Monday, April 18, 2016

The Graduate From Spinal Tap...The NotMakingThisUp Review of Dan Lyons’ “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble”


Mr. McCleery: You aren’t one of those agitators, are you?
Benjamin: What?
Mr. McCleery: I hate ’em. I won’t stand for it.
—The Graduate

  We here at NotMakingThisUp only write book reviews when we like the book.   (If we don’t like it, we don’t write anything at all, because it’s hard—really hard—to write a book, so just the fact that someone has written a book ought to be respected, not criticized.)   Journalist Dan Lyons has not only written a book, but it’s good—and not just “good,” but laugh-out-loud good.
  The subject matter, however, is not always laugh-out-loud funny. 
  It’s about Lyons’ time at HubSpot, the “cloud-based marketing and sales software platform company” he worked for at roughly the peak of the Web 2.0 cycle (Lyons would probably describe it as a “spam-based marketing and sales software platform company,” but we’ll go with the official terminology), and while you may be more familiar with the frat-boy excerpts that have already made made plenty of headlines, they’re nothing anybody who was around during the last bubble hasn’t heard about before and don’t need repeating here.  
  Way more interesting is Lyons’ take on what it’s like to be a 50+ year old Boomer working at a hotshot Millennial company—or “cult,” as he sees it.
  Lyons listens to conference calls with the company’s ‘social media scientist,’ “a competitive weightlifter who lives in Las Vegas and basically does nothing”; he spends too much time in meetings, which, “like most journalists—and, I would argue, most sane people” he detests; and he gets so fed up with the bubbly self-reinforcing “Happy!!  Awesome!! Start-Up Cult” culture that he begins sending around emails like “Jan is the best!!!  Her can-do attitude and big smile cheer me up every morning!!!!!!!” about the “grumpy woman who runs the blog,” until he is told to “cut that s--- out.”
  It’s a riot, and it makes the book swing, but that’s not the important stuff.
  The important stuff includes the sheer whiteness of the workforce, which should be no surprise to him but is (did he really report on the technology world most of his career and not notice that before?); not to mention the youngness of the place, which should also be no surprise to him (does he not know how young Mark Zuckerberg still is?)
  But the spookiest bit has nothing to do with the age thing, or the “astonishing lack of diversity” (did he think poverty-trapped kids from Harlem are actively recruited by young affluent suburban white kids?), it’s the cultish behavior reinforced from the top, most notably in the way in which employees who’ve been fired are NOT said to have been “fired” or to have “resigned to pursue other interests.”
   They are said to have “graduated.”
   “Nobody ever talks about the people who graduate,” writes Lyons, “and nobody ever mentions how weird it is to call it ‘graduation.’”   Yet “graduations” happen quite a lot, apparently: the best line in the book being “People just go up in smoke, like Spinal Tap drummers.”
  Of course, Lyons himself eventually “graduates” after the culture clash starts to get to him (which it actually did on his first day at HubSpot, but he persevered)  and he begins to set himself up in ways that make you scratch your head and wonder if he ever actually worked in a corporate environment.
  Exhibit A in the did-he-really-not-see-this-coming-a-mile-away setup to his own graduation is when Lyons pitches a new online magazine—an idea his direct boss had already rejected—to his boss’s bosses without his boss knowing Lyons was going over his head.
  “They love the idea,” he says of the meeting with HubSpot’s co-founders.  “That night I go home feeling like a conquering hero.”
  Poor bastard, you think, reading that line.
  Exhibit B in the did-he-really-not-see-this-coming-a-mile-away department is when Lyons is shocked—shocked!—that nothing subsequently happens, because he didn’t have anyone else at the meeting to verify that the two co-founders actually approved the idea. 
  As one colleague far wiser than Lyons in the ways of corporate politics tells him, “You should have had a witness.”
  Exhibit C in the did-he-really-not-see-this-coming-a-mile-away department, naturally, is when Lyons’ boss-who-rejected-the-idea-before-Lyons-chose-to-go-over-his-head appropriates the idea as his own.
  By now, however, even Lyons has figured out what’s happening: “At this point the message could not be more clear,” he writes.   His boss “is doing everything short of hiring a skywriter to scrawl GET OUT, DAN in the airspace above HubSpot headquarters.”
  Lyons at least has some fun as the clock winds down.   At an anything-goes marketing idea meeting he proposes putting an “unbearably ambitious and energetic young woman who recently graduated from college, loves HubSpot more than life itself, and would do just about anything to get a promotion” in an orange (the Hubspot color) jumpsuit and helmet and firing her “right through an open window and into a cubicle.  Bang!  There she is!  She doesn’t miss a beat.  She just starts giving a lecture about marketing.”
  To a cynical career journalist, HubSpot was a gift that kept on giving.
  On the downside, however, Lyons stretches at times to make bigger points—something book editors tend to encourage authors to do in order to gin up the meaning of an otherwise highly enjoyable, and very telling fish-out-of-water memoir.
  For example, trying to turn his time at HubSpot into a lesson about the cheerful heartlessness of the Web 2.0 revolution, he actually quotes Carl Icahn—the slimeball takeover artist who bankrupted TWA while pocketing a sweet discount airline ticket deal for himself, among many other things that make Donald Trump look magnanimous and would normally set a cynical journalist's hair on fire—about Marc Andreessen from back when they were fighting over eBay, which is stupid because Andreessen (think Netscape, Facebook, Twitter, among other life-changing companies he’s been involved in) has added more value to the current quality of life in America than even Carl Icahn has managed to extract for himself.
  Lyons also quotes, of all things, a snarky Robert Reich “Facebook post” about the sharing economy having become a “share the scraps” economy—tell that to the next Uber driver you get who’s paying his way through college or saving for a condo or running a non-profit and wouldn’t have the flexibility to earn extra income without Uber.
 Finally, Lyons surveys the money-losing business models of so many Web 2.0 start-ups and naively wonders “why there are so many companies that remain in business while losing money”—this after he has started the book with a chapter about getting fired from his prestigious and well-paying job at Newsweek Magazine, which, like most dead-tree publications “has been losing money for years.”
  Losing money, whether for a start-up with vast potential, like Amazon.com, or for a fading franchise like Newsweek, has never stopped anybody from trying.  That is, after all, Capitalism.
  But the big-picture stuff feels like an editor made him do it, because the other 98% of the book moves fast, tells a great story, and actually will make you laugh. 
  Out loud.
—JM



  NB: Just for the record, prior to its publication, the author of Disrupted asked, and I answered, a couple of questions about my perspective on the SAAS business model of Salesforce.com.

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