Lab Rats

I’m finishing Lab Rats by Dan Lyons and feeling thoroughly depressed but laughing about it. The feeling is like a go-to-bed-pull-the-shades-suck-my-thumb level of depressed while watching the Three Stooges. I was laughing before I finished the foreword.

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Lab Rats follows Lyons’ 2017 best-selling Disrupted, and as a bit of a sequel, it takes a horrifying look at the peculiar culture of contemporary companies which he experienced first hand at Hubspot, a successful Cambridge, MA marketing software company. Disrupted landed with a bang in 2017, largely because a few executives got fired or censured by Hubspot’s board of directors for some weirdness involving the FBI and an investigation by the company’s law firm amidst rumors of extortion against the publisher, Harper-Collins.* It also is a very accurate and very funny account of what it feels like to be a fifty-something disrupted by transformation and reduced to going to work at a modern company that fires people and says they were “graduated,” invites a teddy bear to attend meetings to represent the customer, and substitutes wages for benefits such as a beer garden, candy wall, ping pong tables and bean bag chairs.

Dan, who was a writer on HBO’s Silicon Valley for two seasons following his misadventure at Hubspot, is a great humorist, but also a great reporter, and his experience at Hubspot hit a chord with readers who flooded his inbox with confessions of their own workplace despair inflicted on them by incompetent managers, unscrupulous venture capitalists, and bullshit management theories that combines to make their office feel more like the Stanford prison experiment and less like the world-changing adventures the corporate mission statements, principles, values,  DNA wall plaques and culture codes proclaimed they were.

Soin the aftermath of Disrupted Dan went on the road and headed back to Silicon Valley, which he’s covered since the early 80s for PC Week, Forbes, Newsweek, the New York Times, Wired and GQ (and lampooned for two gloriously funny years when he anonymously gave the world The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs.)

He opens with a lunch meeting somewhere in Menlo Park. He’s seated with a woman who uses Legos to train employees to reveal their secrets and fears and gel together as a “team.” After trying to hypnotize him, the Lego Lady asks him to make a duck out of the pieces. He hands her a single piece and declares that’s his duck.

From the sweatshop conditions imposed by power-crazed venture capitalists who commit smash-and-grab public offerings by taking unprofitable startups public on the strength of a business model that essentially comes down to selling dollar bills for $0.75 cents, to Orwellian companies that plant moles amongst their employees and encourage snitching while reading those employees emails and instant messages, Lab Rats is about the perversion of modern work into a series of two-year tours of duty where the rank and file are subjected to a barrage of bizarre management theories ranging from Agile and Lean Startup, to Legos and the Holacracy.

Having ended my own 3.5 year tour of duty in a software startup last March, I guess the book is picking off some scabs that I had left unscratched for the past few months while I recovered from the trauma of the open office, buzzword bingo, constant Slack interruptions, fights with the CEO over “purpose statements” and bullshit marketinglessness words like “Digital Experience.” The insanity of the modern startup, with its founders’ lemming-like drive to hustle their way to riches like their heroes Gary V., Travis Kalanick, Elon Musk, Eric Ries, the infliction of new “productivity apps” that aren’t productive at all, the constant surveys from the HR department to gauge morale, the team-building exercises, the meetings about meetings …..Dan writes in a target-rich environment tailor made for his are-you-shitting-me sense of humor.

Goodbye to all that. All I can say in my old age is thank God I’m not 23 and saddled with a lot of college loans and dragging my butt into an office that looks like a day care center where nothing gets accomplished and the only certainty is getting fired.

I now work at a place with no instant messaging, no interruptions, private offices, no quarterly morale surveys, no ping pong, no bullshit and I’ve never been happier. There are no meetings to plan meetings, no cheery emails declaring some co-worker is a “Super Star,” no reboots of the corporate strategy every quarter when the next management fad comes along to hypnotize the boss.

I’ve never been happier, but I’ll also never forget the utter despair of modern digital marketing in an industry where “culture” comes down to reducing people to disposable beings who are measured, monitored, and berated into suicidal despair.

Dan doesn’t dwell on the outrageous excesses of corporate culture emanating from the Valley. He shows some companies that actually subscribe to the old theory that “contented cows give more milk” and that employee happiness — starting with their compensation — actually makes for a better company, a true culture, and ultimately better products.

* All’s well that ends well for those Hubspot execs — the stock went public at $30 and now trades around $130 — and one wound up as CEO of another hot company.

**Dan and I were colleagues at publications ranging from our high school newspaper through The Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, PC Week, and Forbes.

Is Boston Still a Venture Capital Hotbed? – Bits Blog – NYTimes.com

via Is Boston Still a Venture Capital Hotbed? – Bits Blog – NYTimes.com.

Boston feels pretty dead in terms of tech innovation. Aside from a few exceptions during the dot.bomb days (CMGI, Lycos) and some old glories and hardcore wire-head firms, the VC community feels deader than disco in The Hub.

“Boston’s venture capital and start-up industries, once fueled by the minicomputer boom, have been shrinking in recent years. The amount of venture capital invested in Boston companies fell from $3.9 billion in 2007 to $3.3 billion in 2008, while investment in Silicon Valley start-ups stayed steady at $11 billion, according to the National Venture Capital Association.”

Amazing boom and bust that took three decades. 60s saw a big DARPA fueled engine around MIT, Mitre, Lincoln Labs ….70s saw the minicomputer take off …. 80s were the Lotus decade …. but by the 90s the writing was on the wall. The innovation table tilted to the Valley where the PC revolution went beserk in the 70s.

Sad.

Singapore Wireless …

Is expensive. $23 bucks a day. Granted it’s Singapore bucks, but still. I’ve dropped $50 since leaving Boston on Tuesday to stay connected. I am totally time-zone challenged right now. It’s Wednesday at 1 pm on Cape Cod. I left Cape Cod on Tuesday at 7 am. I arrived here at Wednesday at 11:30 pm. Now it is Thursday at 2 am.

Singapore? Hot. Humid (gee, it must be on the equator). I didn’t get caned at customs. The hotel is nice. The scotch tastes the same.

Time to eat a sleeping pill and aim for six hours of unconsciousness.

Fred Wilson on forecasting – VC Cliche of the Week

A VC: VC Cliche of the Week: If You Must Dorecast, Do It Often

"a couple years ago Matt Blumberg and Jack Sinclair, CEO and CFO (now COO) of Return Path came to the Board with an interesting proposal.  They suggested that they develop an annual budget and four quarterly budgets.  And they suggested that at the end of each quarter, they develop a new quarterly budget for the next quarter and beyond, which is essentially a reforecast based on what happened in the current quarter.  The net of this was that we went to a rolling budget processs where there was a big budgeting effort at year end and a shorter one at the end of each quarter.

If you must forecast, do it often."

 An excellent posting by Fred Wilson on the difficulties inherent in financial forecasting. Forecasts can crush a technology company — there have been some famous forecasting debacles when companies have completely misread the market and been woefully undersupplied in the cast of unexpectedly hot products, or overstocked with dogs.

When I was consulting to Gartner I had the pleasure to work with Gartner Fellow, Ken McGee on his book, Head’s Up, an excellent discussion of forecasting that comes to the critical judgment that it is impossible to forecast the future, only to "predict the present." McGee’s advice, similar to Wilson’s, is that frequent assessments are better than impossibly long-distance views over the horizon.

 

Old Media’s Lame-Duck Days BusinessWeek

Old Media’s Lame-Duck Days

 Jon Fine comments at BusinessWeek about the new world order in new media, correctly pointing out in this current climate of Dot.bomb 2.0 M&A fever that a company like MySpace couldn’t have become MySpace if its new owner, News Corp., had tried to launch it.

"If acquiring bits and pieces isn’t budging the stock price, what will? It’s extremely difficult for an old-media player to build a serious new-media asset. There are established competitors. There are generational issues. (Myspace would not have become myspace had it been launched by News Corp.) And there are the quarterly numbers that Wall Street demands — when it’s not whacking the moguls for being too dependent on mature businesses. To move the needle right now, you need something massive. You need, for instance, to buy Yahoo. Of course, today it’s too late to buy Yahoo. Today, Yahoo buys you. Assuming, that is, that Yahoo thinks its business sense can cross the generational divide. Or that it’s even worth the bother."

Venture funds return to Net – The Boston Globe

Venture funds return to Net – The Boston Globe

The "Google Effect" in Boston-area VC. Sort of akin to the Microsoft Effect in the early 90s — if the entrepreneur can’t convincingly cast the strategy out from beneath the shadow of the industry behemoth, then don’t bother asking.

 I ran into the "Outlook Effect" in the winter of 2004 while raising funds for a startup focused on collaboration web-services for the SMB market. Every VC had a short-sighted Outlook obsession. How long before they shift that to an AJAX obsession?

The Google-Factor paints most decisions in my media world these days, but intuitively I have to agree with IDG CEO Pat Kenealy’s cynical assessment that Google is to 2005 what AOL was to 1999 — a looming behemoth that will be replaced by another looming behemoth as surely as it will snow in January in Framingham. 

"But when entrepreneurs come calling at venture firms these days, foraging for money to bankroll Internet start-ups, they can expect to be grilled about their approach to the fast-growing Google, which boasts a market value of about $90 billion and more than $7 billion in cash."

Spark Capital launches

:: Spark Capital ::

Paidcontent sheds some light on the launch of Spark Capital, the $260 million Cambridge VC firm that took an ad out in Monday’s NYT.

"Founders: Dennis Miller, who was executive VP responsible for production and original programming for TNT from 1990-95; Todd Dagres, who notably backed Akamai while a partner at Battery Ventures; and Santo Politi, former president of new media at Blockbuster, who was responsible for figuring out how to move the video-rental giant into digital-broadcasting and VOD services. Other partners include Paul J. Conway, former chief financial officer at Charles River Ventures, and Bijan Sabet, previously an entrepreneur-in-residence at Charles River.  "

Smart team with strong heritage. CRV is one of the top tier Boston-area VCs. 

Podcasting VC investments

venturewire exclusives

Colin Crawford notes with some awe the series A investment by Kleiner and Sequoia, the ne plus ultra names in "smart money"  in Adam Curry’s PodShow (which is producing Castblaster and putting together a blog ad network). Aggregator and downloader Odeo also getting some money from Charles River — also known for being smart money (and more or less allergic to dot.com frothiness).

I’ve been chipping away at a podcast business plan for CXO — a sponsor model. These are early days in podcast advertising — so far no light bulbs are going off over my head but the marketers seem eager to get aboard.