B2B Book Review: Digesting “Disrupted”

Sean Campbell
Authored bySean Campbell
Isa Gautschi
Authored byIsabel Gautschi

Episode 126: B2B Book Review- “Disrupted”

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This article is based on an episode of the B2B Market Research Podcast. The audio version is also available here.

It’s a different world from the era in which Apple, Microsoft, EMC, and other familiar titans came to prominence. Over the next 5-10 years, there will be a flood of people moving from the old guard tech companies to a new kind of company.

New guard companies are likely to be SaaS offerings focused on hot topics such as the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, big data, and analytics. The new guard companies will include unicorns, technology start-ups valued at $1 billion or more. Unicorns such as Uber, Slack, Zenefits, and Docker will set the tone for the technology industry. Naturally, everyone is curious about what these new power players are like.

B2B market researchers are especially hungry to understand this new breed of potential clients.

Disrupted CoverIn this context, Dan Lyons’ book Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble is a must-read.

The book is a biting critique of the culture at HubSpot, content marketing, and the tech industry in general. Lyons has a sharp wit and comedic chops, but he also has the unfortunate tendency to over-generalize and over-judge.

Before I get into more detail, I’ll give a quick recap of the book. After losing his job at Newsweek, Lyons decided it was time to try something different. Hired as a marketer at HubSpot, Lyons felt like a fish out of water. The transition from journalist to marketer is a difficult one at best, but it’s not clear Lyons ever truly wanted to make it.

On the advice of a friend, Lyons decided to approach his new workplace with the mindset of an anthropologist. With this decision alone, Lyons shows that he was more interested in observation than assimilation. It’s safe to say that Lyons didn’t like what he saw at HubSpot.

Take, for instance, inbound marketing. Of course, inbound marketing is what HubSpot is known for. Lyons describes HubSpot’s approach like this:

“And even though we and our customers send out literally billions of email messages, we’re not trying to annoy people—in fact we are trying to help them. Sending one message after another, each time with a different subject line, is how we discover what someone wants. We’re learning about them. We’re listening to them.”

Lyons doesn’t buy this justification. He writes it off as “…pure Orwellian doublespeak. Night is day, black is white, bad is good.” I think Lyons’ take on content marketing is entertaining, but I don’t think he’s right.

Inbound marketing isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it can be valuable.

Inbound marketing isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it can be valuable. Customers do, at times, want to experience and engage with content that a vendor is producing. Sure, vendors that send out too many messages can cross the line into spam. But there is a degree of separation between inbound marketing and spam. The line between the two has a lot to do with how it’s managed, handled and sent.

It wasn’t just HubSpot’s philosophy that bothered Lyons, he found plenty to dislike in the company’s hierarchy as well. Ageism plagued his experience and he disliked how employees were motivated and managed. Lyons also witnessed what Guy Kawasaki called the “bozo explosion” where managers hire less capable people than themselves. Those less capable employees are later promoted to management, and, in turn, hire less capable people than themselves. Over time, the company becomes filled with less and less capable people.

Lyons also points out the rapid turnover at HubSpot. (Apparently, when people were fired from the company they were described as having “graduated.” In large technology companies, it’s not uncommon to find employees who have stayed with the company for 5, 10, 15, even 20 years. The typical tenures in recent start-ups are much shorter. I’m not convinced that the turnover is a bad thing, though. Only time will tell.

The funniest parts of the book are when Lyons is roasting HubSpot’s company culture. If Lyons’ descriptions are accurate, I’d agree that HubSpot has some work to do in that area.

From the descriptions in Disrupted, HubSpot sounds like a claustrophobic, hedonist playground. Employees are crammed together in a factory-like layout. There’s a candy wall. Lyons is told that “a group of bros meets in the lobby on the second floor to do push-ups together.” There’s a dry cleaning drop off. Legends of on-site debauchery make the rounds.

In a hilarious passage, Lyons recounts how one of the company leaders actually carries around a teddy bear as a stand-in for HubSpot customers.

In a hilarious passage, Lyons recounts how one of the company leaders actually carries around a teddy bear as a stand-in for HubSpot customers. As Lyons points out, it’s unclear how the bear could possibly lobby on behalf of the customers and whether the bear ever disagreed with the founders.

I think the teddy bear is indicative of the kooky things that happen when a company just talks to itself. Lyons is right to make us laugh about the teddy bear. However, when Lyons tries to generalize about the culture, I think he makes a few missteps.

Reading Disrupted, I got the impression that Lyons took his distaste for HubSpot and used it to diagnose start-up culture in general. I think his sample size was far too small to warrant such a sweeping view of the industry.

He reminisces about the bygone era when a team of technologists would build something wonderful and it would eventually find its way to the right customer.

At one point in the book, he makes a long running argument about how the technology industry used to be all about the technology. He reminisces about the bygone era when a team of technologists would build something wonderful and it would eventually find its way to the right customer. It’s almost as though he thought that if the product was innovative enough, it would just sell itself. That’s just not accurate.

As much as Steve Jobs loved innovating, at some point, he needed to just make a buck. It’s not as if Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page and Sergey Brin were just innovating for the love of innovating in a vacuum where making money didn’t factor in at all. Products are generally intended to make a profit.

Business models have always been important. I’d say they’re equally as valuable as good technology because focusing on the technology alone doesn’t necessarily lead to a market or happy customers.

Overall, I think Lyons gives marketing a short shrift in Disrupted. As far as giving an inside look at a single company, it’s an excellent book. If you’re looking for a generalizable view of start-ups and unicorns, you’ll probably have to look somewhere else.

This podcast is brought to you by Cascade Insights. We specialize in market research and competitive intelligence for B2B technology companies. Our focus allows us to deliver detailed insights that generalist firms simply can’t match. Check out our podcast for more B2B Market Research episodes and articles.

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