Jul 21 2015

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.