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Startups Can't Explain What They Do Because They're Addicted To Meaningless Jargon (qz.com) 208

Josh Horwitz of Quartz, who is attending RISE Conference, has an observation to share about the startups he is seeing at the event: As startup culture has gone global and transcended stereotypes, though, one of its defining traits has stuck around. Startup jargon is alive and well, and it seems to be getting worse. "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. 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.Also in the report, Horowitz talks about an app called Cubes, and how it was pitched to him. "We visually organize your email and cloud-based content for ultra fast access. It's visual storytelling with any type of content." The app essentially retrieves non-text attachments from one's email or Dropbox account, takes screenshots of those things and bundles them together in a standalone app.
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Startups Can't Explain What They Do Because They're Addicted To Meaningless Jargon

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  • by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @03:23PM (#52235399)

    I'm afraid that "We visually organize your email and cloud-based content for ultra fast access. It's visual storytelling with any type of content." was perfectly clear to me.

    I think I've spent too much time absorbing technical buzzwords.

  • The real problem (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday June 02, 2016 @03:25PM (#52235429)

    The problem is that many startups don't do anything of value. A lot of those terms suggest to me they're either middlemen or advertisers. If you have a truly innovative product, it should be easy to describe. The word "content" isn't necessarily bad, though. If I'm writing articles and creating videos about a topic, it might be easier to say I'm producing educational content.

    • by NotDrWho ( 3543773 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @03:59PM (#52235773)

      The problem is that many startups don't do anything of value.

      That's because so many software services these days are only focused on monetizing collected data on the private habits and interests of their users, which they can then sell in some fashion to advertisers, marketers, etc.

    • by Junta ( 36770 )

      It's interesting because so many of them market junk, I've become automatically skeptical of marketing heavy descriptions. However, even if it's really good, they must play the marketing game and sound the same as the snake oil, so there's some legitimate gems hidden among the sea of marketing BS.

    • by Darinbob ( 1142669 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @04:47PM (#52236265)

      Exactly true. I know a lot of people in startups, and many of them do meaningless things. Either the company is unable to articulate what they mean (I can't figure it out and I'm in the same field), or they're goal is just to suck up investor money. The majority of efforts are often spent going to trade shows where they interact with other companies that do nothing (I think that's what "synergy" means).

      One guy said he was only one out of two engineers in a company of ten, and that even with only ten people they had a full time photographer on staff.

      Maybe a problem is that the customer is the investor. You can't talk about engineering or specifics as the investors will become confused, or feel stupid, or whatever. The original startup founders very often have zero technical knowledge or skills, but they know how to sell things and con people. So you have to use the language that investors use and that means fuzzy buzzwords when talking to investors or upper management. After awhile the entire company is babbling to each other meaninglessly while all nodding sagely lest they seem stupid or not a part of the cool crowd.

      "Content" == "we're too stupid to actually build anything, but we can sell you customer information,"
      "Platforms" == "we're going to take some open source code and stick it on off-the-shelf hardware, then try to sell it."
      "Synergy" == "we want to piggy-back on your system."
      "End-to-end" == "vendor lock in and no standards."
      "Solutions" == "we dont know what we're good at yet, but we're willing to do whatever you ask us to do."

  • Disruption (Score:5, Insightful)

    by martiniturbide ( 1203660 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @03:26PM (#52235441) Homepage Journal
    ...you forgot "Disruption" as part of the used jargon.
  • Business has always embraced the unknown and as if it's exotic. Startups have this figured out, investors not so much.
  • by pr0t0 ( 216378 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @03:30PM (#52235483)

    It's a whole-home item aggregation service where the user can organize and prioritize deficit values to leverage on-demand expenditures.

    -- grocery list

    Add yours below!

    • You forgot on your Android or IOS device for only $1.99.

    • by wbr1 ( 2538558 )
      With smart-device integration into cloud based internet of things services, we can leverage big data aggregation from your refrigerator!
    • But does the fridge email you--sorry old fogey here, just turned 30--does the fridge text you (in a proprietary app, of course) when the milk is about to go bad?
  • by VorpalRodent ( 964940 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @03:30PM (#52235487)
    To call the type of cutting edge thought leadership that we do in our particular paradigm landscape nothing more than jargon is simply unsubstantiated. By leveraging the de-facto enterprise-ready solutionspace that your clients are already engaged with, we enable your company to provide truly agile customer-driven projects that have a low ready to market to headcount ratio.
  • by thinkwaitfast ( 4150389 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @03:31PM (#52235501)
    by Chip Morningstar

    One of the best things you'll ever read [fudco.com]

    Chip Morningstar is an author, developer, programmer and designer of software systems, mainly for online entertainment and communication.

  • Our unicorn is blowing cash out the wazoo for great company perks like food, foosball tables and laundry service for overpriced talent. We might even make a profit by accident. Yahoo!
    • There is no overpriced talent at a startup. They're paid in worthless options and not cash. And the less a person knows the more stock options they get. Anybody with real talent will be hired as a contractor so that the're no chance they'll get any options.

      The whole point of a startup is to swindle investors. As such there's no pride in doing a good job as a technical person. Your job is to create mock ups and prototypes where speed is more important than quality. Becuase if the company ever goes publ

  • by mlts ( 1038732 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @03:38PM (#52235559)

    I have done proposals to VCs with the produce displayed in simple, terse sentences. The original draft got snubbed, because the would-be funders wanted to see words like "cloud based", "hyperconvergence", "deperimeterization", and other puffery. It almost is a different language, where just stating that "this is something that does 'x'" has to be obfuscated into paragraphs of fluff.

    • I hope you mean "product" instead of "produce", or else you're just a grocery store.
      • by mlts ( 1038732 )

        You're right... In some ways, it would make life easier Displaying produce would be not as tough, but it would probably require its own set of buzzwords more edgy and with more pop than "organic".

    • by Archangel Michael ( 180766 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @04:11PM (#52235911) Journal

      "x'" has to be obfuscated into paragraphs of fluff.

      This is all I learned from all the reports I did in school. The teachers/professors didn't actually want to know the information being imparted (most likely, because they already knew it, or just didn't care), but rather were looking for exactly what you described ... "paragraphs of fluff". If you didn't say "Colorado Population: 5.356 Million as of 2014* " in a way that took up at least a paragraph (preferably a whole page) in your report, it was graded poorly.

      And I never really understood the point of writing a report, fully expounding (fluffifying) the summation of another source. The point being reports end up being TL;DR nonesense with the sole purpose of teaching you how to write fluffy reports for people who are too lazy to actually read them in the first place. See Office Space; TPS Reports for insightful view of reports.

      TL;DR version; This is what they were taught in school to expect in a report, so anything less than a fluff piece is rejected as "incomplete".**

      *US Census Bureau, where you can find all sorts of other interesting facts about population of all sorts of places, not just Colorado. Imagine that!
      ** See what I did there? :-D

      • by mlts ( 1038732 )

        I am guessing those new 10 terabyte helium SMR drives have to be filled up somehow, and cat pics are not really work relevant.

        Makes me wonder about making a stego application which hides a message in a buzzword filled product announcement, similar to the one that uses spam for hiding a message.

  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @03:40PM (#52235585)

    Weird Al's Mission Statement [youtube.com].

    Simply crib and your next status report is done.

    • "Invest in world-class technology
      And leverage our core competencies
      In order to holistically administrate
      Exceptional synergy" ...was so going to post that! So good!

  • This is just the latest crop of buzzword bingo fruit that was sewn 10 years ago, when recruiters, HR drones, and venture capitalists started looking for absurd words on the coversheet.

    That modern proposals resemble something coming from a Markov Chain generator script should come as no surprise to anyone. "Professional Resumes" look just as bad, with non-speak like "X years experience in a fast-paced, competative environment", when what they really mean is that they spent X years in the trenches of level 1

  • by KermodeBear ( 738243 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @03:48PM (#52235649) Homepage

    For your amusement, I present to you the Startup Generator [tiffzhang.com].

  • Unicorn founder in a turtleneck:"Our start-up is a platform that provides the necessary synergy to pair content with end-to-end solutions"

    VC firms:"Here's $500million!"

  • by T.E.D. ( 34228 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @03:53PM (#52235711)

    My general theory, which has served me great for academia, and the business world, and probably applies to startups just is well is:

    If someone can't explain something very well in plain English, its almost certainly because they don't understand it very well themselves.

  • ...for an investor/customer perspective that actually knows what those words should mean and imply. You hear the buzz pitch, then you look at the actual technology, and see if they really used the buzz correctly. If they didn't, you can probably bet that the actual product is crap. Saves you having to go through wasting a few weeks trying the technology out and being disappointed.
    • by wierd_w ( 1375923 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @04:01PM (#52235795)

      That is a HORRIBLE surrogate metric for determining quality.

      The competency of their marketing department has no bearing on the competency of their engineering department.

      I have seen brilliant, and innovative things totally hamstrung by lackluster marketing, and I have seen total filth that isnt worth even a cursory examination being presented in brilliant marketing materials.

      How well they transcribe into obscure verbiage is a talent of the marketer. I can see wanting to make sure their marketing department is up to the task, since good products fail from bad marketing, but determining the value of the product from the marketing pitch?! What are you smoking?!

      • I'm smoking experience, friend. Note that I didn't imply the other direction was true. Also, there's more to a product than just the engineering aspect. There's customer support (are they just as uninformed and useless as the marketers?), there's the documentation (same thing), and the overall management of the company (who let these clowns out of the circus, and what's to make of the future direction of this technology I'm investing in today, should I be trusting them?). The list goes on.
    • How about, instead of obfuscating what your shit does in Buzzword Bingo based statements that end up being near meaningless, you simple say "our product does this, and what is novel about our approach is this patented bit right here. We feel this bit is really exciting, because it allows us to do this thing that nobody else can do this particular way. And we've see value in that technology".

      IMHO "Leveraging Synergies" is meaningless, it tells me absolutely nothing, as it can apply to just about every Start

  • I am not in that business or, in fact, in any business, however I can tell you exactly what all of those words mean in this context, and those meanings are directly and intuitively related to their meaning outside this context. OP just has a reading comprehension deficiency.
    • I might let them have synergy as it is so easily abused, but yeah, the rest seem pretty obvious. What else could "content" mean when someone is offering to host your content?

    • Sometimes I think it more has to do with what a jargon term doesn't mean in a technical sense, which might otherwise be implied to someone who has a vague idea of what it is, but isn't familiar with its actual and proper context. It's sort of a way of over-promising on a technology's capabilities without ever really promising those things. That's not always the case, though. Some really are pretty cut and dry.
  • By leveraging crowd-based efforts through public consciousness.

  • gobbledygook (Score:5, Interesting)

    by necro81 ( 917438 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @03:57PM (#52235755) Journal
    Brings to mind this quotation from IBM's Tom Watson Jr. [ibm.com]:

    A foreign language has been creeping into many of the presentations I hear and the memos I read. It adds nothing to a message but noise, and I want your help in stamping it out. It's called gobbledygook. There's no shortage of examples. Nothing seems to get finished anymore it gets "finalized." Things don't happen at the same time but "coincident with this action." Believe it or not, people will talk about taking a "commitment position" and then because of the "volatility of schedule changes" they will "decommit" so that our "posture vis-à-vis some data base that needs a sizing will be able to enhance competitive positions." That's gobbledygook. (February 19, 1970)

    Also on topic: the turbo encabulator. [youtube.com]

    This is not a new phenomenon, unfortunately.

    • There's a simple reason, that anyone who's worked with a large and diverse set of people can identify in a heartbeat, and that Feynman put in your words.

      Speaking directly and writing clearly is a conscious effort. You need to force yourself to do it, because your natural tendency is to issue qualifiers left and right.

      The reason for that is clarity of prose conveys confidence which implies clarity of thought. Clarity of thought implies the ability to take responsibility and confidence of words implies a wi
  • Or tech writers.

  • Gina's Inc (Score:5, Insightful)

    by utahjazz ( 177190 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @03:57PM (#52235759)

    Seriously, tell me WTF this company [cassandrasangel.com] does:

    Gina’s Ink, Incorporated has created a platform called the Change My World Now Initiative, which engages, educates and empowers American children, facilitating their ability to reach out and in turn, empower children in countries around the world to move beyond their present circumstances and to find the independence and dignity that education can provide.

    The Change My World Now Initiative transforms the conversation that children are having with themselves, their peers, their parents and their community. Instilling the ideas of self-reliance, self-worth, tolerance, and self-acceptance early in life will have a radical effect on children, their future, and their circles of influence, creating a cadre of young leaders, truly...Changing the World One Bright Light at a Time.

    • Hold on, you're telling me that there's a company called Gina's Ink Inc???
    • by OzPeter ( 195038 )

      Seriously, tell me WTF this companydoes:

      I took a look. It took me a while to figure it out. It's:

      1. An online store to sell a vanity press version of a kids book
      2. An attempt to make FB for kids by pitching it as "the world is a scary place, so lets talk about it"

      • 2. An attempt to make FB for kids by pitching it as "the world is a scary place..."

        Part of what makes it scary is that the little shits bully each other on Facebook (or Instagram or whatever), occasionally to the point of suicide, occasionally to the point of mass murder. I mean, kids have been bullying each other for a long time, but if this startup is successful in reaching kids, it will likely degenerate into the same sewer that Facebook and Instagram are for children.

    • Pretty sure I saw a documentary about Empowered Children [imdb.com] a while ago...

    • It's a company created by the Illuminati to indoctrinate children to prepare them for the New World Order.

    • ... buzzword salad deleted ....

      Translation: It's yet another social networking site.

  • by EvilSS ( 557649 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @03:58PM (#52235763)
    The issue is that many times they think that they won't be taken seriously if they don't use a bunch of jargon. I run into this type of thinking all the time within my field. Customer documents that read like they were written by the devil spawn resulting from a threeway between a lawyer, an engineer, and a marketing executive. It's a hard habit to get out of. People think if you use simple language the customer won't think you are good at what you do. I have to remind people that the document is for reading, not trying to show how smart you think you are. Plus, if the damn thing is actually readable, it might actually get read. Nothing sucks more than generating a 200 page document that it exists solely to check off a deliverable checkbox.
    • by tekrat ( 242117 )

      Back in the days of CD-ROM development (remember CD-ROMS?), we used to be asked to do *exactly* that. We'd be asked to create a 200-page document that described the product we were creating in great detail.

      We eventually developed a template to work from, and, more interestingly, that template included the phrase, somewhere in the middle -- "If you walk up to anyone in the development team and say xyzzy, we will hand you a crisp ten-dollar bill"

      By now, I'm sure you know where I'm going with this story -- we

  • by tlhIngan ( 30335 ) <slashdot@wo[ ]net ['rf.' in gap]> on Thursday June 02, 2016 @04:00PM (#52235779)

    All you need to know about jargon Weird Al sums up nicely in this music video [youtube.com].

  • When your resume goes into the HR soup it is analyzed for certain keywords. Fail to include the important ones and your resume goes in the reject file.

    Perhaps investors are actually looking for these idiotic keywords. Talk plain and you lose.

  • It's intentionally misleading so some people can make a buck.
  • by HockeyPuck ( 141947 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @04:17PM (#52235979)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J-GVd_HLlps [youtube.com]

    Silicon Valley was so right. My Sig other has learned more about the Silicon Valley watching this show (and Office Space) than any other method...

  • Collaboration and decision-making prioritize the customers. Reality-based, prospective and high-quality touchpoints diligently aggregate business enabling and/or value-added plans. The executive committee empowers socially enabled communications, whereas the resource quickly maximizes pre-integrated targets. The game changers stay in the mix. The resources differentially institutionalize our executive-level solution providers; this is why our focus turbocharges a granularity. The senior support staff establ

  • by b1ng0 ( 7449 )

    Dot com bubble 2.0

  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @05:05PM (#52236411) Homepage Journal

    The language in academic papers is inflated because the authors are afraid they don't have enough to say. The exception is that rare, rare animal: the seminal paper; papers that really changes things fundamentally in a field. Those are almost invariably written with stark simplicity. You can usually give them to beginner students in the field and they'll have no problem following.

    Are papers seminal because they're clearly written? I don't think so; I think what a seminal paper does is communicate a naked simplifying insight that strips away a lot of confusion. The straightforward language is a kind of brash advertisement of that fact.

    The reason I think that is that not hacking your meaning into semantic gobbledygook is almost seen as posing. I worked with some Harvard researchers on a grant proposal, and when I sent the draft of my bits to the Harvard team they sent them back butchered into jargon word stew. "This is terrible writing!" I said. "Yes," the researcher said, "it's deplorable. But trust me, it'll play well." And dammit, it did.

  • My guess is that startups are communicating in the language that their customers (aka venture capitalists) understand.
    Sadly, that isn't the language that their beta users (aka customers) understand...

    Confusing, well, simply imagine the message you are trying to communicate is this... "blah, blah, blah, fear of missing out, yada, yada, yada..."

  • Isn't the word "startup" itself meaningless buzz. It's just a new company.
  • by elistan ( 578864 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @06:35PM (#52237051)
    Patents Can't Explain What The Invention Is Because They're Full Of Meaningless Jargon

    That's my experience, at least. The failing is mine however, as while I can't understand what patents try to say it seems plenty of other people can. I wonder if "Startup Speak" is a similar situation - people who work in that realm understand the language, but just because those of us outside that realm don't grok the language doesn't necessarily mean it's meaningless...?
  • I keep hearing about these start ups and how lithe and agile they are and everyone dresses down and flat management structure and no politics. I've worked for small companies and my experience was that flat management meant that nobody was in charge. And trust me, small companies have plenty of office politics. It's just human nature and the people that are managers - they operate the same way no matter the size of the company. It's how they are trained.

    The only reason to join a small company is to get some

  • >> The app essentially ...takes screenshots of those things and bundles them together

    it's data-mining to promote win-win synergies and enabling ultra-collaborative cross-team visualizations for end-to-end global solutions in the cloud *cough*

  • by dskoll ( 99328 ) on Thursday June 02, 2016 @08:09PM (#52237805) Homepage

    My company is not a startup, but back in 2000 when it was, I had a really simple three-word description of what we did:

    We stop spam.

    And I'm convinced that having a clear understanding of what we were doing and a clear way to communicate it was a factor in our success.

"Ninety percent of baseball is half mental." -- Yogi Berra