HubSpot – accused of extortion – sells spam in name of “lovable” content

Reading the numerous news stories of Dan Lyons exposé of working a short time at HubSpot in Boston, I was reminded of an unemployed cable TV installer who had time to learn Twitter in its early days and went on to become a self-proclaimed “leading Twitter guru,” charging naive CEOs up to $21,000 an hour to explain Twitter. On the other hand, he has a reputation for talking about fleecing CEOs.

Astonishing but true -- HubSpot is publicly traded.

Astonishing but true — HubSpot is publicly traded.

I once again wonder whether technology has made America smarter or just a zombie nation that will believe any sort of hype and jive from any fun-loving, fast-talking flimflam huckster.

Journalist and writer Dan Lyons had spent his entire working career in a newsroom environment. Yet when he was suddenly laid-off by Newsweek, he had to find a job and what he found was at the Boston tech outfit, HubSpot. Lyons calls it his “year in startup hell,” and details his experience in his new book, “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble.” The book is getting wide attention.  HubSpot has created its own scandal, accused of “extortion” attempts to block publication of the book. The FBI is involved.

Lyons labels HubSpot the epitome of a cultish and juvenile trend in tech workplaces.

While I had heard of HubSpot several years ago, I knew little about the outfit, only that it seemed to be run by people with vague expertise, credentials and accomplishments. But, then, that’s fairly commonplace in tech consulting firms these days.  In a nutshell, HubSpot sells software to help online marketers “game,” manipulate and hype products and services via email spam or tricking search engines.

Fun and non-stop games at HubSpot.

Fun and non-stop games at HubSpot.

Of HubSpot offices, Lyons describes them as bearing “a striking resemblance to the Montessori preschool that my kids attended: lots of bright basic colors, plenty of toys, and a nap room with a hammock and soothing palm tree murals on the wall.” He says “teams go on outings to play trampoline dodgeball and race go-karts and play laser tag … Nerf-gun battles rage, with people firing weapons from behind giant flat-panel monitors, ducking and rolling under desks.”

Of HubSpot’s services, Lyons writes “customers include people who make a living bombarding people with email offers, or gaming Google’s search algorithm, or figuring out which kind of misleading subject line is most likely to trick someone into opening a message. Online marketing is not quite as sleazy as Internet porn, but it’s not much better either.”

“One involves using a misleading subject line in an email—something like, ‘fwd: your holiday plans’ — to dupe people into opening the message.”

Dan Lyons, author of “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble."

Dan Lyons, author of “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble.”

While HubSpot claims to fiercely oppose spam emails, Lyons says it is blasting out billions of “lovable marketing content” emails to all of us who consider it to be spam.  “Lovable marketing content” is really what HubSpot trainers call it.

The convoluted logic behind this is that “spam” means unsolicited email, and the company sends email only to people who have handed over their contact information by filling out a form and giving their permission to be contacted. HubSpot’s emails might be unwanted, but they’re not, strictly speaking, unsolicited, and therefore they are not spam … they claim.

Even though the company and its customers send out literally billions of email messages, they are not trying to annoy people but trying to help them. Sending one message after another, each time with a different subject line, is how HubSpot discovers what someone wants.  “We’re learning about them. We’re listening to them,” or so goes the HubSpot thinking.