Start-Up Land Needs To Learn Something From Having a Writer In Its Midst

The deal with keeping a writer around is that, at some point, you’re probably going to be written about. Your actions and words, however innocuous or inconsequential you imagined them, can wind up out there for all the reading public to see.

I’m not sure that it’s a well known point, but I heard it once and it rings true.

Depending on your aims in life, this can be a good thing or bad thing. Software company HubSpot has learned that buddying up with a writer — a known satirist, at that — can lead to some unpleasant words.

Cover design for ‘Disrupted’ courtesy of Hachette Books. Get it on Amazon or wherever people sell books.

When the precocious marketing software start-up began its relationship with Dan Lyons, author of the infamous Fake-Steve Jobs blog and contributing writer on the HBO comedy series Silicon Valley, they knew what they were getting: a sharp writer with deadly wit and an insider’s knowledge of the tech scene.

In most cases, this is a boon for a company with a zeal for success and a product that they truly believe can change lives. In HubSpot’s case, they wasted a pretty decent asset.

Did HubSpot eat too much of their own slick and overly engineered branding slogans when they signed up a guy like Lyons? Sure, HubSpot makes good software and they don’t take themselves too seriously (Do they have a beer garden on the premises? You know they do.) but they must have known that a guy with decades of experience in the tech world could see through self-important trappings like a 128-slide presentation on their company culture.

Did the brass at HubSpot expect Lyons to blithely sit back and crank out SEO-juiced blog posts, like this one about an “8-step Plan for Migrating to a New Marketing Automation Program”? Journalists have exceptional radar when it comes to BS, so asking Lyons to peddle it was like waving the red flag at a bull.

Did they count on him NOT skewering the trappings of start-up silliness around him? Really? This guy??

Issuing the Rote Non-Apologies

HubSpot will move on from this. They practically have to in a culture that pats companies like Amazon and Apple on the back for having cutthroat tendencies and then bravely, or brazenly, owning up to those processes. Seriously, this is a world of tech factory suicide nets and people routinely sobbing at their desks. And the overwhelming response is more “Shut up and take my money!”

HubSpot penned a sincere-ish reaction to Lyons’ book on LinkedIn in the week after the book dropped. Dharmesh Shah was the clearest voice to come through in the letter and it’s clear that Shah, HubSpot’s CTO, finds the story told by numbers more compelling than the one told by book critics. HubSpot leadership is convinced that a five quarter streak of continuing revenue growth is enough of a rebuttal to whatever barbs Lyons can toss at them, and they’re probably secure in that thinking. One memoir won’t cause an exodus of customers overnight.

But what HubSpot gets wrong is the internalization of Lyons’ commentary. True, some of the things going on at HubSpot were real WTF? moments and one could argue they were actively trying to jump the shark for tech start-up lunacy. The letter that Shah and other leaders sent out from HubSpot HQ addresses a couple of real detractors in the tech scene — namely age discrimination and a galling lack of diversity in tech companies — but it stops short of acknowledging that, to the outside world, everything Lyons mentions in his book comes across as fundamentally silly. It’s hard to argue with an incisive eye like Lyons’ when it comes to these things.

The trend of self-important tech executives practically decreeing that the workplace attitude be chill can have its upside, but if this earnest pursuit of laid back ambiance costs your business real customers and real money, then it’s time for corrective action.

Mm-hm, love me some culture. It’s the spice of corporate life!

Be Yourself or Be Bland?

So what’s the solution? Never betray personality, emotion or idiosyncratic language in the confines of your start-up bubble? No, there’s still plenty of justification for bucking the beige qualities of corporate blandness. Google (aka Alphabet) will still act as a beacon for workers and employers who want to emulate their success by adopting flexible work schedules and pleasant perks in the office such as snacks, comfortable lounges and open floor plans. But a company’s commitment to culture has to go beyond beanbags and silly copy in company emails.

Authenticity is a rising trend in content marketing and the inbound strategy that HubSpot touts for their marketing partners relies more on original content than any other marketing tactic. As companies strive for their own authentic and genuinely helpful voice in public marketing activities, they will do well to incorporate the same clarity and purpose-filled attitude to dealing with their own workforce.

If your business is in the process of hiring a writer, don’t let this episode act as a deterrent. Be honest with yourselves and your employees. If you do those things first, there should be nothing to fear from having a qualified writer around. A writer’s facility with language and precision in crafting a message can assist any company on the road to prosperity. The key is knowing how to use those skills in the right way.

In this writer’s estimation, it’s better to give a skilled wordsmith something interesting to talk about instead of aggrandizing rituals to behold.

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