By Jeffrey Davis
A few chapters into Dan Lyons’ new book, Disrupted, you start to feel like you’ve stepped into a dotcom time machine dialed to 1999. Chapter by chapter, you schlep to work with Lyons each day—during his two-year stint as as a “marketing fellow” at HubSpot, the Boston-based marketing-tech firm—experiencing organizational crazymaking on so many levels you wonder, Is he making this shit up? After all, we’re talking about a guy who’s good at that: Lyons is the wizard of Fake Steve Jobs and a writer for “Silicon Valley,” the hit HBO comedy that parodies every pretense of startup culture.
Nope. Disrupted is a nonfiction title, a 258-page chronicle of Lyons’ gig as a marketing writer and blogger, despite full disclosure—“I know nothing about marketing,” he writes—going in. Lyons, then 52, needed a job after being laid off from his previous position as technology editor of Newsweek. HubSpot promised a new professional challenge, solid pay and benefits, and a likely IPO on the horizon.
But the culture he encountered at HubSpot—“peppy, effervescent, relentlessly positive, incredibly hubristic and overconfident,” as Lyons describes it, and run by homogenous throngs of 20-something brogrammers and sales reps—turns out to be more cult than culture, more Romper Room than boardroom, with its own “reality distortion field” that makes the original RDF—the cult of Jobs’ Apple—seem almost banal in comparison. “Four months into my tenure at HubSpot,” Lyons writes (and we’re already into chapter nine), “I am ready to give up. I’m stuck in the content factory writing articles for imbeciles. I cannot do this for a living.”
That it was a job in content marketing that exposed all this dysfunction hit a little close to home for me. Content marketing (or brand journalism, sponsored content, native advertising, or pick your term du jour) is what we do here at Original9. We write a lot of great articles, actually, within the domain of marketing, and typically not for imbeciles. We run some company blogs that are better than the editorial you see in many trade pubs and magazines. And like Lyons, I’m another graybeard tech journalist who jumped into this a few years ago without much of a clue. So I wondered: Did Lyons really take the job in earnest and want to succeed? Or was it a ruse of sorts to scope out another FSJ-like narrative?
So I caught up with Lyons on the phone during a busy week of promotion for Disrupted to get a few answers. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
First of all, congratulations on the book.
Thanks. I don’t know if it’s going to turn out to be a good thing or a bad thing for me. But we’ll find out.
I want to go back to this idea that you had at HubSpot to build an online magazine. It sounded like a terrific idea. But things didn’t go your way and you didn’t get to do it. Were you genuinely excited about what you could do with a branded media property if you were put in charge?
Oh yes. One [branded media] site I love is a site called Spark, by Qualcomm. The one that really got me excited was Microsoft Stories. I know Frank Shaw who oversees it.
Steve Clayton is there—his title is chief storyteller. I met him at a conference in England years ago. He was just a regular Microsoft employee who was writing a blog, and they liked his job so much they moved him and his family to Redmond. I just think it’s really, really good. With the right resources, you could do something really cool.
There’s also GE Reports, which doesn’t have the slickness of Microsoft Stories but it’s just really well done. Tomas Kellner runs it. He’s a very good journalist and a smart guy and he does great work. He has the benefit of being at GE so he can fly around the world and write about really interesting stuff. Then he also has a second part of his job where he goes around GE teaching people how to write, basically running writing workshops either for PR people, or for people inside GE who want to blog or part of their job involves writing.
So it sounds like you thought you could pull off something similar at HubSpot?
The thing about HubSpot is it’s not big enough that there would be enough to write about, but what I thought was, Adobe got the jump on this, and they already have CMO.com, so I didn’t want to create another publication for the CMOs. I had talked to a different tech company about starting a publication called CDO or something similar, aimed at Chief Digital Officers. But I think the idea of having your own little magazine that you’re running and it happens to be sponsored by a company, and they’re paying the freight—that would be cool if you could do good stuff.
Obviously you’re not going to do investigative journalism, you’re not going to do contentious, controversial stuff, but you could do really interesting stories about fascinating people and fascinating subjects. It would just happen to be brought to you by something. To me, that’s not different than The New York Times—it’s a bunch of interesting stories brought to you by all the sponsors and advertisers. So yes—I really, really wanted to do it.
If it had gone your way, can you imagine yourself still being there today?
Oh, yeah. I really thought, I’m going to put in my four years, at least, and vest. Frankly, I would have done pretty well. If I could have vested all my four years of shares—I wouldn’t be a millionaire or anything. The thing of it, there was a guy running the art department there when I was there who also was new. He had come in maybe a month before me. He wasn’t a typical HubSpotter—he’s a super talented guy who’s worked at other places. He was really excited about it.
All of us were wasted doing this shit work at HubSpot, doing low-level crappy work. We were dying to do really good work, that was the thing. That was part of the argument we made—look, you got really good talent here, you brought in all these people. Turn us loose, give us something really good to do.
The problem was that the CMO was kind of a hack. He was the kind of guy who’d be like, “I like that blog story, but you didn’t mention HubSpot enough. Go back and put two more mentions of HubSpot in and three more mentions of inbound marketing and two links to our site.” He just never got it. They would talk the talk about oh, we don’t want this all to be just PR propaganda, but then they couldn’t resist the urge to make it PR propaganda.
Even though they had hired an experienced tech journalist, presumably to write something other than propaganda?
That’s another interesting lesson. I think it’s very, very hard for companies to let go of that urge, even when they say they’re going to, it’s really, really hard for them to do that, and to trust that something’s going to come of it because they can’t see anything. They can’t measure it. I think that’s the danger of data, and our CMO was very much about the data.
Journalists know what a good story is, and even if it didn’t get a lot of readership, there are stories that journalists would say, yeah, but that was a great story, that was really well done. I guess it’s like comedians have comedians that they like that aren’t popular with the public, but are popular among other comedians. Journalists have our own taste. But also I think we trust our taste. We trust that if we make good content, it will work ultimately for whatever you want. Make a nice, quality product that’s interesting, that has real value. You don’t need to market it.
The irony was, these were content marketing people, that’s what their whole business was supposed to be based on: content marketing. But at the end of the day they didn’t really trust it.
At a certain point in the book, you mention a friend who suggests you switch over to being more of an “anthropologist” on the job. So I’m curious, at what point did the idea of the book emerge? When did the job turn into a story?
It’s funny. The book really took shape this past fall. What I sold after I left was almost like a modern-day Office Space, just a goofy look at this old guy working at a crazy, goofy company. Then I worked on that for a bunch of months in 2015, and then I got back to “Silicon Valley.” So I went out to LA and I didn’t even look at the book for a long time.
Then I came back at the end of October, and I did this huge rewrite and it really became the book as it is now. I began to see a lot of the bigger picture of it. I had been thinking like an anthropologist the whole time—well, ever since I had that conversation with that guy, but I don’t think I really grokked the full idea of the book until I was actually doing a rewrite. I turned in the manuscript literally on Christmas eve, upon deadline, and was done very much in a hurry.
That’s kind of it. The whole time I was at HubSpot, a lot of people would be like, yeah, someone should write a book about this, they should make a movie about this place, ha, ha, ha. A lot of people there know it’s crazy, even the ones who love it.
So I don’t have a great answer, like on this day I had this epiphany. It was more like a process. Even now, I wish I could’ve had a few more months. I would probably change things. But you can’t. At some point you just got to say, today’s the deadline.
Do you think startup culture today, and the ageism and other aspects of it, is worse than, say, the cultures of investment banks or pharmaceutical companies or law firms?
I think all industries have some weird dysfunction, and those dysfunctions are maybe what make them unique and even what defines them. That’s a really good point—I hadn’t thought of that.
What are your plans now?
Never work again! (Laughs.) No, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll write another book. Actually, I’ve been inundated with e-mail from people and the ageism thing is what a lot of people have latched onto—like, “the same thing happened to me when I went to work for this company” or “I can’t get a job, I go to interviews and they meet me and they go, oh, you’re 50, and they don’t want me.” I feel like there might be a book in that‚ just in the idea that there’s this big industry that basically doesn’t want anybody over 40. It was kind of extraordinary to me. I really find that amazing.