I'm a huge fan of HBO's Silicon Valley and have lost count of the number of times when sitting on the couch with my husband I've turned to him pointing at the TV shrieking "totally! that's so totally what it's like" So I was very much looking forward to the release of Disrupted My Misadventure in the Start Up Bubble by Dan Lyons who is one of the writers for the HBO series. The excerpts that I'd read online were genuinely hilarious and there is more fun to be had in the book but what I didn't expect was how poignant it would be. While Lyon's description of working in HubSpot and the trials of trying to become more HubSpotty is truly funny it's his description of what led him to work there and the pressures and reality of the digital economy that make for reflective reading.
A journalist with a fine track record and many years experience he is suddenly and rather brutally let go from his job at Newsweek and finds himself at 50 unemployed with his family to support. This puts him under tremendous stress and the ensuring pressures on his family seep through the pages of the book. It's hard not to actually feel the nightsweats he endures fretting whether he will ever be employed again given the parlous state of the media industry. And its an interesting insight into how his profession has changed so profoundly in the digital age. But he's also torn between a sense of righteous indignation at the number of young, swaggering boy-mentrepreneurs who have made millions from their tech companies and products and wanting to have a slice of that action himself. Hence the decision to join Hub Spot hopeful that a promised IPO will give him some juicy returns. So while the book is fun its also a serious and honest account of signing a deal with the devil until the deal is no longer bearable and his integrity is compromised more than he is prepared to allow.
Lyon's isn't looking for sympathy but he is calling out Silicon Valley not just as the geographical area but for a mindset that is now so pervasive in the technology sector. He is asking some serious questions about the morality of these companies who can raise vast oceans of money, while simultaneously losing oodles of that cash, making huge profits for themselves and then going for IP0's at which point the reality of the company finances become clear. But by then no one cares because of course the VC's and founders have cashed in their investment for massive personal profit. But what of the workers who made this happen?
According to Lyons, on the day that HubSpot achieved its IPO, the CTO was suddenly worth nearly $70 million. When asked by reporters on the stock exchange floor if he had anything to say to the folks back in the home office he answered by looking into the camera and saying "Get back to work". Back at the ranch the staff each got a mini bottle of Freixenet Brut with a HubSpot logo while Penny the receptionist, checked their names off a list so nobody could duck back and grab a second bottle. It would be funny if it wasn't so tragic.
Bill Gurleys great analysis Why the Unicorn Financing Market Just Became Dangerous…For All Involved supports much of what Lyon's is talking about. His point that "achieving profitability is the most liberating action a startup can accomplish" is particularly pertinent. If we are to change the current MO then we need to start building real and sustainable digital businesses shifting from a winner takes all to an equitable distribution of digital dividends. And we need to look at the ethical underpinnings of our companies in terms of what I'm calling TechnoEthics, something I spoke about recently at the Hadoop Summit in Dublin .
That's certainly what we are trying to do in my company TransportAPI . We've benefited from two rounds of Angel investment from a considerate and ethical Angel investor and rather than burning through at the fastest rate possible we've tried to balance that with building sustainable revenue streams that will create value and employment. And we've grown at our own pace from 3 to 11 by concentrating not on madly talking up the company with the usual tedious hubris, but by refining and developing our technology to best in class and paying reasonable salaries. We're concentrating on being really useful to our clients and developer community getting to break even and creating more employment in the UK when we can.
Lyon's calling out of the ageism in Silicon Valley (read tech community) really struck a chord and I was reminded of a visit that our Founder Jonathan Raper and I made to a young tech firm who were a client of ours. Johnathon and I are both in our fifties (proudly sporting quite an amount of gray hair between us) with a proven track record across academia, government and the private sector. As we sat in the brightly coloured room room with that young company it was clear that we were being treated with the kind of respect you accord your grandparents - with ever so slightly a touch of "aaah, cute innit it to see old people in tech". It was only when we sat on the Tube together heading back to our offices that we both without even saying anything burst out laughing and it felt great to have strength in numbers something that was not there for Dan Lyons during his time at HubSpot. But then we're lucky we're building a business that's about sustainability and inclusivity but also one that values wisdom as well as youth it feels like the right way to go for us. I hope more digital companies will come to the same conclusion.