Dan Lyons and Straw Startup Culture

Working at a startup is a lot like being on drugs: On your good trips you dance through clouds in euphoric ecstasy, while on your bad trips you claw at your eyes and shriek incoherently. There have been countless recollections and stories revealing the side of startup life that exists when you peel back the layer of glitter presented to you in HBO’s Silicon Valley (which is to startups what CSI is to real life forensic scientists, but I digress). Simply put, it can be an environment full of nightmarish hours, lack of sleep and severe mental stress and bitter feuds between founders. That”s not to say that startups can’t be exhilarating, rewarding and fun, but it’s a bed of roses more than a bed of daisies.

Things have nonetheless veered into the territory of being disingenuous courtesy of Dan Lyons, who has launched an extremely silly broadside against startup culture by way of the New York Times. Lyons’ article presents no statistics, hard facts or even a personal story of working at an early stage startup. His smoking gun is an anecdotal retelling of his experience at HubSpot, which he has essentially projected onto Silicon Valley and startup entirely.

If you’ve kept up with HubSpot you may have immediately noticed the first problem: HubSpot went public in 2014 and Lyons worked at HubSpot from 2013 to 2014, at a time when it had hundreds of employees and five different offices on multiple continents. HubSpot was founded back in 2006. The issue of when a startup stops being a startup is something of a persisting debate, but Tim Westergren of Pandora highlighted the problem with calling HubSpot a startup on Quora (emphasis mine):

Financial metrics like top line revenue and profitability are certainly important markers, but I think it’s also a state of mind/company culture phenomenon. It happens when you have a team, and a corporate structure in place that has a long term mindset and the capability to operate at a much larger scale. I know many companies I would describe as “mature” companies, that are still small. They just have a capable team and a culture that is long term focused.

If we go by this understanding of what a startup is, HubSpot was no more a startup back in 2014 than Facebook was. What’s more, the very culture Lyons is criticizing is the same culture that allows HubSpot to think long term and subsequently not be a startup.

Lyons also airily waves past his own misguided reasons for joining HubSpot as part of the problem:

I joined the company in 2013 after spending 25 years in journalism and getting laid off from a top position at Newsweek. I thought working at a start-up would be great. The perks! The cool offices!

Now, moving past the problems of considering HubSpot a startup, which I already dealt with. If your primary motivation for joining a startup – let alone any tech company – is the cool offices, your priorities are so far gone they’re on Mars. A slick looking office might be beneficial to your work environment and productivity, but shouldn’t that be your motivation? At least more than the bean bag chairs in the lobby being totally baller, yo?

Lyons also seems to be conflating perks at actual startups with perks at bigger tech companies that (once again) can’t really be called startups. Google is famous for its lavish perks but it’s the big tech companies that enjoy perks like this. Even mid-stage startups would have investors breathing fire if they were indulging in free gourmet meals and organized intramural sports. Even at mid-stage startups it’s not uncommon to see founders doing dishes or picking up food. It’s this recurring strain of conflating startup and tech that causes this article to go off the rails.

One thing Lyons does get right is that HubSpot is guilty of some truly appalling practices when it comes to hiring and firing employees at the drop of a hat. The problem is that he takes this experience and applies it wholesale to Silicon Valley, startups and the tech industry as a whole. Except he’s already been called out on this, including by Ashley Mayer (who actually was an early stage startup employee at Box):

She added that retention is a huge issue at most companies. Indeed, the New York Times itself has written about the ongoing “talent war” in Silicon Valley, where startups are gunning to poach and retain talented employees. Venture capitalist Hunter Walk chimed in moments later with his own skepticism, noting what a big issue retention is if you go by salaries and those same perks that Lyons was dismissive of.

Lyons then – without any evidence – also asserts that Silicon Valley pioneered this form of service, but that it’s now spreading.

Companies burn you out and churn you out when someone better, or cheaper, becomes available.

Anyone who has ever worked on Wall Street or at a large law firm will guffaw at the idea that Silicon Valley pioneered this type of work culture or environment. Brian DeChesare of Mergers and Inquisitions, a website specializing in breaking into the notoriously competitive financial industry, has written extensively about why bankers work 80 hour weeks and are likely to get calls at 7 PM on Saturday night. Anyone who can’t hack that type of environment gets washed out. Similarly, Management Consulted (which is a career resource for aspiring management consultants) has also written about how 12 hour days are the norm and how you either move up the ladder or get kicked off it by someone else.

Simply put, hypercompetitive industries seek out workers who are young. They’re cheaper, they don’t have family obligations, and companies can work them half to death before deciding if they want to keep them or toss them. It’s not a tech industry issue; it’s a work environment issue.

While we’re on the topic of a myopic and selective understanding of how tech operates, Lyons also takes aim at bad management:

UNFORTUNATELY, working at a start-up all too often involves getting bossed around by undertrained (or untrained) managers and fired on a whim. Bias based on age, race and gender is rampant, as is sexual harassment.

Setting aside issues of bias, discrimination and sexual harassment – legitimate issues, to be certain – does Lyons really think bad managers are a tech problem? I don’t even need to use someone else’s tweets to refute this. I used to work for a very “old guard” technology company and my boss had no idea what he was doing. There are plenty of tech companies with bad management, but is this being presented as an issue particularly bad in tech? If so, citation needed.

There’s more that I could pick apart, and I could share a dozen stories from actual startup employees who have had much better experiences than this. In doing some research for this article, I came across Fortune’s review of Lyons’ book on this subject, which includes this gem:

He concludes that there are hookers at Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference and it is therefore “evil.” (For his part, Lyons owns up to his own hypocrisy, noting he only joined HubSpot to get rich.)

I can’t even tell if this was supposed to be a joke by Lyons, but if it’s not, this kind of wantrepreneur mentality speaks volumes to his misunderstanding about life at a startup (considering he didn’t work for an actual startup). The mentality of “Join startup, take my exit money after acquisition and have the best life ever” is not how you find a satisfying career, and “getting rich” certainly isn’t going to work when you join a startup a year before it goes public.

Are poor management, discrimination, sexual harassment, ageism, and badly treated employees legitimate issues? Absolutely, and they should be called out. Encourage tech reporters to bring attention to overworked, burnt out employees. Name and shame instances of sexual harassment and discrimination. Tell your stories about these issues. When possible, vote with your feet and pursue work at companies that treat you better.

But projecting your entire experience with a company that has a notoriously poor work culture onto startups while conflating startups with the tech industry as a whole? Ridiculous.

Discrimination and sexual harassment are serious issues, but Dan Lyons is not a serious person.