshit detector was constantly going off in this touchy feely company where the average age is 29. In his early 50s when he worked there, the graying Lyons was an anomaly and writes he stuck out like a sore thumb.
My intention here is to make a few observations since my experiences are somewhat similar to Lyons’. This is not a review per se and not everyone liked the book, but I did. Read it. It’s number one in business biographies on Amazon, ahead of even the hot new book about Elon Musk. It’s number five on the New York Times nonfiction E-book Best Seller list.
The popular book has also earned the iconoclastic Lyons many powerful enemies in the tech world. For that, I applaud him. He doesn’t pull punches although he has confided that a few of the racier anecdotes were cut out.
He labels Salesforce.com CEO and founder Marc Benioff “repellent” and skewers prominent venture capitalist Marc Andreessen for profiting hugely even when the companies were losers. Perhaps the best thing the book does is expose how top investors make huge sums in terminally unprofitable start-ups while employees get scraps or nothing. HubSpot, he writes, can count itself among those companies.
He savages his HubSpot bosses for never explaining what his job is – especially one code-named “Trotsky” who is friendly to Dan at first, but turns on him. Of course, this is the world according to Dan and there’s two sides to every story. But he pulls it off with breezy story telling, some expletives and a touch of bathroom humor. This book took chutzpah especially since his HubSpot earned him a good salary and $60,000 from his stock options.
However, the political machinations between Lyons and his various bosses are not much different from what many of us have experienced. It’s just that Dan, always the open book, is willing to tell the story and embellish it by poking fun at everything that moved at HubSpot.
Ever the cynic and super smart, Dan would be a handful for anyone to manage. HubSpot never had a chance, but didn’t want to lose him even though he was a troublemaker. He claims to have fallen on his sword several times at HubSpot, but his heart and mind were never into the job or HubSpot.
In 1988, I lost out in a political battle at PC Week, a juggernaut IT newsweekly where I was responsible for overseeing the news strategy that made it successful. Dan worked at PC Week in the late 80s and cut his teeth on tech reporting there. He was part of a crack business staff several of whom like Dan, were lured out of the Lawrence, Mass. Eagle Tribune, a mid-sized daily with a couple of Pulitzers.
Like Dan at HubSpot, I felt screwed by people I was once close to at PC Week (now eWeek.com). Following my dismissal, I soldiered on at a rival publication for 30 months until one of the PC Week editors contributing to my 1988 demise asked me to come back. Depending on how many drinks I’ve had, sometimes I say “begged” me to return. After all, PC Week’s claim to fame was news scoops and during my absence, the newsweekly got beat on some big stories.
I returned to PC Week in early 1991 and reconciled with all but one PC Week mover and shaker. I purposely hadn’t spoken to many them during the hiatus and even passed on attending the 1988 wedding of a PC Weeker I really liked because I knew my enemies would be there. Stupid.
This is the first time I’ve written about this significant life episode and have Dan to thank for that. Who likes to write about how they got canned or banished? Dan revels in it. I stayed at PC Week until 2002.
When I lost the PC Week job as news boss in 1988, my son had just been born and my daughter would enter the world the following year. I had mouths to feed, but always expected to land on my feet and did (my wife Ann, fortunately, was an editor at Computerworld). You know. Suck it up. Early on in the book, Dan talks at length about how he panicked after being laid off by Newsweek in 2013. He had young twins to support and his wife had just quit her job as a teacher.
He would have easily landed on his feet. At worst following his departure from Newsweek, he could have gone into PR if it had come to that although he might have been the worst PR person who ever lived. Or maybe he could write books. Disrupted is not his first.
In “Disrupted,” it’s vintage Dan hyperventilating about how he might never have a job or work again. Puhleez. It feels contrived. Dan was already a tech journalist rock star who could easily get a job or writing gigs even in a super tight market for journalists. After all, he was the hilarious and popular Fake Steve Jobs and had very publicly mixed it up with Apple. And he writes for the hit TV satire Silicon Valley (I watch it faithfully).
Excuse me if I roll my eyes when coming across many instances in the book where he complains about being old. I am 66 and he’s a mere 55, which isn’t old. I do not complain about my age. He told me recently he feels “super old.” What?! Why!? There’s a number of seemingly exaggerated complaints, but a major purpose of the book is to entertain and there it succeeds.
I thought the book would have more on ageism and how people in their 50s can’t find jobs or culturally fit into youth-drenched startups. But that aspect of the book is minimally baked into the narrative about his political battles and disenchantment with HubSpot from day one.
Sometimes, the book reads like he consciously chose not to fit in because he knew early on he would be a short timer at HubSpot. He played the self-destruct card well. He also recognized that digital marketing is full of trickery and argued that HubSpot’s products enable its customers to spam consumers. The charge is not far off the mark, but then again I’m a cynical journalist like Dan. Maybe we just cannot accept the future.
People who know Dan or were in tech journalism insiders might enjoy this book the most. However, hot sales indicate the book has broad appeal as a business drama and an indictment of the start-up culture. It’s a fun, ballsy and a quick read at 258 pages.