Okay, I’m going to admit this right from the start, I love a good train-wreck of a corporate “tell all” book. So when Disrupted was released I was secretly pretty excited. We were going to to get all the dirty laundry on HubSpot, a product we use and a company that operates in our community. I imagined an insider’s expose filled with anecdotes and allegations of insane all night coke fueled blogging binges, Halligan’s weird sprocket fetish, and absurd corporate waste. Instead Lyons has penned a fairly banal account of petty office Facebook spats, quirky company culture and an oddly obsessive notation of how many kitchens the Cambridge office contains.
After reading the book, I thought I would take a moment to share my thoughts on Lyon’s take on HubSpot. Seapoint Digital is a HubSpot Partner Agency, though to be honest we aren’t the most “HubSpotty” of agencies. Our office is also right across the way from HubSpot’s Portsmouth, NH campus and have had a chance to work with and meet a number of HubSpotters including many of Disrupted’s characters at events and through our work with them. Here are my additional personal thoughts on Lyon’s Book.
HubSpot is a Cult
Let’s just get that one out of the way. It’s a pretty well known joke in the digital marketing community. Two years ago when HubSpot was pushing us to join their agency program I reached out to a number of veterans in the digital marketing community. The very first response I got was with a chuckle, “You know they are a cult, right? They make a pretty good product, but they definitely are a cult.” It is a joke we hear frequently. One of HubSpot’s competitors recently sent us a kit with lemons and a pitcher to make lemonade. In the bottom of the box was a packet of orange Kool-Aid with the instructions to “Discard the Kool-Aid. Do not drink the Orange Kool-Aid”.
Here is the thing about HubSpot being a cult, it is a cult built on belief in their company and system. It’s a discussion for another blog by someone more qualified, but in our secular society especially among the younger generations, tech companies and their personalities have built the aura of a religious following. Steve Jobs has basically been sainted by this generation with emissaries like Guy Kawasaki preaching his gospel.
While HubSpotters may have a cult like devotion to their brand, it’s because they sincerely believe they are changing their industry and the internet. It may be only marketing, but in the world of tech startups, it is a product with a tangible influence to the greater world. It’s not like HubSpotters are trying to invent the next Candy Crush, or are building a filter to make your brunch photos look even more melancholy. They feel they can make the internet a more useful place by guiding companies to produce content versus just delivering us direct solicitation in advertising.
To Dan’s argument that HubSpot makes spam but just packages it differently in “Make Love not Spam.” I have to admit I’ve bought into HubSpot’s view. I even bought the t-shirt… There is an unfathomable amount of spam emails out there, but there is a huge difference from the generic Viagra and meet Russian beauties messages that flood your spam folder, to the email from that company, the one you open religiously. Mine is hockeytron.com, It’s nothing more than a sales email for bargain sticks or gloves. I open that email every single day. Everyone has an email they look for because to them there is value, even though it’s only marketing. HubSpot inspires us as marketers to find better ways to reach customers with content that will engage and be useful. They give us tools to monitor the effectiveness of messaging and training to find the right message for our targeted persona. I know that sounds like I’m part of the cult, but they’ve made me a better marketer.
You Kids Better Get Off Dan Lyon’s Lawn
Disrupted tries to build its story through personal narrative of a talented individual facing an environment of age discrimination and dysfunctional company culture. I wanted to root for Lyons, I really did. He starts by a backstory of qualifications based on popularity satirizing Steve Jobs. He’s a wildly popular ironic Elvis impersonator of the digital age. Then he builds this career in an industry that is sinking and being cannibalized by the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed till that the evil Newsweek heartlessly discards him, ruining his Von Trapp vacation and dreams of being the sole breadwinner. Honestly that’s not a situation any of us want to be in. There have been some brutal job market conditions over the last decade, and one of the tragedies of this past recession is it robbed an entire generation of Dan Lyons, men and women who in other times would be seeing the rewards and pay off for decades of hard work suddenly competing with equally frightened college graduates for limited places in the job market. That would have been a empathetic narrative for Disrupted to take.
Instead Dan launches into a discussion of the current tech bubble and venture capital, a house of cards where amoral individuals are making a fortune before the Ponzi schemes of companies they have created come crashing down. He takes us to the edge of that abyss and staring in says, ‘I want a piece of that.’ At this point all he needs is a mark, that start-up that will let him join their cause. He narrows the field down to three and then finally picks HubSpot. I can’t help but think there has to be two CEOs out there reading this book thinking, “Phew we really dodged the bullet on this one.”
So from here Dan enters the world of content marketing and feels contempt at the material produced and the people doing the work. The team doesn’t act on his recommendations, his blogs are the most visited content, he wasn’t used to prep the CEO for PR, he had to work among less qualified employees. It was a repetitive narrative, he didn’t feel respected for his stature in a job he admitted he didn’t really understand.
I’d like to take a moment to address two points Dan brings up. First that nobody has heard of HubSpot, and how painful creating lazy content for “Marketing Mary” is. True, for a company of its size, most people haven’t heard of HubSpot, but “Marketing Mary”, their persona of the head of a marketing department probably has. It’s because their content is useful to the marketing person in the trenches. If I need a cheat sheet of social media image sizes, a walk through on how to fix some common website issue, or need advice on how to set up an email campaign, there is a HubSpot blog that most likely will solve my problem and also be the first result that comes up in Google’s search for that question. Disrupted paints a content team that is clueless or lacked vision. The truth is HubSpot has been building a savvy content strategy for years to appeal to their market.
As Dan tells the story of his time at HubSpot he becomes less likable. In recounting how he belittles Dharmesh for using a teddy bear to illustrate a point, detailing how pathetic and condescending he feels having to apologize for hurting a coworker’s feelings, and how the HR department cares about preventing sexual harassment in the work place, I stop rooting for him. And even though he comes off like a guy I’d never want to get a beer with, he does make some valid points in his book. Here are a couple I agree with:
HubSpot Focused on Sales More Than Engineering
One issue Dan raised was the focus on the company sales versus the platform and service to the customers. This was probably the most on point issue raised about HubSpot from Disrupted. So much effort has been put into outreach and sales the actual user experience and functionality of HubSpot at times is less than ideal for its cost. Dan’s sentiment about the COS vs WordPress is echoed by many HubSpot users we talk to. Landing pages and email templates are extremely limited in what comes native with the platform. It’s ironic the same company that gives away lots of infographics and content to prospective clients doesn’t “Delight” (a mantra they push users to retain customers) their own users. Instead of giving users cutting edge designs of landing pages, substantial stock libraries, or advanced email formats, they push subscribers to a template marketplace where they can be sold additional components from other vendors. One of the biggest frustrations we hear is that instead of focusing efforts on making the existing product better for loyal customers there is the constant roll out of up sell features or automatic non-reversible usage thresholds that are difficult for end users to understand or detect. I spoke to an owner of a large company recently that swore to me he would never use HubSpot again and would warn any associated business to avoid it for that exact reason.
While the Engineering has been an issue for HubSpot, there are tangible signs that it’s making advancement over the last 12-24 months. The CRM and Sales features such as Sidekick have been massive steps forward in the product having a complete cycle connecting sales and marketing. The user interface has been reworked for easier usage, and some developers have noted to us an improvement in the COS for sites built completely on the platform. As HubSpot’s sales landscape becomes more competitive with similar services coming to market through existing providers like Salesforce, innovation will become increasingly vital to maintain.
Inbound Marketing Is Not Magic
A second relevant point from Disrupted is Inbound Marketing is not a silver bullet. What has lead to HubSpot’s continued rapid growth as Dan points out, was not just writing blog posts and customers appearing. HubSpot has a sales machine that is disciplined and efficient. HubSpot Sales works harder than their competitors. It’s noticeable from an agency perspective. They organize HUGS (HubSpot User Groups) in communities, their sales team stalk agency employees on social media creating rapport before contact, their sales team utilizes their tools to keep a sustained presence in front of perspective clients. There are other marketing automation services that will occasionally reach out, a Marketo rep will touch base annually, Act-On will shoot me an automated email if I enter one of their quarterly drawings, SharpSpring sends me root beer. None of them are a determined or persuasive as HubSpot.
So if the company that says they invented Inbound marketing (I cringe a bit every time I hear a HubSpotter say those words) needs to have a strong sales strategy, buying HubSpot and writing a few blogs is not going to make you successful. It’s a tool and a methodology. I tell clients flat out, you can probably do everything you do with HubSpot with other tools and many are free. No one ever does. They either sign up with HubSpot and create a sustained Inbound strategy or they test an aspect for a while and then go back to the ways the organization did things before. HubSpot is an investment, it’s not for every industry, but it does work. The technology will only improve, the tactics refined. HubSpot is integrating Adwords and sales tools into their platform to improve conversions. I know, again I sound like I’m drinking the Kool-Aid.
I wanted to end this blog by coming up with another twenty scenarios of how else Mike Volpe was secretly involved in personal espionage, but it isn’t funny. The honest truth is as paranoid in how the book concludes, something did happen. As Dan details every odd thing that has happened to him since, I had to ask myself how I’d feel. I would probably be questioning every little abnormality as well. It’s the not knowing what happened that will play with your head. Was it just a little unethical or EVIL? It’s pretty unclear beyond the established facts. Loyal employees can make mistakes looking out for the company they care about. Lawyers and authorities have been through the matter without charges. At some point it will probably come out, until then it ends a chapter at HubSpot as it closes the book on Dan Lyon’s time at HubSpot.
So we wouldn’t be doing our job ending a blog about Inbound Marketing without a Call To Action, but as we said we aren’t the HubSpottiest agency out there…. so here is something lighter after that Epilogue. Enjoy.