Don’t Try to Fake The Language

The language of startups has become pervasive. It feels like it started with Eric Ries’ great book The Lean Startup when words like MVP and pivot started showing up in all conversations. Back then it was new, fresh, and focusing.

Today, there are hundreds of words that people throw around in the context of their startups. Many, like traction, are completely meaningless. If you need a dose of some of the language, just watch a few episodes of Silicon Valley.

I’ve noticed something recently. For founders outside Silicon Valley, and even plenty within Silicon Valley, the language seems forced. Fake. Awkward. Uncomfortable. Words are used incorrectly. They are strung together in meaningless sentences. They are used to obscure reality or try to avoid the meat of a question.

It’s not necessarily a cliche-ladened problem. It’s also not a verbal tick issue. It feels like some people are trying to fake it, without really knowing what they are saying.

Don’t try to fake it.

Let’s wander away from startup for a moment and use the example of my fake philosophy expertise. I’d use words and phrases to demonstrate my fake philosophy prowess such as existentialism, free will and determinism, philosophy of language, being and nothingness, nihilism, anthropotheism, and neonomianism. I barely know how to spell the last few words, let alone understand the philosophy behind them. I could give you a definition (e.g. anthropotheism is the belief that gods are only deified men), but I have no real concept of what underlies the word or the philosophy behind it, or how it fits together with anything else. I can look it up on the web (that’s where the definition came from) and if I didn’t say I had no idea what it meant, it puts me in the fake smart category. But when I start a discussion with someone who has studied philosophy, either formally or informally, I’m hosed and it’s quickly clear that I’m faking it.

An easy example from my daily life is the founder who leads off talking about his business by saying “we’ve got a lot of traction.” He then goes on to say nothing about what this means, gives no metrics indicating “traction” (whatever that is), and generally stays vague about what the company does. When he takes a breath, I ask “what do you mean by traction?” After some nonsense tumbles out, I ask more precise questions about metrics, and get answers that don’t demonstrate any real, meaningful progress of any sort. I ask a few more questions to try to find leading indicators of progress and get qualitative descriptions of why people would want the product.

Then there is the misused definition problem.

Founder: “We had $50k of MRR last month.”

Me: “How much MRR did you have the previous month?”

Founder: “$14k”

Me: How much MRR did you have the month before?”

Founder: “$27k”

Me: “Why did you have so much churn from the $27k month to the $14k month?”

Founder: “We didn’t – that was just how much we sold that month.”

Me: “What do you mean, that’s how much you sold that month?”

Founder: “Well – that’s how many $ of transactions went through our system.”

Me: “You realize that’s not MRR, but that’s Gross Sales?”

Founder: “What’s the difference?”

Me: “What percentage of each transaction do you keep in your marketplace?”

Founder: “5% – we are trying to grow market share.”

Me: “So your net revenue last month was only $2.5k, right?”

Founder: “Um, ok.”

If this happened every once in a while, that would be fine. But it happens every day. Sometimes it’s simply lack of understanding of what the words and metrics mean and how they work. But other times, it’s clearly an effort to demonstrate how much progress has been made by either avoiding the real metrics, obscuring what is going on, or trying to come up with a big number to get someone’s attention.

Don’t worry about loading up your discussion with cliches and trendy words. Focus on telling the story of your business. And don’t try to fake it.

  • @Brad – Loved this. I used to sell contact center technology and those people can “smell the fear” like sharks. If you even flinched when the discussion turned to IVR, VRU, TTS, CTI and a host of other three letter acronyms – they stopped listening to you and you may as well have left the meeting.

    • I like turning TLAs into FFLAs. Guess what FFLA means …

      • It’s going to be Feld FLA…..but the FLA part….hmmmmm

        • Hint. Something four letter acronym.

  • We are heads down disrupting and innovating so I don’t have the bandwidth. After this sprint, I’ll ping you with our deck.

    • Nicely done – I see what you did there …

      • I know your post was more about faking it than the jargon, but I just couldn’t resist. You’re on a roll with these posts. Keep it up.

  • Good post. Know your business, tell it’s story in your own words. The unfortunate part is that the Founder in the above example, may have indeed known his business, but they were trying to “translate it” into some investor language they thought you would be receptive too.

    The best philosophical discussions I’ve had are with people who also know as little about philosophy as me.

    • Rick

      “trying to “translate it” into some investor language”
      .
      That’s a possibility. Just like it’s best to use the proper programming language for the project. It’s best to use the proper language for the business. Sometimes the best language for both is the one people internal to the project or business has devised on their own.

    • Rick

      BTW Jess… I keep forgetting to ask how things are going with your biz?

      • Going good, alpha in September. I can’t wait to get it into peoples hands. Beta in october. Closr.to

  • Ian

    Some of smartest people I have met actively *avoid* the language clichés of their domain. Often it is simply a crutch, but what scares me the most is when it is used as a social courting tool. When people start judging the caliber of another individual based on whether they can mumble the same shared phrases, you have entered an echo chamber, and will be duly punished for your free thought! Run fast and run far if you ever encounter a culture like this.

  • Rick

    It’s all about people trying to communicate. There will always be people using words to mean something different than what the next guy/gal thinks they mean.
    .
    I think the title of you post should be “Settle on common terminology BEFORE the conversation starts”. Of course that would be difficult but if you have a published set of terms or a book or other reference to use as the “guide” you can use that.
    ,
    Just like your post about the word Entrepreneur. Drucker covers that in his book. It gives us our “terms reference”. It actually doesn’t matter what the terms are just that everyone uses the same ones. Then you can convey precise meaning that others can understand.
    .
    Keep in mind most of these communication problems don’t have to occur. You can state things in a verbose manner to eliminate ambiguity. For example instead of saying “I’m an entrepreneur” someone could say “I have created a new innovative product and I’m working hard to build a business around it by investing my time and money to educate the public about my product.”
    .
    The problem is conversations take much longer using that approach. In today’s world people are in a hurry.

  • Wow, that dialog is a pretty serious mistake, especially to an investor. Two possibilities, a) the speaker really didnt know what you were talking about b) they said it on purpose to make things sound better than they are. In either case, my opinion is the speaker is in need of a talking to to find out if they are appropriate for their position.

  • Felix Dashevsky

    This applies so broadly today, far beyond startups or even business, that it’s scary. I blame the internet and reality TV (seriously).

    • Henry Chalian

      Spot on!

  • Funny, I was going to write a post with a related topic; i.e. using cliche buzzwords during a pitch. A recent pitch I took from a startup looking for funding and having gone through an accelerator, had these words within a 5 min interval:

    “This is a Unicorn we’re building…we’re all about scale…we’re going to do things that don’t scale….and will growth hack our growth with viral users and network effects…this is a massive opportunity…we’re talking millions of users around the world, and billions of dollars at play.”

    Ehum…OK! where do I send my check 🙂

    • Rick

      Hey! I’m building almost the exact same thing only better.
      .
      I’ll come pick up the check today.

    • “we’re all about scale…we’re going to do things that don’t scale.” … oh man… classic.

    • Man – did you vomit after five minutes? I’d have curled up in a ball on the ground.

      • Lol. These were part of his closing comments. Good thing my camera was off, for bandwidth quality reasons 😉

    • For some fun, I wrote about my recent marriage in the language of a tech startup: http://bit.ly/l33twed

  • Peter Neame

    This made me grin – in the medical industry, similar behavior is seen. Everywhere.
    Typically, much is made of “Accounts Receivable” and “Accounts Receivable Aging”. Except that the numbers are completely meaningless, as everyone practicing medicine or delivering medical care in some form bills for more than they will receive (at least from patient’s insurance), sometimes by as much as 10-fold.
    This is then flipped by the insurance companies telling their clients “this month you saved $xx.xx”. Indeed, the insurance prevented your bank account being drained, but only because the billed amount is some insane number.

    • Yup. Obfuscation of the data is common practice in many industries. The ultimate irony is that the audit / accounting rules (GAAP) make this even worse in many cases.

  • Wait a tick — how is MRR normalized to a one month interval not technically the same as one month’s gross revenue? Or were you just trying to get the founder to see the uselessness of a one month interval?

    • Because in this case the founder is clearly talking about gross sales, not MRR. “That’s how much we sold that month” is not MRR. And MRR bouncing up, down, up, and all around is a pretty quick indication that the metric being discussed is not MRR.

      • MRR should be pretty static, and go up in a good situation, or go down in a bad situation.

    • This is very simple MRR or Monthly Recurring Revenue means that each:

      Month contractually

      Revenue (revenue is that which you can spend on expenses, things like salaries, not the gross amount that you bill)

      Recurs (the customer pays you the same amount) unless they cancel the contract (we can get in the finer points of this)

      If you have a good product which is used by the users meaning they don’t cancel or churn (the leading indicator of which is seeing what users have actively used your service in the last month)

      You can build a really sustainable business because you don’t have to start from zero on the first day of each month. You can compound.

      In theory the more users you get the easier it is to get new ones.

      DM9Q35

  • I have a bunch of founder friends that tell me they got from $0-$50k MRR in 6 months then they decided the pivot or shut down the business. In my mind I think one of two things; lies or #firstworldproblems.

    • If they got from $0 to $50k MRR is six months and the bailed that sounds like they didn’t really get to $50k MRR …

      • Exactly my point. I know how hard it is to get there cos the day we hit it we celebrated like no end! Back to your point, people fake the language. 🙂 (by the way you are an investor in our company by way of Gil Penchina, so, thank you)

    • If you can get to $50k of MRR in 6 months you can reasonable assert that you can get to $500k of MRR in another 24 months.

      Sales in theory should get easier.

      $500k is an interesting business because it should be sustainable (breakeven, if growth slows, losing money if growth is accelerating)

      Once you are there you can then start to make a case for how you can get to $2mm MRR which is an interesting business to many people.

  • I’m at the point where I’m just playing my own private game of corporate speak Bingo: the more phrases I can lift from British sports commentators, the more I win. Successfully working in “testicular fortitude” is a particularly banner day.

    In all seriousness: language matters. As a statistician, I adored this round up of the various ways “statistically significant” can be butchered (“a little significant” might have been my favorite) https://mchankins.wordpress.com/2013/04/21/still-not-significant-2/

  • jsteig

    I had an enjoyable Red Line ride from South Station to Davis last night in Boston listening to three 20 something coders. They all worked in the same shop and talked the whole time about specific coding and code management challenges they were having with language that I could only understand at a surface level. I took pleasure in how earnest they were and, in contrast to some entrepreneurs, how precise and meaningful their language was.

  • Good read. Reminded me of Buffer’s helpful post on measuring MRR for SaaS apps: https://open.bufferapp.com/mistake-made-measuring-revenue-confusing-bookings-revenue-mrr/

  • Startup word salad.

    The problem is exacerbated by the fact that some startup ideas appear to be simple but aren’t eg MVP.

  • TamiMForman

    Brad — You are singing my song. One of the best compliments I ever got from George Bilbrey was when he read something and said “Did you write this?” When I said I hadn’t he replied “I didn’t think so. You don’t play buzzword bingo.”

    Way, way too much of this in the world. The real problem is that it doesn’t work anymore. Buyers are too smart and they have too much access to high quality and accurate information. The old adage of “baffle them with bullshit” just doesn’t fly in the modern era (if it ever truly did …).

  • I received this feedback in one of my first VC convos ever “Don’t use words that let me know you went to business school. You sound smarter if you can explain what all those terms mean in plain english.”

    That was some of the more useful advice I’ve ever received.

  • Glenn Whitney

    For your fake philosophy needs, I’d strongly recommend “ontological” and “epistemological.” Also throw “empirical” — it works with sciency types as well.

  • Sybal Janssen

    In my days as a project manager of software systems, my first question during a specifications meeting with the users was “what are three important measurements you will use to determine if the system is effective.” Eighty percent of the time, the users couldn’t tell me, although they were fluent in the current fad of corporate speak.

  • I remember when I was learning the language of the trading pit. It’s awesome to the other people when you say, “I don’t know, or I don’t understand” and put it into terms that you mean. Then they can translate for you into the language you want to learn and boom, you learn something.

    This even happens to experienced people. I had been trading for 18 years, and I changed from financial products to agricultural products. By this time, I had been on the CME Board of Directors and a leader at the exchange. I was trying to spread between two contracts and I finally looked at a fellow trader and said, “So I sell the J’s and buy the M’s? Or the other way around?”. He laughed at me and told me what to do. We became great friends. When we see each other and talk about the market eventually he will say “It all comes down to selling the J’s and buying the M’s.” and we laugh.

    By making myself vulnerable, I learned. Better yet, I found mentors that were willing to help me that became friends.

    • Sebastien Latapie

      Couldn’t agree more. As a consultant I’m often being introduced to new industry sectors. It pays to be humble and asking when you don’t know. You learn much faster and avoid embarrassing issues down the road.

  • EFFECT OF USE MAGIC STARTUP WORDS LIKE “TRACTION” SAME AS CAST SPELL:

    IN REAL LIFE, NOTHING.

    • At least on this planet …

      • WAIT… THERE SOME OTHER SECRET VC PLANET WHERE MAGIC WORK?

        THIS EXPLAIN SOME THINGS.

        • My other planet doesn’t allow VCs. Well – only a few – my partners and the gang at Techstars can come visit. But no one else.

          • SECRET PRIVATE ISLAND PASSE.

            COOL VCS HAVE SECRET PRIVATE PLANET!

          • If you guess the name of it, I’ll let you come hang out. We’ve got lots of coffee and bacon.

          • HMMM… RUMPLESTI… NO, THAT NOT IT.

            ME JUST GOING TO CALL IT PLANET AWESOME. YOU CALL IT WHATEVER YOU WANT.

  • Brad,

    I think you might be an exception to the rule here. Having seen you speak a few times and read some of your books I think you are pretty casual. A lot of investors aren’t.

    First time founders are pretty intimidated by investors and want to impress them badly. You are definitely spot on that talking about things in a way that the founder knows is best, but there is a lot of pressure on founders (perceived anyway) to sound “smart” because they know their competition for the funds will be somebody who has a Stanford MBA, 2 exits, does cross fit and has sparkling white veneers.

    -Arlo

  • My startup is removing friction to create traction and build a minimum viable unicorn.
    We have lean revenue, hyper-churn, and our burn rate is *on fire*.
    Pure stealth-mode rocketship.

  • Ash Connell

    Our CEO loves to use the word MVP for each tiny iteration on the functionality of our product. We’ve been building said MVP for 2 years now. It’s neither minimal or viable yet unfortunately.

    We also have a kanban wall just so we can say we have one. We don’t actually use it though, its really just a 1:1 replica of our Sprint tickets.

  • David C. Youngentob

    Brad- Reading startup communities. Enjoying this blog, started on most recent and working back.

    We are in eugene, or, where I work at http://www.fertilabthinkubator.com

    Really helpful topics on here, thanks.

    • Glad you are enjoying things here!

  • Oliver Sisson

    Traction has a simple, clear and precise meaning. It means you’re getting user engagement (revenue, users, engagement or traffic).

    If you claim to have traction, you should be able to back it up with specifics and metrics.

  • Couldn’t agree more. All that sugar coated shit makes me sick.