I have had the chance to read, over the last couple of months (mostly in the last 21 days, since CMU homework consumed the rest of that period) Dan Lyon’s book “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble”.

I purchased this book around when I first arrived to the US (August 2016, almost 4 months after its release), and I was excited by the promise of a behind-the scenes look at this start-up hype, which felt like being over-glorified and polished from the outside. I will however, preface my comments on questions the book tackled (don’t expect an objective well-studied analysis of the book, it’s rather a subset of my personal thoughts on it and comments on things I found interesting) with a rather long story of how I felt about this issue before I read the book. This might explain my comments on the book itself, and might be of interest for someone who is curious about how a young developing world native software engineer feels about this whole thing. Yeah nobody probably cares but I’m doing this anyway.


Why I was excited to get a closer look into the startup world’s internal mechanics and true face is a story that goes back to when I first engaged with “social entrepreneurship” volunteer work in Tunisia as an engineering student. That system was to me, a posteriori, like an incubation environment of what people orbiting around it liked to call “leaders”. These guys are supposedly the ones destined to create and run future startups. They are meant to “disrupt” things and “make change happen”. You can therefore see why this all looked analogous to me.

I came in expecting a lot of good honest work, and discovered a couple of years later that the system was built on hype and overselling half-baked projects rather than on real (or realistic) achievements, which do actually “change the world” “glocally”. I was introduced in the most brutal way to the world of saying more than you are doing, glorifying and sublimating basic grunt work, selling more than you’re planning on creating, and blowing small stupid “cool” ideas and promises out of proportions to make them gather “momentum” (= unjustified public trust, unjustified money and unjustified support) then cashing in on the “prizes” and “recognition” which, amazingly, seem to have become an easier-than-expected outcome for this kind of thing. PR had taken the place of producing real value. Slick self-righteous talk had taken the place of real productive work. Very serious people have, to my absolute shock, switched from encouraging and requiring real feats to “believing” in big-mouthed idiots.

I had already become distrustful of big allegedly “technology-backed” claims (especially when the projected outcomes outsize any real possible outcome: oh, so you’re going to “change the world” with your calendar app?). But I guess my realization of the real scale of this, and the fact that it affected “grown-up” investment circles, started when I first felt that the redundancy of ukulele music in startup promos was annoying. Usually nobody needs to exercise so much serenading power if they’re not trying to screw you. It felt suffocating like a chloroform cloth pressed to my face. And to everybody’s face, since people seemed to be falling for this crap. Along with that came the raised eyebrows about claims of “changing the way you X”, X being anything from eating to performing blood tests, often ending in disappointments and massive waste of money. Instead of being limited to companies making development tools, frameworks and libraries, .io domain names were now being purchased by “tech” startups who make (or rather promise) physical products. We’ve all felt it creeping in slowly: words like “awesome”, “cutting-edge”, “empower”, “change the way we X”, “disrupt X”, “X as-a-service” (where X is in the set of human activities), etc. were now being thrown left and right. I realized it became a hype when that jargon went over the boundary of the “entrepreneurs” circle of divine inspiration and started being a silver bullet for all types of organizations and people to sound cool or make nasty changes appear cool. Bottom line? It’s now scarily easy to make preposterously huge yet unjustified claims and get away with it. Hell, you’ll even get money for it, A LOT. Hell, it’ll even make you rich.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m not indiscriminately bashing the start-up culture and all of its outcomes. I used to think and do still think that when it is “real” (as in: not a massive brainlessness-promoting “positivity” dance), start-up culture can actually be cool. Young people given the opportunity to pursue their ambitions like never before? I’m in. Financing and support for individual initiative? Checkity check. Moonshots given the opportunity to be explored? Give me a piece of that! Informal and individuality-friendly workplace organization? Where do I sign! But when you look at the amount of “fakeness” in tech startups it’s easy to realize that most of this “culture” or phenomenon turned into a money-generating hype machine, which does not yield a fraction of what it promises, but that’s ok because hey: it’s a start-up, what did you expect?

I knew something was wrong, and was amazed why people were still falling for anything that sounded start-up-ish without question. I was actually labeled as a “negative person” a couple of times when I expressed skepticism towards big claims in casual discussions with fellow engineering students. As I came to learn, everyone was now “drinking the cool-aid” of this new twisted construct of values, hype, lifestyle and bullshit. Anyone questioning that, or the fact that it’s a “world-changing phenomenon”, or “the way of the future” is undoubtedly an old grumpy soul opposed to change. “The Cheerleading and delusions of grandeur” as Dan Lyons puts it in Disrupted (p55) seem to be the main norms of social interaction in the startup world.

It would have been fine if it was just dumb ideas getting funded. But oooooh no, it’s a lot more than that. It’s the new lifestyle, it’s drinking protein shakes, doing Yoga and making lists, thinking (and saying) it makes you a superior being. It’s blurting wisdom and philosophy pulled out of your ass without any experience or knowledge to back it. You see creating/working at a startup is no longer just a professional project, it’s the new “thing”, it’s stylish, it’s heroic, it’s “à la mode”, even people who do not do any actual entrepreneurship are now leaders and lifestyle coaches. It’s a whole new world of bullshit becoming the undisputed norm every day. I could rant on and on but I’ll refer you to this excellent article which explores this in depth, “Fuck your startup world”. It actually got a massive response too, showing that more people feel this way than you would expect.

But deep down I had my own selfish reasons for the resentment I felt towards this culture and its promoters. I wanted to be an engineer ever since I first started reading The Hamlyn Junior Science Encyclopedia as a 6-year-old kid, and realized how fascinating and empowering science and engineering can be. Behind my disappointment, there is a little ambitious boy who wanted to be a Henry Ford, a Thomas Edison, a Howard Hughes or one of the Wright Brothers. I aspired to be an Engineer with a capital E, to make beautifully world-changing technology and machines, not to make a shit mobile app, come up with a name “YourNameHere”, remove a couple of vowels from it and call it “YrNmHr.io”. I was angry to see minor shit take the center of the stage under a waterfall of praise symptomatic of the twisted “everybody is a winner/overpraised kid syndrome”. I also felt sad that the future where advances in robotics and life sciences change the face of the earth, the human condition and phenomena such as modern slavery and oppression, is getting delayed to give space and time for kids (remember, I’m still a “kid” too to some extent) to come up with an “app that makes shopping easier”, or an “app that makes scratching your back more fun”. Of course, people are free to do what they want. But as a species, I think we are slowing down in terms of technological progress. To put it in terms that would reflect my subjective bitterness more accurately: as a species, we’re stretched on a plastic chaise lounge in our backyard drinking a cold lemonade and reflecting on how cool it would be to have a robotic arm dispense lemonade so that we don’t have to move our arm so much and how awesome it would be if we could have AC outdoors and how awesomesauce it would be if that robotic arm dispensing lemonade could also take selfies and write random wise quotes about the importance of relaxation on all the social networks there is, ALL of them. Oh and we then tell ourselves how beautiful and world-changing that stupid shit would be. Then we pull a check, write down all our money and hand it to a conveniently standing by college graduate who runs off to build all that stuff, or not. All of this while our car is rusting, our house is on fire, and our kids are getting suffocated by the smog from the nearby chemical factory. You see the picture.

The book

I finally opened the book early December 2016. I can’t hide that I was mainly looking for a confirmation of these thoughts I’ve been having, and maybe even a little push to hold me back from drinking the cool-aid, which was starting to look like a very tempting choice that comes with a lot of perks.

And I got even more than I asked for.

The book as a whole tells the very interesting story of how Dan Lyons, a journalist in his fifties finds himself out of a job one day and ventures into the startup world by joining Hubspot. It tells this story while describing the environment and dynamics of Hubspot and startup culture as a whole, with the uniquely cynical style of a sane person landing in the middle of a collective craze and trying to find a way through it. I won’t go into the detail, buy the book (Amazon) and read it. I promise: it’s a good read.

Several aspects of startup culture were covered in the book. I believe that there are two aspects to it: one specific to the Hubspot experience and how it worked for the author, and the other is more of a general reflection on the startup world and culture. These are not completely separate since the author often uses the first aspect to derive generalized reflections covering the second aspect, illustrating with other examples from the industry. As I have no particular interest in Hubspot, I was more focused on the second aspect. Dan Lyons covered things I mentioned in the first part of this article and went way beyond that thanks to his constant reflection upon his experiences as they happened. I have chosen to comment on three aspects which I found particularly interesting: ageism in the tech industry, the startup “bubble” economic model, and the “drinking the cool-aid” hypnosis system some startups (and big companies) use to push their employees to perform without real rewards for extra effort.

Ageism in the tech industry

Ageism or age discrimination is a fairly perceptible phenomenon across the professional world. But in the specific case of startups and the startup culture, “youth-driven” seems to be the positive label that sometimes hides discrimination against older candi

That kind of shit.

I have already spoken against ageism against young employees (which is more of a large corporation practice)here, but Dan’s account of how he lived through being the second oldest person in a tech startup showed me a fate I wouldn’t like for myself (or anyone) in 20 years’ time. Ageism is stupid, no question about it: it’s just the sneakiness with which it is exerted against one age group or the other that is dangerous. It’s those seemingly neutral excuses for firing employees who are “no longer meet the business goals” or “don’t embody the company’s values” to artificially skew the average age of a company’ employees in the “right” direction. It’s that systematic refusal of every single job application you send because it’s not “selling” to be as old as you are. And it happens, way more than we imagine.

The startup bubble

I was mostly aware and appalled by the amount of fakeness weighing on startup world/culture, but Disrupted also shed light on a very important aspect I was not really aware of before: the financial crookery in the startup economics. By highlighting how in the MVP-grow-IPO-sell cycle, when growth and stock value jump in the IPO become the goals of VC-backed entrepreneurship instead of making and selling the product (i.e. creating money from nothing, from “how much people believe this will work” rather than “the real/realistic value of a company and its products”), the book helped me understand that “the fakeness” I was perceiving is not just “white lies”, it’s actually harmful stuff that often shatters investments and shifts spending from “the most promising product/service” to “the most promising hype machine”. Sure, that’ll make a handful of people wealthy, but in the grand scheme of things, A LOT of money will be destroyed. Micro-bubbles will burst, and who knows? Maybe one day it’ll be 2001 or 2008 all over again if we’re not careful enough.

Choking on the cool-aid

Yeah. Sure. Startups are not made to be a 9 to 5 job that you do for a hopefully big paycheck and perks package. They’re by definition entities that depend on how much commitment, ownership and initiative their employees show.

It makes sense for them to provide remuneration in the form of equity: the more the employees own of the company, the more its success becomes a personal success for them.

It makes sense for startups which are racing against time and limited money to achieve big goals to push their employees to be far more productive than the average employee.

But does it make sense to formalize this in a set of cult-ish practices, lingo and propaganda and shove it down the throats of employees? Does it make sense to strive to transform a startup’s workforce into an army of minions with identical clothes, speak, habits and thinking? Does it make sense to choke people on cool-aid and kick out whoever doesn’t drink it for “lack of adherence with the company’s values”? What are company values anyway? Are companies suddenly entities which must dictate the observance of a set of sometimes ridiculous pseudo-wisdoms by which every employee must live, just to satisfy some higher-up’s need to “inspire” people? Isn’t the respect of freedom and individuality the ground stone of startup culture itself? Then why is following the horde and creating a uniform unicolor work environment now an imperative? Why the hell would something as frustratingly wrong as “1+1=3” become an element of the jargon that people need to use? Oh and, do Teddy bears really need to attend meetings? Don’t they have some children to amuse?

It actually goes beyond that: in terms of work environment, some startups are not doing well, up to a point where unethical practices have become a huge problem in silicon valley. Dan Lyons actually described one example of his boss pushing him around with repetitive unjustified negative feedback which turned out to be intentional, and probably more of a source of personal satisfaction.

What now?

Well, nothing much. We know something is wrong, we know many pain points, it’s time for change, but I don’t have the brains or the time to offer solutions. Stopping the stupid mass hallucination would be a great start, just stepping back to think and see how stupid and risky this collective dance has become would be an achievement in itself. In that regard, Disrupted is an excellent wake-up call to start reflecting on what’s wrong with the startup world and the startup culture.

About the book, the reception was massive and it ranged from praise to bashing. One interesting fact is that a Hubspot employee allegedly attempted to get his hands on the draft of Disrupted. An investigation ensued, without Dan Lyons being able to get specifics as he explains in an epilogue within the book.

Since this article was mostly in a pro-Disrupted tone, I will provide a couple of links as an attempt to balance things out and give you the opportunity to explore different viewpoints about the book.

First there’s Hubspot’s response to the book, shared on Linkedin.

Second there’s thisunsavorily-titled article in Fortune, which does however tackle specific points in the book.

Needless to say, I personally loved the book. It lead me to a better understanding of that vague bad feeling I had towards this collective startup craze.

And what better way to express my gratitude Dan Lyons for this totally inspirational book than to give him the hubspotty praise email he never got? Here you go Dan, I know you’ve been waiting for this for so long:

Subject: Dan is totally crushing it!!!!!!!!


I just wanted to say how much Dan the man is awesome! Dan, I really appreciate you and everyone here at not Hubspot does too!!! Cool book brah! Keep kicking ass, much respect xoxoxxoooo

Woooo-hooooooo Dannyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!!!