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Marketing and Business Lessons from "Disrupted" by Dan Lyons (And Why We Still Love HubSpot)

Michael Reynolds

Posted by Michael Reynolds on 4/19/16 9:00 AM

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Most of the time, I do my best to avoid drama. The marketing and tech world is filled with it, but I would rather spend my time building my agency, taking care of my team and serving my clients. The world of startup madness and cutthroat business warfare doesn't interest me.

However, I've been fascinated by Dan Lyons' new book, "Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble."

If you are a team member at a digital agency or a software company, you've probably already read it. If you're a HubSpot customer, there's a good chance you've at least heard of it. If not, here's a summary: Fifty-something guy loses his job, lands a position at HubSpot, hates it, eventually quits and then writes a scathing book about everything that's wrong with HubSpot.

The buzz in the marketing/tech community is that HubSpot is losing the PR war with Dan Lyons. In general, I would agree. The book is pretty bold and damning and HubSpot is playing defense big time.

While those who love HubSpot will continue to defend the company and those who hate HubSpot will continue to hate, there are a lot of people in between (like our clients) who simply find value in the tools HubSpot provides and are now wondering what to make of all this. I'd like to speak to those people... again, most importantly our clients.

First things first...

The Book is Really Good

Whether you support Dan Lyons or not, the guy is a great writer. From the moment I started reading it I was hooked. Dan did a fantastic job of getting the reader into his head and into his workday. I felt like I was right there with him as he went through his "misadventure" at HubSpot.

I literally could not put the book down. I would get to the end of a chapter thinking I would pick it up the next night only to find myself staying up way past my bedtime for "just one more chapter."

Something else that's good about the book is that it starts (or perhaps draws attention to) a very important conversation. The world of marketing and technology needs more diversity, including age diversity. Dan's experience at HubSpot threw this notion into sharp relief with personal experiences and while I found his attitude about it exhausting (more on that later) I do think it's an important story to tell.

The point I want to make here is, no matter how you feel about HubSpot or the marketing/tech industry as a whole, you should read this book. It's good, it's entertaining and it brings up important issues.

Age Discrimination and Attitude

Despite the quality of the writing, it didn't take long for me to start getting really annoyed at Dan's attitude. Later in the book I started to have a little more sympathy but overall the tone of the story was mostly "woe is me" and "I'm a victim."

First off, he's obsessed with his age and the ages of his co-workers. I get it. Marketing and tech is dominated by young people. This is an issue worthy of conversation and analysis. However, every few minutes I was reading about how the author was so helpless and lost as a man in his fifties amidst a sea of snotty millennials.

Oh no! I'm so old. Look! Everyone around me is twenty-three. My boss is half my age! Woe is me!

I get what Dan is trying to communicate. Yes, the decision-makers in this industry need to embrace more diversity in hiring, including when it comes to age. But here's the thing: Dan was hired at HubSpot as a man in his fifties. He got the job. He overcame the odds. Why sabotage it with self-deprecating head trash about how you don't fit in?

Yes, HubSpot was disorganized when he arrived. Yes, he didn't really get much guidance. Yes, there were real issues. But I place at least a part of the responsibility on Dan. His snarky and cynical attitude seemed to add fuel to the issues very quickly.

Lessons learned: first, if you're in a position to hire people don't overlook older team members. It's often harder for them to get the consideration they deserve because of age discrimination. Second, your attitude about new ventures plays a big part in the success of said venture. Have an open mind and a positive attitude.

Is Inbound Marketing Real?

Another gripe I have about the book is Dan's failure to understand inbound marketing. Yes, it's a "made-up" term that HubSpot coined to try to make fetch happen. Here's the thing: they made fetch happen. It's become an accepted industry term and it is a real methodology. Other companies have gotten away with the same thing ("podcasting," anyone?).

Dan acts like it's all smoke and mirrors and goes further to suggest that HubSpot is hypocritical because their sales people actually make phone calls.

Inbound marketing is a methodology that focuses on attracting customers to your business by integrating your messaging into contexts where they already are and solving issues for them as a precursor to earning their trust. The concept is not new but the level of sophistication is thanks to modern technology.

Lyons seems to love to poke fun at this "made up term" as if it's not real. It is real and it works (as echoed by Dharmesh Shah in his reaction to the book on LinkedIn). We follow the principles of inbound marketing at SpinWeb and have first hand knowledge that it works. We have clients that can say the same thing.

Lyons also likes to point out that HubSpot is hypocritical because it staffs a huge call center of people making "outbound cold calls." This is an indication of his failure to understand inbound marketing. If the HubSpot reps were calling from a list of people who have not interacted with the company, it would be cold-calling. However, HubSpot sales reps call from a list of people who have had some interaction with the company. This is how inbound marketing works. Your prospecting list is warmer because you are connecting with people who interact with the inbound marketing system.

Inbound marketing does not replace sales people. Inbound marketing makes sales people more effective.

Lessons learned: arguing over industry terms doesn't serve anyone. People are accepting the term "inbound marketing" and are asking for it. Just ask Google Trends:

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Inbound marketing is a real methodology that actually produces results. Some people do it well and others don't. This is true for just about anything.

Is HubSpot a Good Company?

This is where I give Lyons a little more credit. He attacks a lot of things about HubSpot. The culture, the brand, the leadership, the team and most importantly the financial stability of the company.

The culture at HubSpot is pretty controversial. There are a lot of things about it that I'm sure would drive me crazy. In the book, Dan describes all sorts of hijinks like "Fearless Friday" and bringing a teddy bear to meetings. I don't think I would get into this stuff, either. However, a mature person would mostly roll his/her eyes and get back to work whereas Lyons decides that he has to take on the role of cranky old dude barking "get off my lawn!" at the silly millennials having a good time.

There are some valid points made about HubSpot's financials. The company is not profitable. I am troubled by this. I run a small, profitable agency that has no debt. This is how I like it. I have no desire to scale up with massive growth, go into debt and scramble to please investors. The whole idea gives me hives.

However, there is a startup model that goes like this:

  1. Launch a product
  2. Grow revenue really fast
  3. Borrow money to help #2 happen
  4. Get investors
  5. Do an IPO
  6. Reduce expenses over time to eventually become profitable
  7. Stabilize and continue to grow

Again, this model is not for me but I do see the logic in deliberately choosing this path. It has allowed HubSpot to hire a huge team of talented developers to improve its product much more quickly and as a result become the market leader in this space. While I don't like it or endorse it from a business model standpoint, I do understand it.

Lyons seems to harp on it over and over and get bitter over how much money Shah and Halligan are making, despite all the effort and equity they put in. I don't know if I have a strong opinion about how much the founders are making. They made HubSpot happen and I'm sure that wasn't easy. As far as I'm concerned, they deserve to be compensated.

Lessons learned: there is more than one path to success. Also, big rewards don't happen without hard work.

How Good is the Product?

The most important part of all this for me is the product. Lyons criticizes HubSpot's software (also referred to as just "HubSpot") every chance he gets. He calls the software "crappy" and seems to think it's just an inferior version of WordPress. This simply shows that Dan Lyons doesn't really understand HubSpot.

There are a lot of things about HubSpot (as a company) that drive us crazy at SpinWeb but we do agree that the software itself is pretty darn good. It gives us a single suite of marketing tools that integrate together, share data, make us more efficient and generally make life easier. This helps us serve our clients better and it helps them get better results.

I personally did quite a bit of research back when we were about to expand our business into the digital marketing space and I was impressed with HubSpot's attention to usability and detail and even from there the software has come a long way.

A lot of people try to string together a bunch of different applications and then expect them to work well. They have WordPress for blogging, MailChimp for email, HootSuite for social media, Moz for SEO research, Google Analytics for reporting, WordStream for PPC management, Salesforce for CRM, FormStack for forms and maybe a handful of other apps for other things. They hack it all together and then get annoyed when the data is not centralized and they have to log into a gazillion different tools.

HubSpot pulls all this together in one place and creates useful data to go with it. When the majority of your digital marketing (and sales) tools are all in one place, you can do a lot more in less time and you can create systems and processes much more easily.

So do I think Dan Lyons unfairly criticizes HubSpot's software? Yes, I do. HubSpot is a very good marketing and sales tool and has provided a lot of value to us and to our clients.

Lessons learned: there is value in integration. Software that seems "expensive" on the surface can actually save resources in the long run. Look beyond the price tag and understand how an integrated solution can save you money and improve your marketing performance.

What's Our Stance at SpinWeb?

Overall, we are happy to be a HubSpot partner agency. Does HubSpot drive us crazy sometimes? Absolutely. They sometimes do things that don't seem logical. There is often a disconnect between departments. HubSpot team members sometimes communicate poorly. Brian and Dharmesh sometimes seem a little crazy. And no, the software is not perfect.

But are we betting on HubSpot? Yes, we are. The software is the best tool for inbound marketing that we've seen. There are some very good and talented people who work at HubSpot who have helped us and who I believe have our best interests at heart. We feel that for all HubSpot's imperfections as a company, it's a company with its heart in the right place.

And more importantly, HubSpot is good for our business. It's good for our clients. It helps us do what we need to do to serve them.

Again, Dan Lyons wrote a captivating book. I recommend you read it. I think he got some things right and other things wrong. While I disagree with a lot of his criticisms and the attitude he seems to have throughout the story, I think he has added a lot to the conversation that will benefit us all... even HubSpot.

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