Earlier in April, journalist and comedy writer Dan Lyons released “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble” — his long-awaited memoir of a year spent working for marketing startup HubSpot.
The short version is that Lyons found his year-ish working at a Silicon Valley startup to be a weird, cult-like experience where he never got as rich as he hoped. In an excerpt of the book that ran on Fortune, Lyons called it “startup hell.”
I can’t speak to Lyons’ specific experience at HubSpot. Some startups are probably like this.
But, I, too, worked at a startup, Nebula, for just over a year, and it wasn’t like he describes at all.
I definitely didn’t get rich from Nebula. With San Francisco rents and the cost of commuting on the region’s crumbling infrastructure, I was treading water, financially speaking.
But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. I learned a ton from some of the smartest people I’ve ever met, got a tremendous amount of insight into the workings of business and startup life, and made valuable connections.
That doesn’t sound like “startup hell” to me.
Nebula’s flagship product, the Nebula One cloud controller, was designed to make it easy for anybody to build a cloud computing environment, similar to the one Amazon Web Services uses. Just plug it into your server rack, turn it on, and boom, cloud.
That was the sales pitch, anyway. The reality was more complicated.
When I first joined Nebula in the fall of 2012, I was coming off a stint as a freelance reporter for an obscure tech blog. I had been around enough startups to know that I would probably not get rich from Nebula. But they offered me stock options as part of my compensation package, and I figured, hey, best case, I can pay off my student loans.
Really, though, the thing that attracted me to Nebula was its pedigree.
Cofounder and CEO Chris C. Kemp had most recently served as a CTO at NASA, and brought tons of talent from the space agency to start the company. And it had raised at least $35 million in funding, with legendary Silicon Valley investors like Sun Microsystems cofounders Scott McNealy and Andy Bechtolsheim.
Better yet, Kemp himself recruited me to the company — I interviewed him at a party, and he liked the ensuing story. If you ever want an ego boost, have a former NASA executive personally ask you to join his company. It works wonders.
Unlike Lyons’ experience at HubSpot, Nebula was pretty sedate. It was lots of really smart people working long hours to solve tough problems.
The best part
The best part of the job was getting to hang out with and learn from all of those really smart people. As part of my cloud evangelism or whatever, it was my job to sit down and help them distill their thoughts down to a conference talk, or a blog post, or a contributed chapter of a book.
At the time, Nebula didn’t have any kind of marketing organisation, so it would be up to me to define my duties and role. I came up with the title “Cloud Evangelist” — yeah, I know — but really, I was what a larger company would call a “content marketer.”
I wrote our blog, helped proofread and jazz up company presentations and speeches, and kept tabs on the competition. Truthfully, I didn’t always have too much to do — when I joined, the Nebula One was still six months away from launching, which made me an evangelist with nothing to evangelize.
Still, I like to think I absorbed much wisdom by working with my colleagues. But if getting recruited by Kemp was an ego boost, then hanging out with those engineers brought me crashing down to earth. Still, like they say, “if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.”
There were plenty of concessions to that elusive notion of “startup culture.” The kitchen was always well-stocked with snacks, soda, and a truly heroic amount of top-shelf alcohol. Indeed, every Friday at 4pm was a designated in-office happy hour, which was code for “you can drink at your desk.”
The dress code could be summed up as “don’t be naked, especially if you’re meeting a customer.” One prospective hire showed up for his interview in flip-flops and shorts and I’m almost 100 per cent certain that wasn’t what sunk his application.
And we once had what a friend and former coworker referred to as our “obligatory ridiculous startup bonding experience,” where the company chartered a trio of sailboats for a five-hour lunch excursion in the San Francisco Bay.
But it was still definitely an office. Same occasional pizza lunches, same weird office politics, same struggle for conference room space, same highs, same lows as most other places I’ve worked before and since.
The worst part
By late 2013, the writing was largely on the wall for Nebula. Despite the hype, the Nebula One controller wasn’t selling in any vast quantities, and it was causing some anguish within the company. It turned out to require more hands-on installation just to get started than anyone had planned. And at a starting price of $100,000, it wasn’t flying off the shelves.
Not too long before I left, Kemp would take a new title of Chief Strategy Officer, with veteran tech executive Gordon Stitt taking over as CEO.
By this point I was increasingly eager to get back to my reporting career. Christmas Eve 2013 was officially my last day.
Ultimately, I chose not to exercise my stock options when I departed. I heard later that most departing employees didn’t, either. A year and change after that, Nebula went bust. If I had bought those shares, they would have been worthless today.
The reasons why Nebula failed are not easily summed up — the Stanford School of Business literally wrote a case study on it, and I can tell you firsthand that it’s only scratching the surface. The short, brutal version is that we didn’t come up with something people actually needed.
All of that said, it was an excellent learning experience, even if nobody got rich. And most of my former coworkers landed on their feet at Oracle, Netflix, or elsewhere. Kemp himself is working on a new startup, I hear.
So while some startups definitely do sound like hell, like Lyons experienced, it’s certainly not all weird cult initiations and horrors. Sometimes, it’s a calculated risk/reward balance between playing it safe or trying something new and cool.
Oh, and I was wrong before about the best part. The actual best part was that Patrick Stewart narrated the Nebula One launch video and I got to help write his lines: