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.

Today, there are hundreds of words that people throw around in the context of their startups. Many, like traction, are completely meaningless. Tweet This Quote

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 startups 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.

It feels like some people are trying to fake it without really knowing what they are saying. Don’t try to fake it. Tweet This Quote

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.”?

Don’t worry about loading up your discussion with cliches and trendy words. Focus on telling the story of your business. Tweet This Quote

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.

This originally appeared on Brad’s blog.

About the author

Brad Feld

Brad Feld

Brad is a co-founder and Managing Director of Foundry Group and has been an early stage tech investor and entrepreneur since 1987. He also co-founded Mobius Venture Capital, Intensity Ventures, and TechStars.
Brad has been active with several non-profit organizations and currently is chair of the National Center for Women & Information Technology, co-chair of Startup Colorado, and on the board of UP Global.

  • Brad, thank you so sincerely for this post and continuously letting us share your brilliance on! As someone relatively new to the startup ecosystem, it’s comforting to feel that it’s not just me being a novice when I feel I am trying to navigate through jargon. That said, as you mention, this seems to be a consequence of not knowing what metrics are important or how to communicate the core of progress. With so many metrics used to define growth/progress/success (i.e. such as MRR versus net revenue versus gross sales), is there a set of key metrics you think are most important for startups and telling of their progress? Also, this post reminded me of one of my favorites by legendary Pascal Finette Language Is Powerful (Or: There Are No Fucking Unicorns). Here’s the link for fellow readers interested in similar themes!

  • Victoria Geissler

    This article is very eye opening because I have never thought of entrepreneur/start up buzz words as being negative. I have always tried to incorporate them into my vocabulary. It makes me think of how not to be “fake” with the words I use. I want to make sure the company comes across real, down to earth, and approachable and not fake, awkward, or uncomfortable. Going forward knowing what I know now after reading this article I will make sure I do not use “fake” words and clichés.

  • Nancy Butler

    Refreshing point of view. Thanks

  • Ashley White

    I found this article to be incredibly relevant. As I go through business school, I see a number of times where students “fake it til you make it.” I think we have become so accustom to learning the bare minimum to pass by. Students don’t need to dive into their textbooks anymore to earn A’s in a class. If they get the bullet points down, they can pass easily. I naively thought that people who started their own businesses knew what they were doing. It’s a little disconcerting that even start-up owners are faking it too. I think everyone needs to stop and value the unlimited opportunity to learn. Learn always and share it!

  • Rebecca Radspinner

    I think that in a start up position when someone is trying to launch their business or social initiative, it can be intimidating, even or scary, to present your project to someone else. The use of buzz words or attempting to sound more educated than you really are is something that many people have been programmed to do. The whole “fake it until you make it” lesson that most of us have heard throughout our lives. It can be a hard lesson to unlearn. No one wants to sound uneducated, but at the same time, using words out of context or without recognizing their meaning is just as bad, if not worse, than admitting that you do not know something. Instead of attempting to present a facade, research the topic or talk to a subject matter expert. After talking to several people who have set up their own enterprises, I have realized that people do genuinely want to help others and share their wisdom. It is okay to ask for help or clarification.

  • Maria Alvarez

    This is very real to me, since I just had a personal experience to me. A friend just graduated with a marketing degree, I asked for some help with my marketing and what I got was an atrocious high school project. In a later conversation the topic of learning came up they said “I got really good at college. I didn’t even buy the textbooks, just read the power points” I think this has something to do with why people don’t work in the field they majored in, a lot of people dont have anything to apply to field. They literally learned nothing.

  • Chuck Triplett

    Starting a business is challenging on many fronts and while I’d love to think I’m a little good at a lot of things, I’m an expert in very few. I appreciate why entrepreneurs are forced to adopt a “fake it till you make it” attitude about 80% of their businesses – fund raising in particular. Pretending to talk the lingo is just a symptom of a larger issue – a lack of sophisticated support to small businesses. Although there a number of business “incubators” or “accelerators” for the few. Most entrepreneurs have too little support in basic business operations common among them all. Public investments in training at the city, state, and federal levels are essential to supporting small business leaders through faking it and into success.

  • Lanette Andrew

    The power of story is in being authentic. Entrepreneurs are not passionate about terminology, they are passionate about their company and what can be accomplished. The idea that business can be explained in layman’s terms and the language learned over time is very much one that works for me.

  • Ashley White

    I absolutely loved this post because I agree with not “trying to fake it.” It can be very difficult to be in conversation with someone who is overemphasizing their information or story and using words they don’t even understand the meaning behind. Be real and true and you’ll have a more genuine, meaningful conversation.