Age Gaps & Toxic Startup Culture — a Book Review of Disrupted by Dan Lyons

This is what happens when a laid-off 52-year-old former Newsweek journalist decides to join a young, dynamic tech startup and ends up in a surreal drama. Author Daniel Lyons recounts his year spent in startup hell (technically, marketing automation startup HubSpot) and his story is equal parts LOL and WTF. It's a fascinating peek behind the scenes of a growing company as well as a scathing commentary on startups in general.

How Dan Lyons' Life Was Disrupted

The complete title of the book is Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, which aptly captures Dan Lyons' experience.

Coming into the tech scene from the traditional world of print journalism, Lyons' first impressions about his new company are hilarious. He sees quirky gimmicks (Let's have a Fearless Friday and do no work all afternoon!) and unscientific processes (Let's grade employee performance based on corporate values! Except... what does a 2 really mean?) and tells us how this stuff would never fly in a newsroom surrounded by other seasoned, possibly jaded, journalists.

Lyons talks about how his new workplace resembled a kindergarten with its array of toys, nap pods, a candy wall, handcrafted beers on tap, and how his coworkers were all half his age, and never let him forget it.

He writes about his struggle with ageism in the workplace, starting with the receptionist telling him she was glad the company was finally hiring older people. And he explains the nebulous nature of what he was hired for. Because his role was never etched in stone, and the guy who hired him never really supported him once he was made a part of the team, Lyons ends up taking on whatever jobs are thrown his way — SEO content, Buzzfeed-like puff pieces, podcasts. The project he really wants to helm is a high profile web magazine, separate from the blog, where he can interview thought leaders and influencers in the space. But despite the founders greenlighting it, the project gets politically maneuvered into limbo.

Midway through the story, he gets a hands-on manager his age, who starts out as his buddy, but quickly turns the workplace into a toxic battleground with passive-aggressive behavior and constant see-sawing between "I'm your friend, trust me" to "I need to give you some tough lessons because your attitude sucks."

But Disrupted Isn't Just About One Company

On a deeper level however, Disrupted isn't just about Lyons' strange experience with HubSpot and its idiosyncrasies. The book also tackles startups in general, specifically those in Silicon Valley.

Lyons peppers the book with insight, stats, and research into the typical problems of scaling at speed, and how the collateral damage in the efforts to grow quickly are the employees themselves. Lyons' insight into why telemarketing —excuse me, inbound marketing—teams hire cheap labor and end up burning these people out are spot on.

And above it all, his firsthand experience as a more senior worker in a sea of fresh grads and "brogrammers" is an ugly look at generational gaps in the modern workplace. His shockingly candid anecdotes reveal how far removed from reality The Intern was (that 2015 movie where Robert DeNiro became Anne Hathaway's intern/sounding board/friend). That was cute fiction, Disrupted is fact. Or one side of the facts, anyway.

Book Review Takeaways: How to Survive a Startup

Overall, Disrupted is both wildly entertaining and scathing in its commentary against some of the insane valuations and ludicrous practices going on in startups everywhere. But it does present the reader with a bunch of important takeaways, namely:

1. Research the company well before you sign on

Lyons felt like he was being brought in to lead a journalistic project, but when that fell through, he had to make do with churning out content. He did end up doing a lot of regular blog content, however it seems like he didn't realize he would have to do that sort of thing day in day out. Which leads me to suspect he didn't do enough homework before signing up.

If you're thinking of joining a company, ask the people who will be your colleagues and teammates: what's your daily routine like? How is performance being measured? What's the most difficult thing you have to deal with in your work?

2. If you ain't flexible, you ain't gonna last

Lyons seemed like he didn't enjoy the breadth of tasks he was given, choosing to pine for the web magazine that never materialized. It read like he didn't want to do anything else BUT that high-level project. And that's not a healthy attitude to have in a startup.

The only way for startups to achieve velocity is by workers putting on multiple hats and dealing with a wild assortment of tasks that need to get done. If you don't have a can-do attitude and the flexibility to take on work far outside your job description (or comfort zone), then startups are not for you. Go look for a job in a more traditional establishment.

3. You won't get anywhere alone

In the book, Lyons recounts how he was shut out of the cliques in his department, both psychologically and then physically (he was relocated to the telemarketing boiler room). I got the sense that pride fueled some of it -- that he may have felt he was better than his coworkers. It led to depression and isolation. And it could've been avoided with a certain amount of good will and a more openly collaborative spirit. In the end, he made no real friends in the company, which resulted in zero political power and zero support from his peers.

What Did You Think About Disrupted?

If you've read the book, share your views about it in the comments below. Especially if you've had a similar experience in a startup! Tell us what rings true in Disrupted, and what is probably hype. We'd love to get your side.

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