Last month Fortune published an excerpt from the book Disrupted: My Year in Startup Hell by Dan Lyons, a journalist who took a marketing job at a Boston marketing software startup called HubSpot. There, he finds a cult-like devotion to a nonsense corporate mission, a boiler room of sleazy sales reps, a candy wall, free beer, and all the other trappings of modern startup culture. It's a juicy read.
Do not let the excerpt trick you into thinking the entire book is equally as entertaining. Disrupted certainly has entertaining qualities. But as I read the book, I realized that most of the book’s best jokes, moments, and details are contained in this excerpt.
With expectations sufficiently set, Disrupted is still worth a read for its exploration of startup culture and its effect on labor. HubSpot’s culture has some appallingly bad practices, like creating the appearance that people who quit were actually fired, punishing workers that don't attend every after-hours social gathering, and mismanagement by inexperienced early hires. I know plenty of startups around the country that share those practices. The book made me fearful of the fact that startup culture—from Google-style perks and zero work-life balance to corporate cheerleading and a cult-like devotion to the "mission"—has become aspirational to many corporations. The ways in which the worst parts of startup culture benefit managers and investors while making workers disposable are particularly scary, and Lyons attacks that issue in a compelling way.
Disrupted is also a good reminder that many startups are more hype than reality. Lyons gets in plenty of jabs about HubSpot’s apparently sub-par technology and criticizes the hype-driven marketing software industry, including Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff. He concludes that there are hookers at Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference and it is therefore “evil.” (For his part, Lyons owns up to his own hypocrisy, noting he only joined HubSpot to get rich.)
Another reason to read Disrupted is if you are in your 50s and fear you'll experience ageism in your career. You can learn a few lessons on how not to work with young people based on Lyons' experience. Disrupted is a foil to all those awful books that make sweeping generalizations about how to work with millennials.
An example: Lyons likes to constantly remind people how important he used to be. At Newsweek, Lyons had his own office. At Newsweek, his boss won a Pulitzer. At Newsweek, he wrote about Bill Gates and artificial intelligence. At Newsweek, he moderated panels in Washington, D.C. At Newsweek, he wore a suit!
Another example: Lyons likes to criticize aspects of the company culture that he considers to be juvenile and fratty, like free candy and theme parties. And yet, when Lyons shares his ideal company culture, it’s clear he loves juvenile and fratty stuff—he just happens to prefer a slightly different flavor of juvenile and fratty. He is the sort of person who giggles at euphemisms for pooping, like “dropping anchor” and “loaf-pinching.”
When one of HubSpot’s co-founders started bringing a teddy bear to meetings, Lyons couldn’t believe none of his coworkers would ridicule the move with him. Which is fair—a creepy teddy bear meeting would probably ignite office gossip in most corporate settings. But Lyons goes way beyond that. He declares that in any other place he has ever worked, “the teddy bear would be kid-napped and hung from a noose, photographed in a flagrante delicto with other stuffed animals, dressed in bondage gear and sodomized by a Smurf.” Step away from the bear, Dan.
In another meeting (many of Lyons’ jokes revolve around him being a jerk in meetings), he talks about wanting to strangle a fictional person. It makes the meeting awkward, which disappoints him. “If this were a room of journalists,” he laments, “people would now be joining in, talking about various ways to kill the guy without getting caught.” Oh, and someone would be doing an impression of the Robot Man, he notes. Would they though?
To be fair, the meetings Lyons endures at HubSpot sound ridiculous, and often, he mocks them in entertaining ways. But just as often, he doesn’t realize his spitball-throwing class clown act is no better than the silly startup antics he’s mocking.
Lyons frequently repeats himself (my most common margin note: YEP YOU SAID THAT), and he has a habit of hammering his punch lines several times in a row. In a chapter about HubSpot’s startup lingo called “HubSpeak,” (get it?) Lyons writes: “They say all of these things without a hint of irony. This is really how people talk, every day. They use these exact words, all the time.” Eight chapters in, he describes a prominent character he has dubbed “Wingman” as someone’s “right-hand man, his trusty sidekick, the Robin to his Batman.” (Got that?) His tone often demands the reader agree with his outrage, to the point of feeling occasionally badgered. “Yes, I get it! I agree! Fine! Yes! Whatever you say!"
Lyons fears, in one scene, that “he’ll risk looking like a classic middle-aged male chauvinist.” When I read him describing a woman’s laughter as “braying like a donkey,” and a critique of another’s “vocal fry,” I imagine it was probably too late to avert that risk. Lyons even gets reported by his female co-workers for making them uncomfortable after he discusses the issues he and his wife encountered while a “19-year-old German girl” live in his house as nanny. It drove his wife nuts, he said, even though “nothing inappropriate ever happened.” Later, writing for ValleyWag, Lyons called a woman a “shrill harpy,” and was surprised when people found it sexist.
At one point Lyons admits that “some of” the reason he didn't fit in at HubSpot may have to do with his personality. But he doesn’t dwell on it. In numerous chapters, Lyons can only marvel at his fall from grace, slumming it as a marketer with a bunch of kids (but making far more money than them, he will not hesitate to point out). Then he wonders why he failed to fit in with those kids.