‹ Back to Columns

Disrupted: Is It Office Space, or Grumpy Old Man?

Richard Jefferson

Dan Lyons, author of “Disrupted, My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble,” lost his position as a long-standing tech writer for Newsweek. Finding another job proved traumatic at age 51—it hit him like a hammer that he had gotten “old”—but he landed at HubSpot, an automated software company in his hometown, Boston.

For metalcasters, with the industry’s employee recruitment challenges, Disrupted is a cautionary tale about generational communications.

This was his opportunity to reinvent himself, as career advisers say, but it didn’t work out. Not at all.

“Disrupted” delves into a miasma of cultural themes we live with nowadays. It’s written in the first person, and the question arises, how trustworthy is this first-person narrator? Lyons is a skilled but caustic story teller. He also gave us the Fake Steve Jobs blog, which was nasty satire.

The book seems valuable as a study in mutual misunderstanding and generational communication problems. Lyons acts like twenty-somethings are hardly one step above a painful itch or bedbugs, and his story at HubSpot illustrates the problems with this attitude.

“Disrupted” is also a fascinating look at how a journalist could spend years and years covering tech and still be so surprised by what he found when he took a job in tech. How could a journalist so focused on tech not keep himself up-to-date? He was as unprepared for life in tech with millennials as he was to fly to the moon. Maybe more so.

For example, Lyons didn’t understand how to behave on Facebook. When a HubSpot executive derided older workers in comments to the New York Times, Lyons chose to reply on Facebook. Lyons has 100,000-plus Facebook followers. The executive had turned down the offer of any training, and that was a horrible decision. But that does not excuse this:

“In the tech world, gray hair and experience are really overrated,” says THE CEO OF THE COMPANY WHERE I @$%^ING WORK. “We’re trying to build a culture specifically to attract and retain Gen Y’ers.” I feel so special.

Ironically, HubSpot couldn’t fire him. How could the company fire one of its two older gray hairs after the exec’s public statements? It was a lawsuit in waiting. HubSpot was angling for an IPO at the same time, and that provided cover for Lyons’ post. But I have no doubt that a millennial who posted that would have been fired, or “graduated” as Lyons says firings were called. Ageism went both ways, in this case.

Lyons is at his best discussing the business model of tech start-ups in general and HubSpot specifically. The traditional business model said you should show three quarters of profitability before jumping into an IPO. No more. As one of Lyons’ friends points out, there is a massive wealth transfer occurring, from venture capitalists to the practitioners (some would say pirates) of the new business model: “Grow fast, lose money, go public, get rich. That’s the model.”

It’s not a model that creates long-term value for anyone.

Lyons gives his take on the universe of tech start-ups and online marketing companies, and some of it is hysterical. His renditions of marketing-speak are highly entertaining. However, in the final part of the book he really tears into execs he refers to as “Cranium” and “Trotsky.” He vividly describes how he thinks they abused and maligned him before his own “graduation” day, as HubSpot calls it when it fires an employee. I checked with some of my contacts who know Cranium and Trotsky (their real names are mentioned in the epilogue of Disrupted, if you want them.)

What did I learn? The book was a NYT bestseller, but no one admitted to reading it. Okay, then who made it a bestseller?

One online marketing executive told me she had never heard of the book, but that “everyone knows there is crap at every company. It’s just that not everyone uses the material to write a book” like Lyons’.

Another who knew the HubSpot crew years ago but not recently said, “I take most everything in tech with a grain of salt. People love drama, the truth is usually somewhere in the middle, outrage is as often for its own sake as for some kind of justice, and the next scandal quickly replaces the last one. There are good, bad, great, awful and mediocre in tech like anywhere else …”

Maybe HubSpot is cult-like, as Lyons says, but I have contacts who like and use the platform, and others who tried it but found it wrong for their needs. If the HubSpot product does what you need, who cares if a co-founder brings a Teddy Bear to meetings and expects employees to treat it like a customer?

That is profoundly weird, but does the software work? That’s the question.

In a talk at Google you can find on YouTube, Lyons reports that a recruiter told him “nobody’s going to want to talk to you. You’re not housebroken. Nobody wants a journalist. You’re all obnoxious, rude, you don’t have any manners …” In fact, in the book Lyons is proud to relate that people know him as the “acerbic” guy.

So much for winning friends and influencing people. The lesson for us is that when you work with human beings of any age, as we all do, we must earn respect, not demand it.    

Click here to see this story as it appears in the March 2018 edition of Modern Casting