There's a defining part in Disrupted where Dan Lyons - a “laid off, sad sack fifty-something” journalist - decides to stop reporting on tech companies and start profiting off them.
The sole breadwinner for a convalescing wife and two young kids at home, Lyons takes a job as ‘marketing fellow’ at the hot tech startup HubSpot. Just nine months before accepting this role, he had been canned from his cushy editorial job at Newsweek.
HubSpot, it becomes clear, is a hodge-podge of vapid New Age mantras, Ted Talk bromides, cruel management practice, Orwellian double speak and late Capitalist malaise.
This is what his book Disrupted is ostensibly about: what a Newsweek cover story called “a beached white male”. Chewed up and spat out by old media, Lyons attempts to reinvent himself at HubSpot.
But from day one, the new job goes south. HubSpot, it becomes clear, is a hodge-podge of vapid New Age mantras, Ted Talk bromides, cruel management practice, Orwellian double speak and late Capitalist malaise. Ultimately, this is what Disrupted is really about: a safari through the jungle of 21st Century corporate nonsense.
It’s almost too perfect that Lyons, a deft observer and gifted satirist, was there to document it all. But Disrupted is by no means a masterpiece. To be fair, I don't suspect it was intended to be. It’s funny, it’s acerbic - but it does labour under Lyons’ insistence that he’s completely innocent. The man we see throughout the book is unrelentingly sarcastic and a little self-obsessed - at some points it’d be reasonable to call him a jerk.
But when he does get past these pitfalls, Lyons skirts the edges of something profound (although, disappointingly, he never lands the coup de grâce). When the reader gets a chance to peer over the hedge of Lyons’ ego, the emptiness of the New Workplace is laid bare for all to see. The meaninglessness of being a widget in what is essentially a money making caper.
HubSpot’s founders, Dharmesh Shah and Brian Halligan, try their utmost to conceal the company’s predatory zeal for growth. Everything is awesome! We’re crushing it! “Building a company we love,” says Hubspot’s 128 slide Culture Code presentation.
It’s all about the business model. The market pays you to have a company that scales quickly. It’s all about getting big fast. Don’t be profitable, just get big.
How the partnership between Shah and Halligan developed, God only knows. Shah, ever the lovable capitalist, measures employees using HEART. It’s an acronym that stands for Humble, Effective, Adaptable, Remarkable and Transparent. Shah avoids talking about money or business; he’s all about culture. Although he’s strangely silent when employees are ruthlessly “graduated” (HubSpot’s Orwellian euphemism for firing people).
On the other hand, Halligan, the human embodiment of Alec Baldwin’s steak knife speech in Glengarry Glen Ross, uses VORP (value over replacement player). It’s a term taken from Baseball statistics (known as sabermetrics). VORP demonstrates how much a player contributes to his team in comparison to a fictitious replacement player.
Startup culture is being warped.
It’s these two opposing figures that have taken HubSpot to its £1bn valuation. Like many other hyped companies, the huge valuation is in spite of never turning a profit. No mind, profit isn’t the goal. Growth at all costs is the formula.
“You don’t get rewarded for creating great technology, anymore,” a tech veteran and friend tells Lyons in the book. “It’s all about the business model. The market pays you to have a company that scales quickly. It’s all about getting big fast. Don’t be profitable, just get big.”
It would be easy just to shake Lyons’ book off as the rant of a bitter ex-employee. But that would mean a hard headed denial of some of the book’s more cogent criticisms. Startup culture is being warped. There’s a danger of the weird, culty Google vibe becoming the idealised norm.
What’s the harm in that? Well, underneath someone like Shah’s fuzzy rhetoric (and Halligan’s salesy showmanship), there are people being hurt in the name of growth.“This is the New Work,” writes Lyons in one of his more lucid sentences. “But really it is just a new twist on an old story, the one about labour being exploited by capital.”
About Francois Badenhorst
Francois is the deputy editor of BusinessZone and UK Business Forums.