What Dan Lyons Got Wrong in ‘Disrupted’

Like many in Boston tech, I spent the weekend pouring over Dan Lyons’ tell-all tale, Disrupted.

The book did not disappoint.

I picked up where I’d last left off every chance I could. Pages flipped; eyes popped. I smiled, nodding at the on-point observations, and furrowed my brows when I disagreed.

Here’s my take on it all.

Lyons hits startup realities on the head. He calls out overenthusiastic culture like overdone exclamation points, normalized super-awesome language that minimizes a true superlative, and the tendency to gloss over issues.

There are many observant, biting remarks about groupthink and ageism, and Lyons reveals his story candidly. But there are some points that made me want to bite back.

1. First, the ultimate purpose of online marketing of any sort — whether it be B2B, B2C, B2C2B, or a different model — is customer acquisition and retention. You’re marketing yourself. Yes, online marketers today provide vendor-agnostic information that helps prospects in their role, but there’s always that underlying objective to drive new leads. It’s the definition of marketing. Rule #1: Don’t accept a job as an online marketer if you think anything otherwise.

2. Every employee, for any type of job, wants to believe in a higher value. Having a real purpose behind what you do drives motivation and performance. Without it, you’re clocking in and out like a zombie, aimlessly waiting for your next paycheck. Think of any job — anything at all — and this applies. In the case of HubSpot, the higher purpose of an inbound marketing platform is to help customers attract leads rather than pepper them with outbound advertising. It’s not some charade (and yes it involves outbound tactics to jumpstart a customer base) but it does change the world of SMB customers who bring it on after doing purely outbound sales and marketing. It gives them ability to build a base and pull in search traffic for keywords they figure out their prospects are searching for.

3. New companies do require high sales and marketing budgets to grow brand awareness and a customer base, and to do so exponentially. Without hefty sales and marketing percentages, you’re relying purely on peer-to-peer networking and customers spreading the word. That’s not gonna hack it. Yes, investing in your product (or service) is essential — it needs to be up to snuff or your customers will churn — but a solid (even stellar) offering isn’t enough when you’re under deadlines to grow.

4. Acronyms are a reality to every industry and company. I started out in environmental services, learning terms like OSHA, RCRA, and HAZWOPER, then moved into digital advertising and was faced with acronyms like DSP, CPM, PMP, and RTB. Even within the same industry, every marketing team has its own terms for lead qualification and funnel status; you can’t expect to have a marketing meeting where it doesn’t come up. It may sound strange and jargony to a newcomer, but once you’re entrenched in the goals and the processes in place, it’s just like the language you grew up speaking.

5. Using online marketing for demand generation is a real thing. HubSpot may have coined the phrases “inbound marketing” and “delightion,” but this stuff works. Writing targeted content has grown Yesware’s organic blog traffic to over 280,000 visitors/month in under three years. How? By publishing tactical articles with advice that readers can walk away with and implement, no matter their status with us. Generating a demand for your knowledge base and using marketing automation to get your content into the hands of those who are searching for it, who’ve asked for more and even wait for it: that’s inbound marketing.

6. Some of the comments that Lyons made to his coworkers during meetings were ill-received not because of his age or background, but because they were off-kilter. When you’re in a meeting about coping with personality types, take it with a grain of salt if you don’t believe in that sort of thing, but don’t make a joke about wanting to hit someone. That makes things awkward, especially if you’re seated with other employees you don’t know well, and you’re in a training about how to deal with coworkers. Maybe Lyons’ comments were decidedly pointed, but the only one appreciating the humor was Lyons himself.

7. There’s an underlying sexist tone throughout the book. While Lyons does flag a lack of diversity at HubSpot and recognizes with criticism that female leadership positions are rarer than male’s, there’s other commentary that subtly underscores a different perspective. Lyons wants to talk about largely-sized phalluses and, once he becomes a screenwriter for Silicon Valley, finally feels free to do that. He thinks back to HubSpot and can’t understand why conversation like that isn’t okay there. Well, any professional work setting would act the same way (keyword: professional). Equating penis size to power is a sexist, antiquated way to look at the working world. It’s like women talking about who has the biggest breasts in front of a group women and men — at work. Power in the workplace should have nothing to do with your private parts.

8. Lyons’ goes off on many tangents that spew venom against different people and concepts, and this strays from his true point of the book: to reveal his experience at HubSpot. Where he made his point in a few sentences, he went on for four more pages. I found myself skipping a few pages here and there to get back to the next juicy beat.

9. Despite his brash attitude toward the millennials in his office, Lyons’s behavior in engaging coworkers in passive aggressive Facebook fights exemplifies typical high school drama. It was funny to me that Lyons chose to refer to his comments as “little” things, ignoring the root of the issue (at least to me): never get into a tiff on Facebook — let alone with your coworker. That one shocked me, especially when it happened a second time.

All of the wrong-way-rub aside, I really enjoyed reading this book and appreciated the curtains that Lyons pushed aside, and the satirical stage that he set. It was brave of him to share his barest moments, and he leaves his readers walking away enlightened to many truisms in startup, and even beyond that.

Thank you, Dan Lyons, for the time that you put into writing this, for your honesty, humor and wit, and for giving people a look inside a Boston-based startup that’s had eyes on it for years.