Why Every EdTech Person Should Read ‘Disrupted’

Any higher ed lessons from this very funny book?

July 27, 2016

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons

Published in April of 2016.

Do you fall into any of the following categories?

  • You are a higher ed person who makes edtech purchasing decisions.
  • You work for an edtech company.
  • You think that you might like to work for an edtech company.
  • You are an “end-user” of an edtech product, platform, or service.

If any of these roles describe you - then you should read Dan Lyon’s hilarious new book Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble.

Lyon’s, a journalist best known at the former tech editor of Newsweek and as the Fake Steve Jobs, details his questionable decision to switch careers and cynically cash out on our current tech bubble. Rather than write about clueless tech employees, Lyon’s commits to becoming a clueless tech employee himself.

For equally illogical reasons, the Cambridge MA company HubSpot decides to hire Lyons as a "marketing fellow” - a title that Lyons likes as it has a "quasi-academic ring to it..”

It is never clear to Lyons, or to people who hired him at HubSpot, exactly what he will be doing in his new job.  This lack of clarity about job responsibilities has predictably disastrous results - as Lyon’s ends up doing very little of use for much of his brief tenure at the company.  Although, as Lyon’s makes clear, his total lack of knowledge and unwavering disinterest in what HubSpot’s software actually does should have disqualified him from any position in the company.

No matter - as HubSpot is willing to have Lyon’s for the PR value of hiring a well-known former journalist.  And Lyons is (at least initially) willing to trade in his integrity, influence, and expertise for a steady paycheck and the chance to cash-in some options if HubSpot is able to make to an IPO.

What makes Disrupted worth reading for our edtech community, beyond the sheer entertainment value of the book, is that Lyons has lots to say about the prevailing culture of the tech industry.

HubSpot, at least as described by Lyons, is an example workplace culture that every tech company should strive to avoid.  As buyers of technology, higher ed should be assiduous in not doing business with places that treat their employees in the way that Lyons ascribes to HubSpot.  And as leaders and managers of campus edtech units, we should do everything we can to create a workplace culture that is as different from HubSpot as possible.

What does Lyons see that is wrong with HubSpot, and by extension much of the modern startup/tech industry scene?

What might we learn from this very funny (and very fast to read) book on one journalists experience in a tech startup that we can apply more generally to our edtech world?

Hype Over Substance:

The modern (post-Netscape IPO) tech industry is different from the pre-Internet days.  Before social, apps, and the cloud took over - companies need to actually make money.  Today, all the emphasis in on scale and revenue growth.  Investors are looking for the 1-in-100 companies that will be the next Google or Facebook.  Companies that have never been profitable, from Groupon to Zynga, still have huge valuations.  Tumblr, which was purchased by Yahoo in 2013 for $1.1 billion, is now valued by the company (as it prepares to sell to Verizon) at less than 20 percent of the original purchase price.

What all of these companies have in common is a focus on marketing over substance.  Social media mentions over R&D.  Hype and buzz over profits.

I have no problem with edtech companies prioritizing sales and marketing - particularly in the early stages of building a sustainable customer base.  What we should examine in all of our edtech partners, however, is if the hype and buzz obscures a fundamentally weak and unsound product.

We should be wary of doing business with edtech companies that don’t have a clear road to sustainability.  In Lyon’s telling, there is a clear relationship between prioritizing sales/marketing and de-emphasizing R&D.  This may or may not be true in edtech, but it is up to us (as customers) to ask the hard questions and conduct the due diligence to figure this out.

Risk Shifted from Early-Investors/Founders to Employees/Customers:

After reading Disrupted, working in a tech startup sounds a whole lot less glamorous.  Lyons takes the industry to task for treating employees like disposable widgets.  Tech companies have been able to hire armies of “inside sales” folks (cold calling prospects), and pay these employees very little money (and with no job security), all by dangling the promise of post-IPO riches.  As Lyons points out however, only a tiny fraction of companies are ever able to go public - and even then only the early investors and founders will ever see any serious money from their stock options.

The turnover rates at tech companies can be truly astounding.  The edtech world is not immune to this problem.  Who amongst us has not experienced turnover after turnover in our “customer success managers” for the platforms and services that we buy for our schools?

The lesson for higher ed from Disrupted is, I think, try not to do business with companies that don’t treat their people well.  And by treating employees well, I don’t free unlimited beer, a candy wall, and endless bean bag chairs.  Does the company provide some sense of security and autonomy to its employees?  Do employees tend to stick around?  We should probably be asking about the employee turnover rate of a potential vendor partner in the course of our research.

Groupthink, Conformity, and Homogeneity:

In the company where Lyons worked the average age of employees was 26, exactly half that of Lyons when he was hired.  Lyons was constantly made to feel out of touch and disposable due to his age.  There were also few women in top leadership positions, and almost no racial or ethnic diversity.

The homogeneity of the workforce resulted in lack of diversity in ideas.  The status quo was strongly defended.  Any questioning of prevailing workplace norms or practices as branded as disloyal.

In higher ed we have a strong commitment to the efficacy of diversity.  This commitment should reach outside of our campuses, and extend to our edtech partners.

Are these familiar attributes in edtech companies that you have done business with?

Do you think the world of edtech is different than companies that specialize in social, apps, gaming, advertising, or other verticals?

What are your favorite books about the tech industry?

Has anyone written a good satire, or a juicy insiders account, of the early days of educational technology?

What are you reading?



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