‘Fishiness’ led to HubSpot marketing chief’s firing, CEO says

Mike Volpe, HubSpot's former CMO, records his weekly podcast, The Growth Show, earlier this year.
Mike Volpe, HubSpot's former CMO, records his weekly podcast, The Growth Show, earlier this year.

HubSpot’s chief executive acknowledged Thursday that an executive fired for improperly trying to obtain a copy of a forthcoming book about the company engaged in “really aggressive tactics,” but he refused to disclose further details of the unusual incident.

“There was definitely some fishiness,” CEO Brian Halligan said of the attempt by former chief marketing officer Mike Volpe, who was fired Wednesday for violating the ethics code of the Cambridge marketing software company.

In their first interview since the episode blew up this week, Halligan and cofounder Dharmesh Shah reconstructed some of the events that led to Volpe’s firing. But they said they could not discuss exactly what Volpe did to try to get the book, on the advice of company attorneys. The attorneys have referred their findings to legal authorities.

Shah said Volpe’s termination “was a tough action, but a relatively clear decision. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, they were dancing on the line.’ It was unanimous.”

As a result, the company, a darling of Boston’s innovation community, is dealing with the painful loss of its fifth employee and another top manager. Joe­ Chernov, vice president of content, quit before HubSpot could determine whether he should also be fired.

HubSpot’s board of directors also punished Halligan by reducing his pay package for knowing about the book incident but failing to report it to the board in “a timely fashion.”

“It was fishy enough that I definitely should have reported it,” Halligan said in the interview at the company’s offices. “I agree with the message they sent me. I agree that I showed poor judgment.”

Halligan would not quantify the punishment, but described it as “a stinger to the wallet.”

Neither Volpe nor Chernov could be reached for comment.

The book is titled “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble,” an inside look by veteran technology journalist Dan Lyons, who lives in Winchester and spent 20 months as a “marketing fellow” at HubSpot.

Lyons has not responded to multiple requests for comment, but a blurb on the website of his publisher, Hachette Book Group, promises a juicy tale worthy of scenes that Lyons has written as a screenwriter for the hit HBO series “Silicon Valley.”

“One tech company, flush with $100 million, offered a pile of stock options. What could go wrong? His new employer made the world a better place … by selling email spam. The office vibe was frat house meets cult compound: Shower pods became hook-up dens; Nerf gun fights broke out at lunch; and absent bosses specialized in cryptic, jargon-filled emails.”

HubSpot is a marketing software company that helps companies use social media and Web tools to drive traffic to their websites. The rapidly growing company has had an outsized impact on Boston’s startup ecosystem, to the point where current and former employees jokingly refer to the alumni network as the HubSpot mafia.

HubSpot’s share price has doubled since it went public in October. On Thursday, it fell about 1 percent, suggesting investors were not much worried about the book incident.

Halligan said Lyons never told him he planned to write a book. While it remains unclear why Volpe was so concerned about the contents of the manuscript, Lyons has made it clear he isn’t planning a fond remembrance of his former colleagues.

In a Twitter post, Lyons described the book, scheduled for release next spring, as a “scathing” memoir. And in a posting on his Facebook page this week, Lyons ridiculed HubSpot’s business practice of using social media to promote itself.

“We told everyone that this wasn’t ‘advertising,’ because it was ‘social,’” Lyons wrote. “Of course this is ridiculous. It’s just advertising under a new name. And it’s just as annoying and people tune it out just as quickly. It’s web pollution.”

Lyons is known for a bombastic, freewheeling writing style. He gained fame as the author of Fake Steve Jobs, a blog that parodied the late Apple co-founder’s hard-driving persona. Lyons also was a writer on “Silicon Valley,” which lampoons the excesses of tech-industry culture.

A spokeswoman for Hachette said the company was unaware of any effort to obtain the book.

Shah said he was “not losing any sleep” over the Lyons book, while Halligan said he expected it to be “a satirical take on HubSpot. It’s not going to be pleasant, but I don’t think it’ll be that bad.”

Jay Acunzo, a former HubSpot marketing employee, said Volpe was known as a fierce advocate for his employees.

“For Mike to do something that would lead to this result, I feel like there were probably rumors swirling around this book that were focused on not just him,” Acunzo said. “Mike’s a very driven, bulldog executive. The thing that really fires him up is the team.”

Most HubSpot employees were not told of what Volpe and Chernov did, the company said, because of the legal issues. Shah and Halligan said HubSpot’s general counsel, John Kelleher, initially learned of Volpe’s behavior from another HubSpot employee. The board formed a subcommittee to look into the matter, led by director Lorrie Norrington, a former executive at eBay and Intuit. HubSpot’s outside law firm, Goodwin Procter, conducted the inquiry, Halligan said.

Shah and Halligan said they have promoted an open and transparent corporate culture, which includes the motto “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” The book incident was “a failure in one specific situation,” Shah said, not “a failure of HubSpot’s culture.”

Keith Frankel, a former creative director at HubSpot, said Lyons was probably a poor fit with HubSpot. His personality as a writer and cultural critic was at odds with the enthusiastic culture promoted by company executives, Frankel said.

“HubSpot is a very polarizing environment. To some, it’s the greatest place they’ve ever worked. They view their time there with the utmost fondness, and they’re very close with the people they worked with,” Frankel said. “To others, it more closely resembles Jonestown. I think the truth is likely somewhere in the middle.”

Callum Borchers from the Globe staff contributed to this article.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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