Originally published May 2016
Dan Lyons’ “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble” is one book with two storylines. The first being the one a lot of tech startup “alumni” will pick it up for—confirmation that a lot of people running the industry are batshit crazy, downright amoral or a combination of both.
The second is an explanation and perhaps even a condemnation of the startup-to-IPO trend that has resulted in making billionaires out of a select minority of people, some with no real knowledge or capability to even accurately describe what it is their company does or sells. Companies that make NO MONEY.
Let’s break these down.
Of course I picked the “Disrupted” up for the hook—the promise I would learn I am not alone in witnessing the magical thinking that goes into some startups’ strategy and behavior. I’ve had the opportunity to work the spectrum, from a small family-owned newspaper to a mid-sized dental benefits provider to freelancing for a large publishing corporation, back to a small startup, and at present, a large, well-established technology provider. And there are parts of Lyons’ book that made me laugh in relation to just about everywhere I’ve worked. No different than Dilbert, but especially when it comes to startups, VERY relatable.
While the startup I worked at was not tech-related, much of the startup atmosphere was the same. The company probably wasn’t making the best choice in moving to a new location, but the opportunity to design the space with bright colors and chalkboard walls was too tempting to pass up. The gourmet coffee maker was a nice perk, but none of used it because it was forever speaking German to us and we couldn’t get it out of foreign language mode. And who doesn’t need a wine refrigerator on site?
It’s pretty easy to take aim at something viewed as silly from a Gen X’ers perch when Millennials may truly be motivated to work for pennies on the dollar because they have a candy wall and foosball. I don’t begrudge them that. Lyons goes there, with gusto, being twice the age of the average coworker at Hubspot. Plus, most journalists are cynical, self-loathing SOBs at heart, which makes mocking par for the course. For those of us into our 40s, with families, kids and mortgages, the lure of free margaritas after work and group kayaking, while it sounds fun, is usually trumped by a soccer game or dinner with the fam. The frat house atmosphere loses its appeal when you’re old enough to be the house mom. So it’s easy to mock—and maybe a little unfairly, seeing as if the atmosphere existed when I had graduated from college, I’m sure I would have loved it.
But I think that first storyline, about the crazy work atmosphere of tech startups, is critical in that it leads to the second storyline—the one that basically says the environment isn’t especially sustainable. And that’s bad news for anyone working at one that didn’t score huge on options and an IPO.
That kind of environment, which pays for shit because Candy! Hot Sauce! Keggers! only works for kids out of college whose diet is still beer and Snickers. It doesn’t work for someone on maternity leave, saving to put a kid through college, maybe starting to plan for elderly parents. Those employees need stability and an income that can cover a constant stream of prescriptions for ear infections, strep throat or ADHD, a $500 a month digital bill (phones/cable/Internet) and damnit did you see the price of cilantro at Whole Foods?
OK, so the atmosphere is implicitly ageist, fine. But if older, more experienced employees continue to leave these play/work incubators, who is the keeper of institutional knowledge? Who leads the company? The guy who three weeks ago was getting coffee for the content team? Yikes.
And then there’s the whole financial side, which I don’t even pretend to understand, but Lyons does a great job of explaining. The Silicon Valley groundswell of support for tech startups that don’t even have a product, but somehow procure a bunch of angel investors because everyone’s looking to cash in on the next Google. A shit ton of money to spend on crazy-ass offices, field trips, conferences with Huey Lewis and Jonelle Monae performing, but no expectation of actual profit. They just have to show growth to get that magical IPO. And then, Voila! Founders cash out their options and buy big stinkin’ yachts to host Gronk-style cruises. Yeesh.
I don’t know if the book pulls the curtain back on all tech startups or just Hubspot, but it’s reaalllly interesting. And because Lyons is an admitted smartass, it’s impossible to say for sure that some of the crap that came his way wasn’t a little bit justified. BUT — one of the most honest scenes in the book was Lyons getting his annual review from his boss, the now-since-fired Joe Chernov (who I’ve surmised is an asshat of the highest order) in which Lyons is confronted with the possibility no one likes him. It’s harsh. It hurts. It’s unkind. And that may be the reality that is the tech startup.