Feds open criminal investigation of HubSpot book incident

HubSpot went public in 2014.
HubSpot went public in 2014.

Federal law enforcement officials have opened a criminal investigation into alleged attempts by former HubSpot Inc. executives to obtain a pre-publication draft of a book about the Cambridge company, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

An assistant US attorney in Boston and an FBI cybercrimes agent are working on the case, the people said. The probe is at a preliminary stage and it isn’t clear whether criminal charges could result, said the people, who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter.

HubSpot, which sells marketing and sales software, is one of the most prominent companies to emerge from the Boston area’s technology sector in the past decade. In late July, HubSpot said that it had fired its chief marketing officer, Mike Volpe, for breaching the company’s ethics policy “in connection with attempts to procure a draft manuscript of a book involving the company.”

Chief executive and cofounder Brian Halligan was fined for failing to promptly alert the company’s board after finding out about the incident. And HubSpot said a third executive, vice president of content Joe Chernov, resigned before it could determine whether he also should be fired.

The affair has captivated the tech community, both because it is not known what steps the executives took to seek the manuscript and because the author, Dan Lyons, is a well-known journalist and writer for the HBO series “Silicon Valley.”

Lyons worked in HubSpot’s marketing department for less than two years. His memoir, “Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble,” is due in stores Feb. 2.

HubSpot’s board of directors hired an outside law firm, Goodwin Procter, to investigate the incident. HubSpot said the firm’s report was turned over to “the appropriate legal authorities,” but the company has declined to say what it found or which agencies were notified.

FBI cyber agents focus on computer-network hacking, data theft, online fraud, and other technology-related crimes. The agency appealed to engineers, computer scientists, and IT specialists in a hiring push late last year, saying cybercrime was a “top priority.”

The US attorney’s office said it neither confirms nor denies the existence of investigations. Volpe declined to comment, and Chernov has not returned messages seeking comment. HubSpot declined to comment Friday.

Chernov has since been hired as the marketing vice president by InsightSquared, a Boston-based sales software company with close ties to HubSpot.

Halligan previously told the Globe that the manuscript incident involved “some fishiness” and “really aggressive tactics,” but he and the company have declined to provide further details.

Lyons is characterized as the victim in the federal investigation, the people said. Lyons did not immediately return messages seeking comment Friday.

HubSpot, which sells software to help businesses reach customers online and manage their sales efforts, was founded in 2005 by Halligan and chief technology officer Dharmesh Shah.

The company grew quickly, raising about $100 million from private investors amid an industry-wide surge in similar marketing software companies. It employs about 1,000 people and its stock price has almost doubled since it went public in October. HubSpot shares closed at $44.52 on Friday, down 2.4 percent.

Lyons, who lives in Winchester, is known for a biting style that lampoons what he sees as self-important silliness among tech-industry figures. He previously worked as a writer for Newsweek and Forbes, and gained notoriety as the author of “Fake Steve Jobs,” a blog that satirized the hard-driving persona of the late Apple CEO.

Lyons’ forthcoming book is billed as an entertaining tale of a late-career writer attempting to cash in on the tech boom by joining a company flush with investor cash and potentially lucrative stock options.

A blurb promoting the memoir says “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 e-mails. In the middle of this sat Lyons, old enough to be his coworkers’ father.”

In its most recent quarterly earnings report, HubSpot said it was working on a new training and certification program to reinforce its ethics code in the wake of Volpe’s firing. The new program, it said, “will help ensure that similar situations do not arise in the future.”

Updated 4:10 p.m. with closing share price.