Start-Ups

Startup jargon: 10 terms to stop using

Overused jargon is everywhere, but buzzwords and phrases are particularly prevalent in the startup scene. Here are 10 terms that are worth retiring.

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Image: iStockphoto/DragonImages

Industry lingo is a strange thing. Many verticals are defined by the language they use, despite the fact that many of the words are nonsense or have long lost their meaning. Startups are especially prone to playing word games and overusing clichés when it comes to defining their work.

In fairness, many times that's because there is no existing phrase that accurately explains what they do. Still, some startups exhaust the same phrases like they're going out of style.

Let's take a look at 10 terms that could safely be removed from the startup lexicon.

1. Disruption

"Why does everything have to be disrupted in tech?," said Sunil Rajaraman, CEO and co-founder of Scripted.com.

The term disruption and the adjective disruptive come from the concept of disruptive innovation, and are used to describe technology that uproots, and eventually replaces, an existing technology (e.g. CDs eventually replacing cassette tapes). The problem with this description is that it is often used out of context and has lost its power. Often when a startup refers to its disruptive technology, it is tech that adds to or simplifies the existing technology, not something that displaces it.

"You're not that disruptive. Stop lying to yourself," said Rameet Chawla, founder of Fueled.

2. Pivot

Pivot typically means to turn on a point; but, to startups, it generally means to change the direction with your business. The term was popularized by Eric Ries and the lean startup method of business development. The problem with "pivot" is that most startups are using it to describe a complete change in course rather than a change in focus.

Hired.com CEO Matt Mickiewicz defines pivot as, "A lame way of saying 'our original hypothesis proved incorrect, and we're going to try something else before we run out of money.'"

3. Comparisons to known entities

Startups are typically referred to as companies that are changing the game or blazing a trail, but you wouldn't know it by how they describe their product offering. Startups used to be proud to carve out a niche in a market and didn't care if they had contemporaries.

Now, it seems that more and more startups are billing themselves as the "Uber for..." or the "LinkedIn for..." It's understandable to draw a comparison to companies that people may already know, but it's an underwhelming way to describe what you do. If you are excited about what your company does, you need to find a better way of concisely explaining that.

4. Growth hacker

The term growth hacker basically means someone, usually in marketing, who is focused on growing the business — that's it. The term is widely believed to be the brainchild of Sean Ellis, who penned a blog post in 2010 describing a growth hacker. It is far from the most detrimental term you could use in your startup, but it shifts the focus of growth to one person. In reality, startups have two options — grow or die — and that growth is contingent on every member of the startup team, not on one person who eats and breathes SEO, for example.

When Sunil Rajaraman hears the term growth hacker this is what he thinks, "What does that even mean? It sounds like taking a weed wacker and stifling people."

5. Mututal NDA / FriendDA

As I have mentioned before, a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is, "An agreement between two parties to protect sensitive or confidential information, such as trade secrets, from being shared with outside parties."

NDAs are common in the startup world, as proprietary info can make or break a startup. Now growing in popularity is the FriendDA, which is a formal agreement you make with a friend after you tell them your next million dollar idea. Here's another option: If you are scared that your friend is going to try to screw you over or steal your idea, don't tell them your idea. Talk to a mentor you've worked with in the past or just start working on your idea without anyone's blessing.

"Yes, I'll keep your stupid secret that's not even worth keeping, and a million people have already thought of that idea," said Ryan Matzner, director of Fueled.

6. Ninja / Rockstar / Wizard

"Engineers are not rockstars, ninjas, etc. They are engineers," Rajaraman said.

I'm not here to downplay the importance of anyone's specific job. It takes talent and hard work to build a startup, but being adamant about referring to employees as rockstars and ninjas devalues titles like developer and software engineer. Employees should be able to proud of what they do without a cliché appellation for their job description. Plus, everyone calling themselves rockstars doesn't do much for humility in the startup scene.

"Just say you want really smart people, who can whiteboard solutions to algorithm problems with their eyes closed," Mickiewicz said.

7. Curation

This is the fancy way of saying, "We don't produce our own content." Unlike museum curators who go through years of specialized education and training to better understand the subtle subject differences between Monet and Manet, content curators scour Buzzfeed lists and Huffington Post headlines to find click bait for their Twitter accounts.

8. Freemium

A freemium product strategy is one where the core product is available free of charge, but users have the option to purchase a premium version of the product or service for price. The benefits are obvious in that it gives people a low-barrier of entry to your product, allowing them to try before they buy. Most of the time, the free apps contain ads that also produce revenue for the creator.

We get it, most people don't want to pay for apps. Let's just go back to saying we have a free version and a paid version.

9. Social media consultant

When it comes to social media professionals, there are folks out there that add great value to startups and bigger companies alike. The issue is that too many people think that a large number of Twitter followers mean they are equipped to advise others on how to "do" social media. A good social media expert should help you set a goal and develop a plan to reach that goal, not dangle the promise of thousands of likes as their value proposition.

"Too many people use this term, but have very few successes to point to," Mickiewicz said.

10. True North

Referring to something as your "True North" is just a contrived way of saying, "I am focused on X." Instead, be transparent with your goals and be upfront with people. No one wants to decode what you're saying. Plus, the fact that you're probably in a major metro doesn't lend much credibility to your skills of using a compass to find your way out of the woods.

What do you think?

We want to hear from you. Do you find any of these terms helpful? What are some other terms you think startups should stop using?

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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