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A Critique Of The Start-Up Culture - Warning To Millennials

We are huge fans of the HubSpot marketing automation software. We are drawn to the HubSpot organizational culture and their inbound marketing methodology. 

That is why we were very intrigued when Dan Lyons, a former HubSpot Marketing Fellow, published his new book “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble”. The book is critical look at not only HubSpot and its culture but also raises some interesting concerns about the start-up culture that is prevalent with many new and emerging tech firms. 

In an interview with Justine Hofherr with Boston.com Dan Lyons outlines some of the start-up workplace culture concerns that he saw as an employee at HubSpot and as a technology writer with Newsweek. 

The concerns raised should be major alerts to HR leaders. 

Though the book is highly critical of HubSpot, Lyons says it’s a larger critique of the workplace culture endemic to startups and the tech sector at large. There were two main issues he raised in the Boston.com article.

Blatant Ageism and Lack of Diversity

Lyons, who was 52 years old when he started at HubSpot, is very pointed in his criticism regarding the blatant ageism he experienced from his co-workers (who were typically about half his age). Lyons also observed almost a complete lack of diversity in the workplace. When he asked the HubSpot HR Leader about their diversity program he was given a skeptical reply “why?” The concerns that this raises in terms of “group think” and potential class action litigation are self-explanatory.

Lyons reasoned that having more diversity in race, gender, background and age would lead to a wider array of viewpoints. He notes

“In many large companies and endemic to startups, there’s this bro culture,” Lyons said. “Rich guys with a lot of money are left to their own devices, so they hire people just like them.” 

The severity of this, Lyons added, is that the vast wealth of knowledge accumulated by skilled older workers (and women and minorities) is lost on an industry that could really use some guidance.

“Technology is probably the most important industry in the world right now, and what they’re saying to the vast majority of the population is, “You have no place here. You don’t get a role in this wealth,'” Lyons said. “And that’s not right. That’s not progressive.”

Employee Mistreatment

The tech start-up world is built on the promise that long hours at below market compensation will lead to a big pay day when the startup goes public. This has led the millennials (who are the primary population of the start-ups) entering the workforce to have to endure a grueling process of “churn and burn”. Lyons describes the process as

“… the startups “churn and burn” through employees, having them work long hours for average pay until they’re burned (or weeded) out to make room for the next crop of young 20-somethings. Rather than making stable careers for themselves, young workers are settling for a life of being treated like a “widget” that can be replaced at any time, he added.

“There’s this whole generation that’s told, ‘This is your life,'” Lyons said. “‘You’ll be job-hopping every two years.’ And this new generation is buying into it! How workers are treated is getting left behind in this world.”

To extrapolate on this point, Lyons described an acronym used at HubSpot to review workers. It’s called “VORP,” or “value over replacement player.” In baseball, VORP demonstrates a player’s contribution to their team, as compared to an imaginary “replacement player.”

At HubSpot, Lyons said workers were given a VORP rating of 1 to 5 based on how much value they add to the company, compared to someone who could take over their position for a smaller salary. Lyons recalls getting a 3, maybe a 2.

“I thought this was ridiculous,” Lyons said. “It seemed like the cruelest thing in the world.”

Let’s hope that Dan Lyons and other critics of the tech culture continue (read the Inside Amazon article from the New York Times) to shed more light on the less than positive behaviors being demonstrated. Talent is the most important asset in tech and it needs to be respected, nurtured and developed. IPO’s and stock grants can never condone the behavior that is taking place.