In his provocative new book, "Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble," author Dan Lyons doesn’t miss a chance to put the “diss” in “disrupted” in the course of raking his former employer, Cambridge, Mass.-based marketing software company, HubSpot, over the coals.
Mercifully though, Disrupted is far more than a hilariously vengeful takedown. By turns, Lyons offers up sharply-observed workplace anecdotes, insights into venture capital and start-up culture, an insider vantage point on a Hollywood sitcom writers’ room, passionate musing on ageism in tech and a paranoia-tinged look at personal privacy violations.
The mash-up isn’t always successful, but it’s never boring.
Blogging and Boxed Candy
And as if those agendas weren’t enough, Lyons also raises worthy questions about the nature of journalism versus content creation, sales versus marketing, Millennials versus Baby Boomers and capitalism as a motive.
Oh, and trigger warning: After reading this book, you’ll never look at blogging, boxed candy or the color orange in quite the same way ever again.
Jumping the Shark?
In short, the sweeping scope of Disrupted is its blessing and its curse. If the book were an episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley — for which Lyons now works as a staff writer — it would be the one accused of “jumping the shark.”
In Lyons’s defense, the real-life plot of Disrupted thickened before the book was ever published. While it was still a manuscript, it burst onto the scene in July 2015 when HubSpot abruptly fired its CMO, Mike Volpe and content head, Joe Chernov, (referred to by the pseudonyms “Cranium” and “Trotsky” in the book) for trying to obtain an advance copy of Lyons’s manuscript through devious means. Criminal charges were discussed but ultimately never filed.
Was Lyons a victim or the backhanded beneficiary of the strangest publicity bonanza ever?
Rescuing the 'Beached White Male'
The story begins chronologically in the summer of 2012 when Lyons, at age 51, finds himself living Newsweek’s “beached white male” cover story when his job as the magazine’s technology editor suddenly evaporates during an early-morning phone call.
As the sole source of support for his wife and young twins, he badly needs a stable source of income (and health insurance), ideally one that doesn’t require a twice-weekly commute between Boston and Silicon Valley like the stop gap gig he has taken at San Francisco-based tech site, ReadWrite.
HubSpot: Savior or Hell?
When HubSpot comes calling, Lyons sees — and quickly seizes — his chance to join a well-funded start-up with hot IPO prospects, miraculously located only six miles from his house.
And so Lyons’s journey into a hell of his own making begins: No one is there to greet him on his first day and things quickly descend into further chaos from there. Surrounded by what he categorizes as beer-guzzling, rah-rah millennials, Lyons has no fixed responsibilities, no friends and no discernible purpose other than to cling to his paycheck, stock options and shredded journalistic identity.
Wicked and Whiney
I found this portion of the book to be wicked good fun — keyword wicked — but self-indulgent and overly long. Lyons makes no bones about preferring journalism to content creation or, gasp, marketing. He feels like a fish-out-of-water surrounded by young people who enhance their paltry salaries and long work hours by mingling with their co-workers and eating, gasp, the free food.
To think that throughout Lyons’s ordeal, HubSpot had the gall to be in a business other than journalism. And the temerity to keep Lyons gainfully employed when he was so obviously miserable. Cry me the Charles River, Dan!
The Venture Capital Perspective
Yet, just when I had had about enough of Lyons’s whining, Disrupted morphed into a different book entirely, an uncommonly insightful look at the mentality and business dynamics shaping venture capital and tech start-ups today.
This portion of the book, reminiscent of Michael Lewis’s or Barbara Ehrenreich’s work, is full of perspective and sage advice. Disrupted is worth reading for this section alone.
As a bonus, there’s a fun peek into the Silicon Valley writers’ room while Lyons takes a 14-week sabbatical from HubSpot to work on the show’s second season. Lyons is obviously in his comfort zone with storytelling and fiction in this section and the writing is punchy and engaging.
Back Down the Rabbit Hole
But after Disrupted’s all-too-brief encounter with the big picture, it’s back down the HubSpot rabbit hole for Lyons, this time assigned to a boss who comes across as a none-too-stable sociopath capable of astonishing manipulation and cruelty.
Anyone who has ever had an irrational boss will find this section of the book to be raw, cautionary and genuinely uncomfortable. I wanted to give Lyons a big hug.
The alleged attempt to hack the Disrupted manuscript is treated as an epilogue in the book. The harassment to which Lyons and his family claim to have experienced is both frightening and eye-opening. Lyons is right that it could happen to any one of us, perhaps especially in an environment where companies have tech tools and resources at their fingertips.
Writing Parody, Not Living It
Perhaps unreasonably given the sweep of what it covers, I wanted Disrupted to be more, to be more introspective, with clearer villains and less moral ambiguity. But watching Lyons emerge — older and perhaps wiser — from his stranger-than-fiction tenure at HubSpot, one can’t help but savor the singular triumph of one Everyman survivor and be glad that Dan Lyons is now safely writing parody rather than living it.