Big, empty words could kill your startup


Recently, reporting from the sidelines of a popular startup conference in Hong Kong, Quartz’s Asia correspondent Josh Horwitz pointed out how startups are addicted to important-sounding but meaningless words.

'Content.’ ‘Platforms.’ ‘Synergy.’ ‘End-to-end.’ ‘Solutions.’ It’s nearly impossible to find a startup at the conference that doesn’t resort to jargon when describing itself,” Horwitz wrote. “These words sound technical and informed. But they mean nothing, and they make it difficult for ordinary people to understand what a company actually does. In an effort to either sound smart and attract investors, or to simply dress up an otherwise boring product, startups that rely too much on jargon end up alienating the users they want to attract.

Horwitz reminded me of one my own biggest complaints: why don’t entrepreneurs talk like normal people? Every entrepreneur I have ever met wants to simplify the world. Why do such smart, sorted people fall for all this “productify”, “surge pricing”, “hyperlocal” mumbo-jumbo? Shouldn’t champions of simplicity start with simplifying their own language?

To answer that, let’s first understand the key groups that entrepreneurs need to communicate with. There are four of them: employees, customers, investors, and the rest of the world, which is often negotiated through the media and social media. Within specialised teams, the use of complex, technical language is acceptable, even necessary. However, as teams become increasingly multidisciplinary, companies must find a middle ground so that no one feels left out. This is a particularly pressing need for companies that start with a bunch of engineers who only think about product and can talk Python all day, and then grow to include people from a liberal arts background, whose competency lies in design or brand thinking and not code.

Among the other groups, investor communication at times calls for the use of dense terminology, mostly related to financial metrics (‘GMV’, ‘burn rate’, and so on). Also, if you are a B2B company, you may use more technical language in your customer communication since you and your customers will be talking about the nitty-gritty of your product and likely be on the same page.

What about communication with the media? Some amount of jargon is okay while addressing specialised industry blogs and the like, but in all other forums jargon adds no value and should be avoided.

Here’s a simple table to illustrate where it is necessary and acceptable to use jargon. Can you think of more such cases?


Do Indian startups have a language problem?

If we were to believe Horwitz, it would appear that rather than confine complicated language to specific use cases as this table suggests, entrepreneurs are letting it run amok. Before writing this post, I wanted to check with a few Indian entrepreneurs whether they feel this is really a problem or just a Silicon Valley-inspired stereotype.

One of them is Leo Mavely, Founder of Axio Biosolutions. Axio is not your typical Internet startup. It manufactures pads that stop bleeding instantly and has customers across police and armed forces and emergency health care services. “I agree there is an overuse of jargon in the startup community,” Mavely told me. “Maybe people think that by using jargon exclusive to certain domains, they [will appear to be] more in tune with their kind of crowds. But many concepts are better explained in simple terms than through jargon.”

Axio’s products have a difficult technical name: hemostatic pads. “Once I explained our product as a ‘hemostatic’ agent to a journalist,” Mavely said. “The next day she printed it as ‘thermostatic’. That was a good lesson to me to limit the use of jargon.”

Such confusion is rampant in the startup world. It may seem like a lower-order problem compared with a funding slowdown, mass layoffs, or unhelpful regulation. But allowed to grow uncontrolled, it can damage a startup’s fledgling brand: ask all those food-tech startups that became the subject of cruel jokes when people figured out that they are nothing but glorified home-delivery services.

Surely, entrepreneurs understand those risks. Why then are they unable to shake off complicated language? I took this question to Ashwini Asokan, Founder and CEO of Mad Street Den, a startup that works in the mysterious field of artificial intelligence. (If there is any business where using inscrutable language would be second nature, this has to be it, I thought. Turns out getting the language right is one of Asokan’s biggest challenges, but more on that later.) “[Using jargon] is about being a tribe,” Asokan said. “Startups want to stand out from others. They want to make it known that they are part of a cool tribe known as ‘startups’. Startup folks [also] have an unbelievably bloated sense of self, in my opinion.” And it shows in how they speak.

By definition, practising simple language is a bigger problem for tech startups. Entrepreneurs from more traditional areas, like Srikumar Misra, Founder of the dairy startup Milk Mantra, have a rather sharp take on this. “At times, startup jargon seems like a good way to dress up facts,” Misra told me, echoing Horwitz’s allegation. “When net sales are actually 50 after heavy discounting of 50, they come up with a fancy term called ‘GMV’ and [show] 100. Or when their business is to simply deliver food from restaurants, they call it ‘food tech’. We on the other hand are just trying to sell some healthy dairy food, have a patent or two to defend some serious innovation, and also impact a few hundred thousand consumers and rural farmers every day.”

It remains to be seen whether the dairy business stays immune to jargon or develops some of its own.

Awe vs. empathy

Asokan of Mad Street Den says a big reason startups use a certain kind of language is they “break the status quo, and as a result need to brand and rebrand those daily, mundane [business] activities and products as something new. Something that reflects the change brought about by disruption of a business model, a habit, and so on”.

That makes a lot of sense. Language is one of the most potent tools to signal uniqueness. To be sure, all manner of people—and not just entrepreneurs—use big, abstract words to stand out. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology says we “may expect higher power individuals to speak more abstractly and therefore will infer that speakers who use more abstract language have a higher degree of power”. In other words, the more confounding someone’s vocabulary, the more we tend to be in awe of them.

But for entrepreneurs, this is a big trap. Awing people by projecting power is precisely the wrong goal for startups. Awe is not a warm, intimate emotion. It is cold and distant. Awe kills empathy. Startups can survive without a lot of things, but they cannot survive without empathy. And yet, far too many entrepreneurs, voluntarily or otherwise, end up pursuing awe when they should be pursuing empathy.

Every entrepreneur will tell you how hard it is to get anywhere without a little leg-up, a few acts of kindness in the early days. Your product may suck. You may screw up delivery. Your customer service may be a pain. What do you do each time you make a mistake? Hopefully, you face your user and apologise in plain words, with sincerity. You cut out the bullshit. You choose your words to show vulnerability. What do those words trigger in your customer? Empathy. It is empathy that makes the customer give you another chance instead of abandoning you for your competitor at the first slip-up.

The free market is brutal. Empathy is the entrepreneur’s shield.

On the other hand, what do you trigger when you use vague words with your customers? Anger, which soon degenerates into indifference. That’s what happens every time your customer service team (or worse, a bot) sends cold, mechanical responses to harrowed customers struggling with delayed deliveries or long overdue refunds. Stilted, thoughtless language makes your customers feel your company is too big or busy to care for them. Eventually, they too stop caring and take their business elsewhere.

The implications of bad language run way deeper than a little bit of confusion about your product or a few lost customers: it permanently damages your authenticity. Worse, it damages your ability to make people love you, which is all most entrepreneurs have when they begin their journey.

Fixing certain areas of language, such as customer service emails, is relatively easy. (The Internet is overflowing with email best practices. If you must read something, read this.) Instead of adding to that, let’s investigate the idea of awe and its impact on startups.

Making sure you are not falling in the trap of communicating to awe your audience calls for a fundamental shift in attitude, but it shouldn’t be that hard once you understand exactly why it is a bad idea.

The biggest problem with awe is it is an outdated virtue. Awe was the hallmark of business in the last century. Think of the grand trifecta of business families that have awed generations of Indians: the Tatas, Birlas, and Ambanis. In a typical middle-class family, they were a symbol of everything you could never achieve. You could only be in awe of them. You could never be them.

Now consider the Bansals or the Sharmas or the Agarwals of the startup world. They are our neighbours’ kids, our friends, our friends’ friends. They are people like us. We cheer for them because we identify with their struggles, because they are the underdogs. Talented, irreverent employees gravitate towards them because they make them feel comfortable in their skins. None of this has anything to do with awe, and it has everything to do with empathy. In a country used to thinking, “We are not Ambanis”, empathy is the magic that makes people believe, “We can also be like the Bansals”.

Taking away awe from entrepreneurship is counter-intuitive. Far too much commentary around successful entrepreneurs focusses on precisely how awesome they are. They are marked out as a different species. They are said to possess an aura, a mystique based on qualities that others don’t have: the audacity to take on the system, the vision to think 10X when you and I can barely manage X, and the courage to spring back on their feet despite failing repeatedly. These are all larger-than-life qualities, and their association with entrepreneurs makes them look larger-than-life too. But being larger-than-life comes at a heavy price: it makes you lonely, with the whole world waiting for that one false step.

In the end, there is no difference between badly written emails meant to stonewall customers and important-sounding but hollow words meant to generate awe. Both alienate.

Minding your language

Learning to speak simply after years of conditioning is hard, but Asokan believes it can be done—even in an AI firm. Mad Street Den has highly multi-disciplinary teams; there are people working on computer vision, data science, product design, fashion design, and content writing. All product teams are cross disciplinary by design. “Jargon breaks any hope of them working together, so the teams have to speak complex AI language in daily language,” Asokan said.

You'll notice our blogs, tweets, and everything else is focussed on making AI human, normal, part of our daily lives. De-jargonising is in our DNA. [That’s the only way] to recruit billions of people into loving, living, and believing in AI that's not going to kill us all.

Of course, that doesn’t mean an absolute ban on big words. “When we do throw jargon, it's intentional, only after we have brought people along for the ride and established it as the language of preference,” Asokan said. “At which point, it's not jargon anymore because we've made it the common language.”

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)


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