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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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What Does “World Class” Mean?

Comments (33)

I heard the phrase “world class” three times today. I’ve decided to toss it on the scrap heap of “phrases that mean nothing to me anymore.” I’m finishing up Friedman’s The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (which is awesome BTW – definitely a world class book – I’ll be done on my SF to Chicago trip Thursday night.) It dawned on me that the phrase “world class” isn’t indexed against anything. No one ever says, “that’s not world class, it’s American class.” While “China class” might refer to a room full of people studying Mandarin (or how China is whipping our American butts in education and so many other things), it doesn’t link in any meaningful way to the phrase “world class.” This is yet another phrase that the PR / marketing weenies have rendered irrelevant.

“We are building a world class management team. Our development organization is world class. We have a world class sales and marketing organization. Our company aspires to be world class.” C’mon – that means nothing.

In my first company, we talked briefly (I think about 60 seconds) about creating a mission “to be the best software consulting company in the world.” After all the MIT / Brown / Wellesley people in my company laughed (“hey Brad, who gives a damn about a stupid vague unattainable mission like that?”), I / we realized that vapid phrases didn’t inspire anything (except internal contempt). It took more than 60 seconds to come up with our mission, which was “We suck less.”


Now – “we suck less” means something. Our business was hard – if you were a provider or a customer / user of custom database applications in 1990, you understand what I mean.  We were usually the third or fourth company hired by our clients (our predecessors used up all the budget and then were fired because their stuff sucked) and the projects we were “starting on” were often already late and over budget before we even showed up at the party.


When we told our clients something like “we are better than the last guys”, they either groaned or laughed maniacally since they had already heard that a few times from the people that came before us. But when we told them “the thing we are doing is really hard, the guys before us sucked, but we are going to suck less and try our hardest to be successful for you” our clients usually related (at least when they laughed, it was with a smile on their face.)

We delivered more often then not. So – while we never achieved that elusive “world class” status, we definitely sucked less most of the time. And – when I wandered down the hallways saying “guys – focus on sucking less – that’s the key to our success”, people rallied a lot more than if I had shouted “we are going to be world class” from the rooftops.

  • http://www.newestindustry.org/index.php/2005/05/11/the_myth_of_world_class The Newest Industry

    The Myth of World Class

    Brad Feld helps me extend my list of meaningless phrases that should never be used to include World Class. [here]

    Since I consciously started considering every word that I say, and making a very conscious effort to try and use the simple instead of …

  • http://luca9200.typepad.com Luca

    Mmmmhhh… how does “world class” in business relate to “world series” in baseball?

  • http://prometheus.med.utah.edu/~bwjones/ Bryan William Jones

    I have no problem with language changing over time to fit the current zeitgeist, but the use of certain phrases like “World Class” only serves to irritate. These phrases function as an indicator of ones lack of preparation and fundamental misunderstanding of the subject matter. Every time I have walked into a meeting or project proposal and heard this phrase, I tune out. It’s right up there with “best of breed” and “best practice” which say nothing about whose standard they are measured against. What does the speaker mean when they invoke these phrases? What message are they presenting? These phrases are an indicator that the speaker is attempting to try and convince the audience that they know more than they really do.

    When speaking or presenting a project, I would like to believe that the speaker has enough respect for the audience to imbue their speech with meaning, by the careful selection of words that invoke specific interpretation or understanding. Proposals should clarify concepts rather than obfuscate them, and through conceptual clarity we have efficiency of thought and action.

    Bryan William Jones
    Jonesblog

  • Preston

    Another meaningless, undefined [I guess that is redundant] phrase that I’ve heard thrown around is “tier one” as in “we are going to become a tier one player in our industry”. It felt like an excuse to spend more money.

  • http://www.jslogan.com/index.php?title=does_your_mission_statement_mean_anythin JSLogan

    Does Your Mission Statement Mean Anything to Anyone?

    The problem with mission statements is they are overwhelmingly meaningless outcomes of multi-day offsite meetings, where a small group of people sit and hammer one out because it

  • Santosh

    Brad,

    As much as I agree with your disdain to the word “world-class” being used senselessly , I am at odds with your perspective of creating a mission statement like” we suck less”, I think that is hilarious though.

    In an ontologoical sense, words can create ones being. Not sure, if people who said to themselves ” we suck less”, did create any break-throughs, or rise above the cynicism that the predesssor left behind and make a difference.

    Not sure what your point of this post was, but , I think its not the word “world class” per-se, but under what context it is being used that makes it meaning less.

    I think being world class could mean, a product or service or organization that has the ability to compete in the world market.

    thanks

    • Jim Fraser

      Yes, I suppose, ontologically speaking, that Number 2 Tries Harder should have consigned Avis to the dustbin of car hire history.

      Apparently not.

  • Jon H

    “World class” often comes up in efforts to convince taxpayers to pay for a stadium.

    As in, if the city doesn’t have a stadium, it’ll lose its pro team. And if it doesn’t have a pro sports team, it will no longer be a “world class” city.

    So I guess that in the context of a city, “world class” means the citizens were suckered into coughing up welfare for very wealthy people.

  • http://www.prohiphop.com Clyde Smith

    “China is whipping our American butts in education”? Are you sure about that? Or do you mean there are numerous highly motivated Chinese and Chinese-Americans who work really hard and feel extreme amounts of pressure. I don’t think China has such a hot education system, unless you’re referring to elite pockets of activity.

    They do have a lot of poor people who are getting poor education, in which case they may have outdone us in that regard.

    I’m not impressed by the U.S. education system but China’s nothng to get excited about in that regard.

  • http://bigben.blogs.com Ben Casnocha

    Clyde – China is indeed kicking our butts in education especially at the higher ed level in terms of number of terminal degrees. Look it up. Oh, and “working really hard” is as good an indicator as any! It’s all cultural….

  • http://www.prohiphop.com Clyde Smith

    Ben – quantity isn’t quality but thanks, I’ll check out more. I just get distracted by all those human rights issues and that massive poverty but I realize that’s beside the point.

  • http://www.patentbaristas.com/archives/000220.php Patent Baristas

    Discovering Your Work-Life Balance

    I'm a fan of Feld Thoughts and recommend that you check it out if you don't already read it. Although the content is sometimes over my head in financial lingo, I enjoy the insights I can glean from it. My…

  • http://www.patentbaristas.com/archives/000220.php Patent Baristas

    Discovering Your Work-Life Balance

    I'm a fan of Feld Thoughts and recommend that you check it out if you don't already read it. Although the content is sometimes over my head in financial lingo, I enjoy the insights I can glean from it. My…

  • http://www.patentbaristas.com/archives/000220.php Patent Baristas

    Discovering Your Work-Life Balance

    I’m a fan of Feld Thoughts and recommend that you check it out if you don’t already read it. Although the content is sometimes over my head in financial lingo, I enjoy the insights I can glean from it. My…

  • Pingback: Service Matters » Blog Archive » What does “World Class” mean?

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/jmvincent jmvincent

    I've been working on my dissertation on the subject of "Making World Class Meaningful for the last 4 years. Hopefully in a year or two I'll have a pretty good answer pulished.

  • Keeley

    Too funny :)!

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    Actually, I disagree. "We suck less" continues to resonate while "world class" has pleasantly evaporated from the business lexicon, at least in the circles I run in.

  • Steve

    Well Brad I hope the almost five years since this post has taught you "we suck less" has an equivalent value to "world class" in meaning. It just appeals to a younger understanding of clever. Neither statement tells you who, what, when, where or how – perhaps even why. Every year a team wins the super bowl. Then what? Well, you try to win it again in a never ending cycle – put that way it sounds almost mindless – but people spend countless hours and dollars on this mindless activity. To win the super bowl every year may be a definition of "world class" in football – but then everyone else would quit.

  • Steve

    Well Brad I hope the almost five years since this post has taught you “we suck less” has an equivalent value to “world class” in meaning. It just appeals to a younger understanding of clever. Neither statement tells you who, what, when, where or how – perhaps even why. Every year a team wins the super bowl. Then what? Well, you try to win it again in a never ending cycle – put that way it sounds almost mindless – but people spend countless hours and dollars on this mindless activity. To win the super bowl every year may be a definition of “world class” in football – but then everyone else would quit.

    • http://www.feld.com Brad Feld

      Actually, I disagree. \”We suck less\” continues to resonate while \”world class\” has pleasantly evaporated from the business lexicon, at least in the circles I run in.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/bfeld bfeld

    Actually, I disagree. “We suck less” continues to resonate while “world class” has pleasantly evaporated from the business lexicon, at least in the circles I run in.

  • brad

    world-class: above all others

  • http://www.ooomaigosh.com Mai Nguyen

    How about "award-winning" without specifying which awards? (i.e. is it an Oscar or a Razzie, or in Sandra Bullock's case, both?!) Even better, please specify ranks and numbers of competitors. Also interesting how only the "little guys" make this claim.

  • http://www.ooomaigosh.com Mai Nguyen

    How about “award-winning” without specifying which awards? (i.e. is it an Oscar or a Razzie, or in Sandra Bullock's case, both?!) Even better, please specify ranks and numbers of competitors. Also interesting how only the “little guys” make this claim.

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