Before joining a startup, read this book and be warned

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Hachette Book Group

When tech journalist Dan Lyons suddenly found himself jobless at 51, he landed a job at one of the hottest then-startups in the Boston area: HubSpot, a company that makes what it calls “marketing automation” software.

He hoped he had finally “made” it, leaping from the world of writing about startup employees who became rich to one of those people who would get rich on stock options.

Instead, he had landed at a place that was more cult than company, he describes in his new book, “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble.”

He describes a year that began in scoffing disbelief, led to a series of humiliating events, and ended with a torrent of abuse from his boss. He hung on until just after HubSpot went public, making about $60,000 on his stock options.

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Dan Lyons.
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Dan Lyons

The book is hilarious and eye-opening. Lyons is best known in the tech world for his satirical work as Fake Steve Jobs, where he wrote “The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs,” which later became a book. He’s also a screenwriter for the HBO hit “Silicon Valley.” He was a technology editor for Newsweek and the editor for the ReadWrite blog. He also worked for Forbes.

The book is also the source of controversy.

Before the book was published, one of the managers featured in it was fired, and another quit before he could be fired. The CEO of HubSpot was also censured. They were involved in a scandal that involved “email hacking” and “extortion: in attempt to keep the book from being published,” FBI documents revealed.


This book is a bit like reading a Dan Lyons therapy session in which he heals himself of an emotionally scarring experience.

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Hachette Book Group

HubSpot is a hot Boston company that makes marketing automation software. It allows small businesses to automate emails to their customers, write blog posts, and so on.

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HubSpot

Lyons says the cofounders CEO Brian Halligan and CTO Dharmesh Shah came up with a “creation myth” that they had a vision for “transforming marketing.” All startups talk about their own creation myths in the same way: transforming something.

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Matt Plays, HubSpot

The creation myth is the first part of an indoctrination. Next, Lyons went to training sessions in which new HubSpot employees were told how their company was “leading a revolution. A movement. Changing the world.” All startups believe that their work is “changing the world.”

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Flickr/https://www.flickr.com/photos/foxspain/3219577797/

Employees at this company are overwhelmingly young, eager, and white, Lyons notices. They are told that it is harder to get a job at HubSpot than to get into Harvard. They say only the “HubSpotty” people will survive, people who “bleed orange,” the color of the logo. In the startup world, this is called “drinking the Kool-Aid” where employees are expected to not just know the company’s hype, but fully believe it.

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Glassdoor/HubSpot

Like any cult, a startup includes its own language. At HubSpot this includes made-up words like “delightion,” meaning “delighting our customers.”

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HubSpot

It also includes somewhat nonsensical slogans. For instance, HubSpot wants employees to come up with ideas that “crush it.” Such ideas are considered “1+1= 3” which employees use like this, Lyons writes: “I like that idea but I’m not sure its 1+1=3 enough.”

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HubSpot CEO Brian Halligan introducing the 1+3=3 concept to customers at the company’s Inbound conference.
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HubSpot

When an employee quits or is fired, which happened frequently during Lyons’ year at HubSpot, the person is said to have “graduated.”

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Flickr / Rory MacLeod

The startup world operates to its own beat. For instance, one day the whole company is told it must stop working and engage in something called “Fearless Friday,” breaking into teams and doing something “fearless.” Some employees spend the day painting cardboard posters of the HubSpot logo. Others write thank-you notes to customers.

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HubSpot

Lyons, in his early 50s, is twice the age of nearly all of his coworkers, including the managers. He’s subject to a lot of age-related jokes, called grandpa and such. Many have never worked anywhere else. They tell themselves they are the best teams in tech. They have a wall of candy (a point of pride) and dress up for Halloween, and young “bro” salespeople drink beer at their desks. The environment feels like a “frat house,” Lyons says.

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https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Candy_wall_hubspot.jpg

In a room called “The Boiler Room,” shoulder-to-shoulder college grads (mostly white “bros”) do endless telemarketing, selling the product to small businesses, with outrageous monthly quotas. Rising sales is the only metric that counts. Not profits. Not cash flow. Their stock options vest over four years. Most of them won’t last that long. Halligan’s pep speech tells them employees should work hard “so he can have more money than his friends,” Lyons writes.

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Hubspot

Dharmesh Shah writes a post on LinkedIn about “Molly” the teddy bear. He’s been bringing the bear to meetings, putting it in a chair, where employees can pretend it’s a customer. Lyons can’t stand it: “Here are grown men and women … talking to a teddy bear.” Lyons points out that other companies create customer-advisory boards with actual customers.

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HubSpot/Dharmesh Shaw

Here’s the SlideShare.


Lyons is unsure who is running the company. He pitches a project to the founders, and they tell him they love it, but it mysteriously gets canceled. “Who’s in charge? Nobody. Everybody,” he writes. Decisions get made and changed. A friend explains that with startups, “when it comes to management, it’s amateur hour.”

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Flickr/Raymond Bryson

In any case, HubSpot has raised over $100 million, has burned through cash, and is borrowing money. It schedules an initial public offering, and the stock does well. The cofounders are worth millions. Lyons is shocked that on IPO day, the main message he hears Shah tell employees is: “Get back to work.”

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NYSE

The takeaway: “Disrupted” is a satirical look at what goes inside companies when the focus is revenue growth, not profits, where the deck is stacked to make the founders rich and the investors richer. The young employees work hard and party hard.

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HubSpot/Glassdoor