Once upon a time people grew up and went to work, where they probably grew up some more. One of the strangest inversions of business life in the digital age has been the infantilisation of the workplace.
From venerable tech leviathans like Google to the lowliest garage start-ups, the workplace has been reimagined as childcare — a productivity crèche.
When Newsweek’s technology editor Dan Lyons was cut from the masthead — partly because Google had eaten its business model — he found himself cast adrift from the grown-up world and struggling to fit into a strange hybrid place which looked like a mashup of Bond villain lair and childhood fantasy. He had joined a marketing start up called Hubspot.
Like many journalists, he dreamed of translating hard-won media skills into a lucrative marketing job.
It was a disaster. Lyons has written a memoir which is both funny and scary about the experience. It is also hugely valuable beyond the cautionary tale and generous lulz.
Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble should be required reading for anybody in the marketing biz or thinking of it as a career.
Hubspot, which is now a publicly traded company worth billions of dollars, is portrayed in the book as a vast shakedown racket — an exercise in self-delusion and grotesque exploitation. Lyons’ book reads as both an indictment of the company and its leaders — some of whom faced a criminal investigation, possibly for hacking into the author’s private computer after he had left the company — and as a wider indictment of the corporate culture run wild and gone mad in Silicon Valley.
Lyons, who enjoyed anonymous fame for a while as the creator of the Fake Steve Jobs blog, was both desperate and desperately grateful when the founders of Hubspot hired him to do … something. And there the problems started. He was never quite sure what he was supposed to do, and he came to understand that the founders had no idea either.
They were utterly clueless, and their lack of anything approaching a clue characterised the entire culture of the business. It was a particular brand of ruthless cluelessness that arises in an industry where billions can be made without a business plan or even a product or service to sell.
Hubspot had a product — marketing software — but it was so awful that initially the company would only sell it. It was a marketing company that did not dare use its own marketing software. In Disrupted, Hubspot comes to stand in for a trillion-dollar tech industry often based on nothing more real than fairy dust and unicorn wishes.
As strange as the environment at his new workplace could be — with its Wall of Candy, a nap room, and a gig space fully kitted out with musical instruments nobody knew how to play — it was nowhere near as weird as the irrational exuberance of a market that poured billions of dollars of venture capital into start-ups that had never made a dollar and had no path to making one at any stage in the future.
You read Disrupted expecting the entire house of cards to come tumbling down on every page, but it never does. The founders, the venture capitalists, the banks, the stock market, the tech media, all just keep adding more and more cards, building the teetering tower ever higher.
Lyons, who reported on the last tech bubble, finds himself torn between wanting to get the hell away from this one as quickly as possible, and wanting to cash in like everyone else. In the end he is forced out — “graduated”, to use the Orwellian doublespeak of the company — and moves on to Hollywood where he applies the lessons learned to a new job as a script writer on HBO’s Silicon Valley. The bubble doesn’t pop. The company gets its IPO. The founders make a fortune, despite the FBI investigation.
It is impossible, however, to read this book and not come away feeling a day of reckoning is coming for the entire industry. And it will be a hard day indeed.