Dan Lyons is not quite as sarcastic as you think.
Known at one time as Fake Steve (he amassed a loyal following when he wrote in the persona of Steve Jobs for a personal blog in 2006), he now writes for the HBO sitcom Silicon Valley. You'd think Lyons would be full of one-liners. And, there are times when he cracks a few jokes in his new book Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, released earlier this month. There's a fair amount of levity involved, but the book is a total and unabashed takedown of startup culture, starting with one firm (HubSpot, which makes inbound marketing software) but mostly as a commentary on the crazy/stupid things companies do to retain employees.
It's an important book because it directly addresses diversity problems, ageism, termination practices, retention, employee payscales, and just about every other topic that comes up when you build a company. There are times when I wondered if Lyons just picked a really bad startup to profile (he worked there in 2013-14; it turned out to be fertile ground for him). The book has a lighter tone, but some of the experiences he described sound downright excruciating.
The opening chapters are quite troubling. Lyons was the technology editor at Newsweek and was fired suddenly. He has a wife and two kids, and one of the main reasons he even takes the job at HubSpot is to pay the bills. He describes a moment of despair when he first hears about his termination. It's not funny at all. It sounded to me like he had been rolled over by a truck a few times and left in the road.
I joined him on the journey, in a virtual sense. I've been working in the writing profession for two decades as well, first as a corporate manager leading teams of writers and now as a journalist. I've experienced some of the same awkwardness at companies that only have bean-bag chairs and glass-walled offices. More importantly, I know what it's like to make a major and sudden career change, to spin into a black abyss and wonder if you can still buy groceries for the week.
Lyons was obviously "launched" into a new career without much preparation or knowledge. He talks about arriving his first day and wandering around looking for his boss. His "team" ignores him most of the time. He has to learn new terms like "content marketing" and figure out how to write a blog that is intended only to generate sales leads, not actually inform anyone about anything.
Some of his stories are already well documented. In meetings, they used a teddy bear named Molly as a fill-in for the customer. They used the term "graduated" when an employee was fired. They had a massive wall of free candy. But there's more to the book than some of these anecdotes. I believe Lyons was trying to say a lot more about startups than "HubSpot sucks" in his book. It's a treatise about what is wrong with younger companies in general...and there's quite a bit to learn.
One of the biggest takeaways is that older workers can provide value to a younger company. Experience is a good thing, not a bad thing. There are workers who have figured out how to do marketing and advertising and can propel a young company forward without expecting anyone to use training wheels. There are managers who know how to motivate a team in ways that lead to actual productivity, not just giving them the warm feeling you get from expensive coffee. There are people from diverse backgrounds who might not shop at Forever 21 but know how to do their job.
Another takeaway is that the free perks might not be as valuable as you think. You can provide standing desks, free Caribou, unlimited vacation, and a free Macbook like the employee is taking another semester in college, but employees are smarter than that. They want to make a real contribution. They want to be challenged to use their skills and make something outstanding. They want to collaborate in real ways that lead to incredible productivity. Yet, many companies just say "enjoy the coffee" and then stick people into roles they despise and doing work they can't stand. That's really what Lyons is saying. I believe he wanted to learn about marketing and challenge himself. (In the book, he said he had aspirations to become a marketing guru.) Instead, it became a dead-end job with a boss who barely knew when he was there.
So what's the answer? Should the book discourage you from starting a company? Not at all. If anything, it will encourage you to start a company the right way. The perks and goofy lingo won't retain anyone, not even the teddy bear.