Review: Disrupted

Dan Lyons, ego bruised and career sidelined by an unexpected layoff from his job as a technology journalist for Newsweek, makes a pivot that seems like a sensible idea at the time: he joins the startup world and becomes a marketer for hot young marketing automation firm, HubSpot. Disrupted is a memoir of that startup adventure. It stirred a ton of thoughts and conflicting reactions for me, began many conversations and taught me a bit of new stuff about startups and venture capital. It also made me cringe and grin with schadenfreude. Issues aside, though, it’s a worthwhile read with a lot to say.

Brisk, cynical and often bitingly funny – just as you might expect from the author behind FakeSteveJobs – the book starts as a bitterly comic fish out of water story about a fifty-something man trying to fit in at a company he doesn’t understand: He seems constantly gobsmacked by the wacky energy of his Millennial coworkers, the lack of organization and structure to his days, the insistence of young people on using technology like smartphones and Google calendars to schedule even a five-minute chat, and of course things like beer at work, arts and crafts breaks on “Fearless Friday,” the nap room and the foosball tables.

Every startup workplace cliche is addressed in a half-silly, half-wondering tone, and many observations come dripping with fuddy-duddy condescension. Not so funny is the authors apparent expectation that, even though he knows nothing about tech, sales or marketing, he should be treated like a visiting dignitary because of his experience and age. For example, he expresses shock and horror upon discovering that a much younger person will be his superior, even though he just met the guy and knows nothing about how capable he might be. For a book that aims to champion on oft-mistreated group – older workers – it seems ironic that its methods include baselessly insulting young people just for being young.

Hypocrisies like that add up fast. There’s also a pervasive dismissive sexist undertone to nearly every description of interactions with female employees (every female seems to be chirpy, peppy, cheerleader-like, and of course, incompetent). This distractingly takes away from the social justice angle this book is going for on behalf of modern workers. Is Lyons oblivious to this? I’d like to think he is too smart for that, but I think he might just be that clueless, as a white dude who never faced any discrimination before his stint as the “old guy” in a young office.

About halfway through, Lyons cuts through the banter to drop some old school knowledge, and this is where things get really good. Making use of his considerable background as a serious journalist, he sketches a recap of the last tech bubble, and discusses something that’s new this time around – the ways in which the VC-fueled startup climate allows and encourages founders and investors to extract billions of dollars from the market while never actually creating profitable businesses. He’s right to point out the incentives for startup founders and successful investors to make maximum returns on their money by creating massive hype machines for products that barely even exist while investing little in their employees and using cult-like internal branding to manipulate young and inexperienced people hungry for meaningful work into working twice as hard for half as much. It’s pretty scary when you think about it.

As a career marketer currently working at a technology startup, I’m intimately familiar with Hubspot, digital marketing, inbound marketing methods and how software sales sausage is made. This book definitely resonates. (Also as a current resident of San Francisco, the description of Dreamforce almost made me pee my pants with laughter.) Frankly, it resonates for me both in the ways that Lyons clearly wants it to, and in other ways I’m sure he did not intend. I’m well-acquainted, for example, with the casual condescending dismissal that young female executives receive from older white dudes like him. I’m also familiar with the way us young female marketing and PR people get treated: like we are stupid and like our jobs are fluff. If we are enthusiastic and passionate, we’re “peppy cheerleaders” and guess what happens if we are less enthusiastic? Gosh, then we’re on the receiving end of men telling us to smile. Could it be that Lyons thinks ageism is the biggest workplace issue in tech simply because it’s the only kind of discrimination he has ever personally faced. Sounds like the writers rooms in Hollywood (notoriously hostile places for female writers) are super comfortable for him.

Interestingly, Lyons seems insistent on shooting down anyone’s enthusiasm for their work, which seemed strange to me. Could be because I’m a brainwashed Millennial, but I just don’t believe that every young marketer, salesperson or startup employee is a deluded bozo who doesn’t know what they’re doing, nor are all mentions of meaning or passion at work simply bullshit. Look at the data: Survey after survey identifies meaning, connection and mission as critical components to a satisfying job and career. Modern workers really do want to love their jobs, and want to engage passionately in goals larger than just making TPS reports.

 

If the current startup “revolution” (with all its silly foosball tables and happy hour beer pong and branded company t-shirts etc.) opens up authentic conversation about how to engage employees and create happier workplaces, I think that’s a wonderful thing. The onus is on every employee to educate themselves, learn their legal rights, and direct their own career. I don’t see how that’s bad, or even very new and different. If we are to shed the bad parts of the old, paternalistic model of work (and let’s face it, we already have, as Reid Hoffman discusses in detail in his own book about work, The Alliance), we need to take responsibility for our own careers. Lyons both celebrates and bemoans this. I can see how it might suck to suddenly need to change careers and make a surprise pivot at age 51 with a family to feed. But the honest truth is that many people have had to do that for a long time; the workplace wasn’t some kind of Disneyland of job security 50 years ago, either. One premise of Disrupted is that tech companies today treat their employees in ways that would be “unthinkably” cruel and callous as recently as the 1990s, the last bubble. I’m just not convinced that’s the case. Microsoft may have given generous medical benefits to workers and created thousands of millionaires. But weren’t they the exception, not the rule? Is Lyons yearning for a past that really only applied to a few?

The difference today, at least in the tech industry, is an increased level of transparency around the mechanics of work, and an elevated level of respect for an individual employees’ ability to act as a free agent. Given the research I’ve seen in the last few years about the current hiring crisis – skilled workers are in incredibly high demand and large organizations are most worried about how to attract and retain top talent, not how best to fire them – it’s clear that free agency does benefit the most skilled workers. Unfortunately for many of us, it also benefits those who have lucked in to privileges like being young, male and white.

So how do we fix this? What do we do with the rest of them, those workers who aren’t the youngest, the luckiest, the top of their class at Harvard? Lyons’ point is that there are a lot of them, those regular people, and that they are the poor saps blindly drinking the Koolaid, pulling ridiculous hours for unnecessary “hackathons”…and they are the ones left holding the bag of empty stock options after investors cash out, leaving them with nothing.

Book review: Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, by Dan Lyons
4/5 stars and a side of frustration and muttering to myself.

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