Former Newsweek editor describes wacky, dark experiences at tech startup


Raucous laughter erupted from the audience at Kepler's Books as writer Dan Lyons told anecdote after anecdote of the weird culture at Hubspot, the startup marketing software company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he worked for about a year after losing his job as Newsweek's tech editor.

He was there to talk about his book, "Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble," in conversation with Joshua Davis, a San Francisco-based contributing editor to Wired magazine.

The plot of Mr. Lyons' story is this: He's 52 and, after a career in journalism, he wanted to reinvent himself as a marketer, while perhaps benefiting from seeing a start-up through its IPO, or initial public offering.

He got a job at Hubspot in 2013, didn't fit in there, was made to feel miserable by his boss and coworkers (some of whom called him grandpa), and quit as soon as he landed a writing job on the HBO show "Silicon Valley" a year later.

At Hubspot, he said, the employees – many of whom were fresh out of college, and most of whom were under 30 – were selected for "culture fit," a phrase he described as a euphemism for the antithesis of diversity.

In his book, he describes the demographics of his co-workers as being "bleachy-clean, driven-snow, Mormon-level (white)," representing "all of (Cape Cod's) summer inhabitants under the age of 30." He said the experience was "like stumbling into some weird eugenics lab where people get hatched from pods, already dressed in J. Crew, Banana Republic, and North Face."

Despite his discomfort at his new workplace's lack of diversity, employees at the company appeared to be happy, he said. They called each other "rockstars," described most things as "awesome" and enjoyed free beer, candy and workplace ping-pong.

They had also been inculcated to believe in the higher purpose of their work. According to Mr. Lyons, employees describe their marketing efforts not as "spammy," but as an act of creating moments of "delightion" (a made-up word) for their customers. They use teddy bears as proxies for the "customer" in meetings to make sure its perspective is represented.

But, he suggests, beneath the sunny rhetoric and millennial workplace perks, the reality is something darker, both at Hubspot and across the startup world.

Workplace perks that entice millennials can be misleading, he said. For instance, while an "unlimited vacation" policy sounds nice, it also means that people cannot receive payment for a set number of vacation days if they are fired. If employees don't get reprieve from the demands of meeting a high monthly quota, they are unlikely to be able to take days off anyway, he said.

"We're a team, not a family" – a phrase that spread from Netflix's "culture code" to Hubspot's – is really another way of saying that people can't expect to build a career at that company, he said. People can get fired on the spot for no reason.

One of his former co-workers was laid off for "not being excited enough," he told audience members.

One result of the "sharing economy," he said, is that contract work is on the rise. He writes, "Uber and others in the 'share economy' are creating a new form of serfdom, an underclass of quasi-employees who receive low pay and no benefits."

While these companies demand a lot from their employees, requiring them to drink the metaphorical Kool-Aid that their product is "changing the world," they don't offer much in return. People are fired without reason, after a year or two, or (in some cases) strategically before their company's IPO, and are measured against metrics such as "VORP," which Mr. Lyons explained stands for "value over replacement player." That's the value of the difference between how much an employee is making and the minimum amount someone could be paid to do that job, he said.

The new business model for startups, he said, has become: "grow fast, lose money, go public." Under that model, startups begin with an underdog mindset that can foster an atmosphere where companies are incentivized to cut corners and break laws, he said.

They believe that if laws are stupid, they are entitled as civil dissidents to break them. He experienced firsthand that shady side when a top executive at the company was forced to resign, after it was found out that he had attempted to illegally gain access to a book about Hubspot – his book.

"It would be nice to think that when everything falls apart, the only ones who get hurt will be venture capitalists on Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park," writes Mr. Lyons in his book.

His warning came next: "But a lot of the money being thrown at these kids originally came from pension funds. The pain, when it comes, will not be confined to Sand Hill Road."

"Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble," sold by Hachette Book Group, is listed in hardcover at $27.00 or in e-book format for $13.99.

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