After 25 years as a magazine writer for major publications such as Forbes and Newsweek, Dan Lyons is let go from Newsweek in a single phone call. As a fifty something with a wife who just quit her job, two kids at home and an upcoming big vacation, Lyons knew he had to find something and quickly. During his years as a writer, he had reported and written on Silicon Valley, the tech industry and recently, the tech start-ups. Even though he spent many years making light of this industry through blogs, a novel and a TV show, why not join it? The stock options seemed worth it alone.
Disrupted looks at Lyons 20 months at HubSpot, an inbound marketing and sales platform that helps companies attract visitors with the goal of turning them into customers. His time at HubSpot and Disrupted takes a peek into, “life inside a ‘unicorn' start – up and punctures the popular mythology about heroic entrepreneurs. HubSpot's leaders were not heroes, but rather a pack of sales and marketing charlatans who spun a good story about magical transformational technology and got rich by selling shares in a company that still has never turned a profit.”
Lyons began his first day at HubSpot in April 2013 after seeing a job posting on LinkedIn and being interviewed and offered a ‘marketing fellow' position by HubSpot's founders – Brian Halligan (chief executive officer) and Dharmesh Shah (chief technology officer). Prior to his first day, Cranium, the chief marketing officer, had written an article on the HubSpot blog announcing Lyon's hire – 52 year old Newsweek journalist leaving the media business to go work for a software company. Lyons believed HubSpot was excited for him to come onboard, but this feeling quickly changed.
From day one, Lyons is taken aback by a culture very different from the newsroom that he is used to. The culture of HubSpot (like Google and Facebook) that Lyons thought was exaggerated, he is now experiencing first hand. Shah, the chief technology officer, found great interest in creating a memorable culture at HubSpot. Employees view Shah as kind of a spiritual leader who focused more on the company culture these days than anything technology related. Shah spent one hundred hours creating a PowerPoint slide deck titled, “The HubSpot Culture Code: Creating a Company We Love”. This 128- slide deck outlines a company where the needs of the individual come secondary to the needs to the group and where employees don't worry about the idea of work –life balance because work at HubSpot is their life. Shah created the idea of HEART that is outlined in the culture code. This acronym stands for humble, effective, adaptable, remarkable and transparent. This culture code is not only part of each employee's annual review but more importantly a great public relations stunt that other start- ups have emulated.
The physical structure of HubSpot is just like what Lyons has heard about in his years of writing about tech companies. The HubSpot offices are in a nineteenth –century furniture factory with exposed beams, modern art and endless cliché items like ping- pong tables, candy walls, and bouncy – ball chairs. HubSpot believed in the idea of ‘fun at work' and this could be seen at 4:30 on Fridays when the party began and lasted well into the night.
The symbol of HubSpot is an orange sprocket. Though no one fully knows the connection of the sprocket to HubSpot and inbound marketing, it is everywhere. Whether it is on a hoodie, baseball cap or sticker on a laptop, the orange sprocket is seen everywhere.
The biggest culture change for Lyons is the dramatic age difference between himself and every other employee at HubSpot He is twice the age of the average employee and old enough to be the father of many of his coworkers, even his boss. HubSpot recruits new hires directly out of college. Doing so, they can pay them very little and they also have a captive audience who ‘drink the HubSpot Kool-Aid.'
Besides the major culture shift Lyons experiences, he also struggles to understand his job and what exactly he is supposed to be working on. Even after three months of working at HubSpot, he is still
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asking himself ‘What exactly is my job?' ‘What am I supposed to do?' Early on, Lyons is told to write whatever he is interested in for the blog. Then he is told that he needs to write for the Marketing Mary meaning he needs to write very basic how to guides for things such as HTML to ensure he is creating tools that will make her life easier. Then when Lyons reports to a new boss, he sells him on heading up the new podcast series that the chief marketing officer will host.
“Where others saw a fun place to work, I saw a place where ‘old people' – those over 40 and certainly over 50- were largely unwanted. I saw poorly trained managers, haphazard oversight and an organization that was out of control.” Month after month, Lyons experienced bullying by his coworkers, fear of being ousted by his bosses and a tech company that is offering mediocre products while spending lavishly at the expense of the venture capitalists who invested in their company. Lyons kept hoping HubSpot would go public, he would get a cash out on the shares and then he could leave. But the months leading up to IPO was filled with lies, coercion and a boss who started as a friend and ended as puppeteer in Lyons final straw.
As anyone who is a millennial, I have heard endless stories about tech start-ups and how their company culture is very different from corporate America and how they make work fun. But this book opened my eyes to the discrepancies of these stories and what is hidden behind the pool tables, themed conference rooms and endless free snacks.
My career has included corporate communications for a major healthcare system in Atlanta. These communications have included announcing joint operating companies, changes in leadership structure and shifts in benefits but above all else, we communicate with transparency. The lack of transparency at HubSpot particularly through their leadership team is astonishing. The lack of transparency was most evident in the ‘graduation' emails that were sent out when someone was let go from HubSpot. I understand that firing someone is a touchy topic but coining the term graduation as if it is a positive thing is the far opposite of transparency to the HubSpot team. This lack of transparency was also seen in what was told to employees and the board regarding the finance practices at HubSpot. Yes, HubSpot was a private company and this information did not need to be public to those outside of the HubSpot circle. But, I have learned that when you are transparent about the struggles of your company with your team members, it lets them be engaged and help with a solution.
Last module, I took ‘Leading Evolving Organizations' where we learned about company culture. We learned about the artifacts of a culture being symbols, structures, language, ceremonies and practices. While many organizations would say or want their company culture to be ethical or purpose-driven, HubSpot was more focused on their culture being fun from the outside looking in. On the inside the culture was toxic at times, filled with unethical behavior.
The last major discrepancy was around age discrimination. When Halligan was interviewed and commented on the average age of HubSpot's employees, I was blown away.
“Halligan, explained to the
New York Times that this age imbalance was not something he wanted
to remedy, but in fact something he had actively cultivated. HubSpot was “trying to build a culture
specifically to attract and retain Gen Y'ers,” because, “in the tech world, gray hair and experience
are really overrated,” Halligan said.”
After reading article after article about age discrimination in the tech industry, it seems to be
rampant but something that is covered by excuses. Excuses like technology changes so quickly that older
people simply cannot keep up. I report to the Vice President of Human Resources and with this, I am
surrounded by stories of EEOC claims and calls to the office of equal opportunity. The type of age
would not be allowed or tolerated but somehow in the tech industry everyone
turns the other cheek.
Lyons portrays a corrupt industry that he directly experienced day in and day out. And with the
corruption so high that the FBI later investigated after Disrupted was released. I have to remind myself
this is one person's perspective and experience that cannot be said about all start – ups or all tech
companies. But Lyons 20 months at
described in Disrupted paints a picture of an industry that I
will shy away from as an employee. Overall I would recommend this book as an eye opener to our tech -
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