I spent this morning reading a darkly cynical piece on Hubspot: My Year in Startup Hell at Hubspot - Fortune. And since I’m working on my writing skills, I’m going into the meta to try to look at it’s components and how they work together to craft ideas in my mind.
Our author is part of the story and is announced with fanfare setting up the initial energy of the piece. It’s about new beginnings for a guy who thought he was washed up and didn’t know about marketing, but reported to the Chief Marketing officer, Cranium.
Cranium (my endearing name for the fellow), the chief marketing officer, or CMO, wrote an article on the HubSpot blog announcing that he had hired me. Tech blogs wrote up the story of the 52-year-old Newsweek journalist leaving the media business to go work for a software company.
Then the author goes about setting the stage by describing his initial tour of the Hubspot offices, which he makes sound like a tired but colorful cliche, down to the sex and debauchery in the office.
The office-as-playground trend was made famous by Google and has spread like an infection across the tech industry. Work can’t just be work; work has to be fun.
It’s called the “candy wall,” and Zack explains that HubSpotters are especially proud of it.
On the second floor there are shower rooms, which are intended for bike commuters and people who jog at lunchtime, but also have been used as sex cabins when the Friday happy hour gets out of hand.
The article subtly starts to turn dark when the author moves on to talking about his two-week orientation.
Training takes place in a tiny room, where for two weeks I sit shoulder to shoulder with 20 other new recruits, listening to pep talks that start to sound like the brainwashing you get when you join a cult. It’s everything I ever imagined might take place inside a tech company, only even better.
This is a sort of pop writing style that suggests enough to make a claim of similarity to a cult without having to substantiate it very much. It creates an image in the mind of the reader. That is the important part.
Changing People’s Lives
A key part of the training is that the trainees are pitched on the company’s mission. They aren’t just making money, they’re changing people’s lives.
“We’re not just selling a product here,” Dave tells us. “HubSpot is leading a revolution. A movement. HubSpot is changing the world. This software doesn’t just help companies sell products. This product changes people’s lives. We are changing people’s lives.”
In fact, like many startups, Hubspot apparently has a lot of material created to help market their ethos and mission.
At HubSpot, employees abide by precepts outlined in the company’s culture code, a document that codifies HubSpot’s unusual language and sets forth a set of shared values and beliefs. The culture code is a manifesto of sorts, a 128-slide PowerPoint deck titled “The HubSpot Culture Code: Creating a Company We Love.”
The author thinks the actuality of what the company does falls short of this.
… the business we’re in: Buy our software, sell more stuff. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not exactly how HubSpot bills itself or describes what it does.
Things in the article turn more dark and cynical as we dive into the details of the company’s culture code and the way they euphemize. Euphemism is always more visible from the outside looking in, which is likely a product of choosing a lifestyle instead of a job:
Arriving here feels like landing on some remote island where a bunch of people have been living for years, in isolation, making up their own rules and rituals and religion and language—even, to some extent, inventing their own reality. This happens at all organizations, but for some reason tech startups seem to be especially prone to groupthink.
Having and expressing an identity is a matter of choosing what you do regularly and what you never do and wearing that on your sleeve. And the things you do regularly, that happen to be distasteful? Well for those things, we split hairs:
We want to protect people from spam. Spam is what the bad guys send, but we are the good guys. Our spam is not spam. In fact it is the opposite of spam. It’s antispam. It’s a shield against spam—a spam condom.
Our software is magical, such that when people use it—wait for it—one plus one equals three. Halligan and Dharmesh first introduced this alchemical concept at HubSpot’s annual customer conference, with a huge slide behind them that said “1 + 1 = 3.” Since then it has become an actual slogan at the company. People use the concept of one plus one equals three as a prism through which to evaluate new ideas. One day Spinner, the woman who runs PR, tells me, “I like that idea, but I’m not sure that it’s one-plus-one-equals-three enough.”
The hairsplitting doesn’t get any more grand than on the topic of people leaving or getting fired from Hubspot:
Dharmesh’s culture code incorporates elements of HubSpeak. For example, it instructs that when someone quits or gets fired, the event will be referred to as “graduation.” In my first month at HubSpot I’ve witnessed several graduations, just in the marketing department. We’ll get an email from Cranium saying, “Team, just letting you know that Derek has graduated from HubSpot, and we’re excited to see how he uses his superpowers in his next big adventure!” Only then do you notice that Derek is gone, that his desk has been cleared out. Somehow Derek’s boss will have arranged his disappearance without anyone knowing about it. People just go up in smoke, like Spinal Tap drummers.
The Coup De Grace
At this point, Lyons has set his trap and is ready for the kill. His target? The emporer-no-clothes atmosphere of mania around startup companies.
He writes about his reversal from a conventional belief that he thought to be true, that companies started with a product, to the current trend which seems irrational and nonintuitive.
I thought, for example, that tech companies began with great inventions—an amazing gadget, a brilliant piece of software. At Apple, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak built a personal computer …
But HubSpot did the opposite. HubSpot’s first hires included a head of sales and a head of marketing… HubSpot started out as a sales operation in search of a product.
And a quote to underscore the deep irrationality of the market investors.
“You don’t get rewarded for creating great technology, not anymore,” says a friend of mine who has worked in tech since the 1980s, a former investment banker who now advises startups. “It’s all about the business model. The market pays you to have a company that scales quickly. It’s all about getting big fast. Don’t be profitable, just get big.”
That’s what investors want to see: a bunch of young people, having a blast, talking about changing the world. It sells.
The author also suggests manipulation of Millenials:
Supposedly millennials don’t care so much about money, but they’re very motivated by a sense of mission. So, you give them a mission.
And ends with himself attempting to resign but “graduating” ahead of schedule.
This is a damn good article. It hits on something a lot of people talk about but is hard to make predictions about. And likely it is going to sell a lot of copies of the Author’s book.
Startups have a do-no-wrong halo and some of us want them to fall on their faces
It does smack of a bubble and we are all wondering if that bubble is going to burst. Some of us are hoping that it will. Not that we gain anything directly, just a bit of confirmation that staying in our solid but boring jobs was the safe and right thing to do.
We don’t trust mania.
Startups are an emotional subject of speculation.
They represent a disconnection from the way things have been done in years past papered over with a veneer of aspirational manifesto. “Changing People’s Lives.” The line between aspiration and delusion is elusive and the author, Lyons, dances it brilliantly.
Only time can answer whether all of this is delusion or whether the world actually changing in a sustainable way.