THERE’S A PLACE FOR USING TERMS SUCH AS ‘NET-NET’, ‘SCALABLE’, ‘BLUESKYING’ AND ‘OPTIMISING’ — AND THAT PLACE ISN’T ANYWHERE OUTSIDE THE OFFICE. TIME TO LEAVE THE ENTREPRENEURIAL LINGO TO, YOU KNOW, THE ENTREPRENEURS. CAN WE ALL ACTION THAT? STAT.
Going forward, please, no more 'scalable' this and ‘pivoting’ that.
An embarrassing thing happened recently at a prominent Silicon Alley eatery. A young CEO was enjoying a pleasant dinner with his investors when he was suddenly shown the door by restaurant staff. Turns out, the maître d’ overheard the exec say, “Guys, I need to exit immediately,” and took it literally. It’s hard to blame the poor waiter for his confusion. Once upon a time, talk of exit strategies was confined to fre stations and military facilities, but as start-up culture increasingly infects daily life, such insider lingo has become standard even in social settings. There are precedents: English is a verbal melting pot that never stops boiling, a mash-up of huddled masses, a gorgeous mosaic of accents, infections and intonations. Over the past few decades, our vernacular has incorporated such dialects as
Bondi Boho, Bogan Magnate and Toorak Trust Fund among other spices, into our aural stew. Not surprisingly, the linguistic favour of the moment mirrors our latest collective cultural fascination. Indeed, driven by shows like Shark Tank, on which the likes of Janine Allis (Boost Juice), Andrew Banks (Talent2), John Mcgrath (Mcgrath Real Estate) and Naomi Simson (Redballoon) have democratised such previously esoteric concepts as pre-money valuation, convertible notes, and supplychain management, not to mention other pop-culture confections inspired by the youtoo-can-be-a-billionaire tech bubble (we’re looking at you Silicon Valley), business jargon seems to have become our lingua franca. It’s as if our mother tongue had been incubated in an MBA accelerator. Call it the mission creep of start-up-speak, the Esperanto of entrepreneurship. Let’s face it: we’re all ‘disruptive innovators’ now. And the sad truth is, we sound kind of wanky. You’ve surely heard similar stuff. Perhaps it started when your mum labelled herself ‘chief domestic offcer’. Or when a barista said he was ‘expediting’ your latte. Or was it the customer-service rep who promised to ‘action’ your item? Maybe it was the time your bartender decided to ‘socialise’ a new cocktail or when your cousin ‘pivoted’ from commerce to philosophy at uni? Maybe it was when the babysitter quit because the gig wasn’t ‘scalable’. Or the day every single one of your friends started ‘circling back’, ‘teeing up’, ‘blue-skying’, ‘whiteboarding’, or ‘running point’ on something? The straw that broke our back? The electrician who emailed, ‘Will revert by COB.’ WTF? But we can’t just blame others, because chances are we’re also talking the talk. Was that really you who slipped into corporate-speak and ‘tasked’ your assistant to pick up the dry-cleaning? Could it be you who just chirped, without the slightest irony, ‘Net-net, we had a pretty good holiday?’ Did you really tell your buddies you had a ‘friction-free’ buck’s party or that you ‘optimised’ your breakfast? So how did it happen? What infected us? According to Andrew Yang, CEO of Venture for America, a non-proft that helps young people start companies in emerging cities, it’s just life imitating capitalism. “We’re evolving because the workplace now makes it a priority for employees to become more entrepreneurial.” The risk, as Yang points out, is that all this offcial-sounding nomenclature – MVP, bootstrapping, hackathon, acqui-hire, big data, fail fast – threatens to turn us into a horde of conformist clowns with a communal vocabulary so oversaturated that it loses all meaning. “It’s starting to get a little ridiculous,” admits Yang, with a sigh. Other students of linguistics are more sanguine, chalking it up to human nature. Jim Stigler, a psychologist and co-founder of Startup UCLA, an on-campus university incubator, says mass language adoption like this happens all the time. “Human beings take concepts from one domain and infuse them into another. It’s just the way the mind works and what drives creative change. If there’s a ft and a need, people will latch onto something.” So how long must we expect to keep on latching on? According to Michael Adams, a university professor specialising in the history of the English language, jargon endures if it’s elastic enough to branch into more general types of speech. “Look at slang like ‘yada yada yada’,” he says. “That was a mostly obscure Yiddishism until it got into Seinfeld and everyone started saying it. But now no one uses it anymore.” By way of contrast, he cites the success of ‘’86’, which originated as code for ‘out of stock’ among American soft drink vendors in the ’20s. The fate of start-up-speak could go either way. “If this jargon is going to make that permanent transition,” says Adams, “it’s going to be a generation until we know.” The good news? Unlike sticks and stones, jargon never hurt anyone. No one was killed for pointing out the ‘salient’ features of a tasting menu or faulting the ‘user experience’ of a ski lift. At least, not yet. So let’s task ourselves with efforting to adopt the following action item: use moderation. Consider this cautionary tale from a sector where business jargon never works. “I know one entrepreneur whose new girlfriend dumped him because he treated her as ‘another stakeholder to be managed’,” says Yang, who warns that mixing businessspeak and dating is a recipe for disaster. “Using start-up lingo is the romantic equivalent of wearing a Bluetooth headset,” he notes. “It tells everyone you’re on and turns off more people than it attracts.” n
“USING START-UP LINGO IS THE ROMANTIC EQUIVALENT OF WEARING A BLUETOOTH HEADSET.”