Nine months after Dan Lyons got laid off as a tech editor at Newsweek, he responded to a LinkedIn ad for a job at HubSpot, a Boston-based marketing software company.
Discouraged by opportunities in journalism and intrigued by the idea of working inside the tech industry he'd long covered (or mocked — Lyons was unmasked as the author of the popular satirical blog "The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs" in the 2000s), he became a "marketing fellow" at the company in April 2013. At 52, he found himself writing blog posts in an effort to generate sales leads and working amid people mostly half his age. Phrases like "lovable marketing content" and "delightion" were common, he writes.
Near the end of 2014, he left HubSpot, and wrote a book about his experience there, which was released last week. "Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble," is a scathing account of his time at the company that skewers juvenile startup cultures, raises broader concerns about age bias and questions the hype around hot growth tech companies. It has prompted loads of attention and online discussion: An excerpt in Fortune, an op-ed in the New York Times, a podcast interview at the online tech site Re/Code.
The company's co-founders, Dharmesh Shah and Brian Halligan, have weighed in, too, penning a blog post on LinkedIn responding to the book, saying that while they were initially "upset" by the book, "life is too short to hold grudges." They admitted they had made some changes — they no longer say people have "graduated" when they get fired, for instance — yet stood up for other quirky practices. (Yes, the company does have a teddy bear that sits in as a placeholder for customers in some meetings, and they have no plans to change it).
One thing the founders did not address in the post: Last summer, the company issued a press release saying that a HubSpot executive had been terminated after an ethics violation "in connection with attempts to procure a draft manuscript of a book involving the company;" another had resigned "before the company could determine whether to terminate him for similar violations." A now-closed federal investigation ensued, which the Boston Globe found to be related to Lyons' book. In an emailed statement, HubSpot's general counsel said "we haven't had any additional communication with them since cooperating with the investigation last year, but it's our understanding that they chose not to pursue any criminal charges."
A HubSpot spokesperson told the Washington Post that Shah and Halligan were not doing interviews about the book, but e-mailed this statement: "We're disappointed that Dan's account of his experience at HubSpot is in such stark contrast to that of so many HubSpot employees and customers. . . . It's a big leap for anyone to take a short, singular experience at the company and extrapolate it into a broad, critical commentary that disparages so many smart, hard-working, caring people."
So what's all the fuss about? Lyons' book is entertaining and funny, and offers a rare inside look at the kind of frat-house and cult-like cultures that populate parts of the tech world, as well as raising important questions about age bias and the social contract in the workplace today. But at times, its tone can also be a bit condescending and self-absorbed.
We spoke with Lyons, who has since written for the popular HBO show 'Silicon Valley,' about when he decided to write the book, what he thinks leaders can learn from his experience, and how, exactly, one pronounces the word "delightion." The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: When did you first know you were going to write the book?
A: I had people there saying ' you should write a book,' because some of them thought it would be a hero's journey kind of read: We started from nothing, and built this thing. But there were a lot of people who thought it would be an extraordinarily interesting place to write about. The guys who were the early ones, the guys who were like the first five employees, it's been like an incredible ride for them.
But I had a moment when I had coffee [with another tech CEO] who said 'you should think of yourself as an anthropologist.' I can't remember if the conversation was this overt, but I was like, 'I went into this thinking I was going to become this content marketing guy, and this is just not working out. I don't know what I'm going to do now. I'm going to be here for a year, and I'm not going to have learned anything.' And he sort of planted a seed. He said 'think of yourself as an anthropologist. Maybe this culture is unusual and strange but also typical of a new way of working, and you should study that.' It was very much a comment in passing.
Q: There's much at the beginning you recount in vivid detail, and I read you were reading a book about Scientology while you were there. The book wasn't something you went into the job thinking you would do?
A: No. I didn't know [HubSpot] was cult-y. Seriously, everybody thinks that, like I must have gone in the whole time thinking I was going to write a book about these guys. I honestly didn't. . . . I thought ad-supported media was collapsing. The business model underneath it was collapsing. The whole model no longer made sense, and until we could come up with a new model to support journalism it was just going to continue to get bad.
Q: Had you been taking notes or keeping a journal or something like that over time?
A: I don't keep a journal. I take notes in meetings anyway and I type everything down so I was sort of making notes.
Q: What was your original intention for the book?
A: The original pitch was a book about reinvention and this idea of being in your 50s and trying to start a new career, and that it's a lot harder than you think it is.
Q: And is that how you feel it came out?
A: No. I think that remains part of it. But it's a little bit two books. It's kind of modern day 'Office Space,' kooky-crazy oh-my-god they have bean bag chairs and nerf guns and a 'culture code' and everybody wears the same color clothes, and the frat house and the kindergarten stuff. But as I was rewriting a version of the manuscript, I started wondering why all these companies are like this, too.
Q: For those who haven't read the book, give us some of the highlights of jargon and corporate culture at the company that most stuck out to you.
A: One that really seems to resonate with people is when people got fired they called it 'graduation.' You'd get this very cheery email saying 'Eric has graduated and he's going to go use his super powers on his next big rock star adventure.' That would literally be the wording of it, that we had 'super powers' and were 'super heroes' and 'rock stars.' So that seemed a little Orwellian. There was this idea that when we help our customers send thousands or hundreds of thousands of emails to lists of people and hit them with coupons, that that wasn't spam, that was 'lovable marketing content.' That was another weird phrase. And there was this idea of 'delightion.'
Q: I wondered how you pronounced that.
A: Yes, 'de-lie-sion.' It was like a noun, from the word delight. Delightion was their term for what we're in the business of — we're in the business of delighting people and making them deliriously happy with their marketing software. There was a lot of the rhetoric about transforming lives, and changing people and overcoming fear and a lot of Tony Robbins sort of pep talk.
Q: Co-founder Dharmesh Shah just posted the company's first official response to the book. It was pretty magnanimous for a book that was so scathing. What did you think of it?
A: I thought the same thing. I read it and I thought yeah, it was pretty nice. . . . He was saying okay on the diversity thing, we do need to work on that. They're going to have some big announcement next year. He posted the numbers about age across the company, and how few people are over the age of 40.
Q: There's been so much attention on tech companies coming out with their gender and race statistics. Do you think more companies should disclose age figures too, and why?
A: I think so. I think organisations would benefit from having a blend of people of different ages. Having the full spectrum of people inside a company would make a company better. . . . In other jobs I've had, I worked with people of all ages, and I think that was beneficial. Oddly enough it was such a norm that I never thought of it as an enriching experience. It seemed to me this is just how the world was.
Some of the response I've had from people was 'you've never been in a startup before, that's how they all are, I can't believe you're surprised by that.' And maybe that is naive. But it's not faux-naive. I was aware these places are young, but I guess experiencing it and feeling it was very different than reading about it.
Q: If I'm a CEO of another tech company and read this book, what would you want them to take away from it?
A: I think that a diverse workforce is a desirable thing and not just something nice to do, but maybe could be smart, a good business decision to hire with more of an open mind. That might be one thing. I think that would be the most concrete example. I'm not sure building a company with a frat house kind of culture is a great idea. I think that's become a thing in the last 10 years — in tech and Silicon Valley — and I think there's been a lot of unfortunate consequences.
I think there also needs to be a conversation about this concept of 'culture fit.' What does that really mean? It's been held up as this great thing, that the way we hire people is culture fit and 'we're looking for people we want to go have beers with after work.' And I think that can be an insidious thing.
Q: One article I read about your book questioned whether the book could actually help recruit people, particularly young people, to HubSpot, when they read about things the company offers. What do you think of that?
A: I can absolutely see that. Here's the thing. There are like 1,200 people there now. And there's a lot of people there who are very, very happy. It really works for a lot of people. That's the definition of culture fit, right? If you're a fit, it's great. It's really, really good.
That's to me an equally interesting question. If you have a culture that really works, it's great for some people. That's sort of what [Amazon.com CEO Jeff] Bezos was saying in his shareholder letter last week. He said we never said it's the right one, and over the years we've attracted a lot of like-minded people. [Bezos also owns The Washington Post.]
Q: You come off as much more critical in the book — even condescending at times. In this conversation you seem a bit more detached and able to see how it would work for some people. Have your feelings shifted at all?
A: Maybe if I rewrote the whole thing today, I'd be a little more sanguine about some of these things. That point you make is probably a legitimate one. I guess I can contain at one time the two ideas that it can be weird and crazy and dysfunctional — but a lot of people are very happy to be there.
I know there are people who love working at HubSpot, but it wasn't for me. Some of the critiques I made of the brainwashing and groupthink and lack of diversity are legitimate and worth talking about across the entire industry. But yeah, maybe there are ways in which the tone or the way I wrote it could have been better.
Q: Has anything specific from your time at HubSpot showed up in a 'Silicon Valley' episode?
A: No. I worked on Season 2, then on Season 3. I honestly left at the end of October, just as they were starting production [on Season 3, which will premiere April 24]. I seriously have no idea what the 10 episodes look like. . . . I don't think there's anything remotely related to HubSpot in this show. [The show's characters] are like five guys in a hacker hostel. HubSpot is more like 'Office Space' humor. I was very much a peon and a helper at the periphery of that writing room.