Don't write off start-ups as immature frat parties

Disrupted, an insider expose of the tech start-up world, is a fun read but a bit too cynical for its own good.

by Russ Shaw
Last Updated: 13 Sep 2016

Silicon Valley: a hotbed of innovation, workplace perks and sky-high company valuations; think emojis, IPOs, indoor slides and gym ball desk seats. These are the stereotypes of the West Coast of the US where start-ups are founded and raised. And Dan Lyons lays them all out in his latest publication.

Lyons was Newsweek's long-standing technology editor. But, aged 50 (with a wife and two kids), the magazine unceremoniously dumps him. He'd spent years reporting on the tech explosion so why not take the chance to be part of it? Lyons gets a job as the marketing guy at Boston-based HubSpot, a young tech firm backed to the tune of $100m in venture capital. Disrupted is his insider's view of the tech start-up world and a broader critique of a dysfunctional Silicon Valley; he uses his view from the East Coast to caricature the West Coast. Addressing themes of ageism, frat house mentality and leadership in nascent businesses, the book is frank and gripping, but definitely not a typical start-up experience.

Lyons is a masterful storyteller, and his new read is certainly entertaining. The book offers a critical and unsympathetic view of the US tech industry, but at times it becomes overly cynical and lumps innovative tech giants in with puffed up, overvalued start-ups.

From my days at Skype and running a start-up called Mobileway, I did recognise the environment Lyons describes: open-plan offices, young employees in big roles, free food, 'beer busts'. But to focus exclusively on these and not the groundbreaking work that is taking place in many such offices is a misrepresentation. At times, this even seems to develop into indulging the author's personal vendetta against HubSpot, which leads to some hypocrisy.

As someone of advanced age by tech sector standards myself, I appreciated Lyons' points on ageism in tech, highlighting the low pay for new hires, as well as the 'rah rah' culture that will have many readers rolling their eyes. Reading through his witty, caustic account feels like attending an all-night party as the only sober person, while having to pretend to enjoy it. But he undermines himself when he later revels in the opportunity to rejoice in 'poop-related stories' and 'jokes about enormous cocks', while writing for HBO's Silicon Valley. Ironically, he plays the role of the out-of-touch older person by castigating HubSpot's macho culture, while simultaneously pining for the macho culture of newsrooms with which he was more familiar. He seems to prefer one frat house to another.

Lyons paints the tech industry as an inflated bubble, talking about companies that are sold for billions of dollars. He refers to the likes of WhatsApp and Instagram, which never made money but have provided enough strategic value to Facebook that no analyst would consider them a poor investment. He also lets down readers by not referring more to the investors behind HubSpot. Any tech founder knows how much influence investors exert over start-ups.

The epilogue, which reveals the extent of HubSpot's leadership deficit, was the most interesting and insightful chapter in the book. Here he shows a journalist's flair when documenting the weaknesses of the leadership team. He also lays out the details of an FBI investigation into attempts by HubSpot employees to hack Lyons' computer and prevent the book's publication, which led to the firing of CMO Mike Volpe. Attempted blackmail and extortion are just two more failures of an incompetent leadership team.

Lyons rejects HubSpot's culture outright, but again seems inconsistent when comparing it to his former employer, Newsweek. He rails against the 'graduating' (firing) of employees at a moment's notice, but does not make the same criticism when he loses his own job at Newsweek, even though they take a similar philosophy of doing so because they can 'take (his) salary and hire five kids right out of college'. The hypocrisy of it almost made me fall off my gym ball.

The author continues with the job 'for a paycheck' and does well from his stock options and the advance on the book. Yet he misses the opportunity to present a balanced perspective of Silicon Valley, to separate the hype from the value, and to factor in the tech sector that I know as a founder, investor and employee. The book is an entertaining read for those who find Silicon Valley perks tiresome. But like HubSpot itself, overall it comes across as more style than substance.

Russ Shaw is the founder of Tech London Advocates and a non-executive director at Dialog Semiconductor. He was previously vice president at Skype

Disrupted: Ludicrous Misadventures in the Tech Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons is published by Atlantic Books, £14.99


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