Startups can’t explain what they do because they’re addicted to meaningless jargon

At the RISE conference in Hong Kong, buzzwords are everywhere.
At the RISE conference in Hong Kong, buzzwords are everywhere.
Image: RISE/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
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Internet startup culture has evolved and matured over the past five years, and there’s no better example of this than the RISE conference happening this week in Hong Kong. Whereas Silicon Valley was once the sole hub of internet innovation, startups here hail from Bangalore, Singapore, and other cities. The macho bravado many associate with the culture has even dampened somewhat—34% of attendees are women.

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.

Take Kalpesh Rathod. The 42-year-old Canadian made an app called Cubes. It’s kind of cool. But he has trouble explaining what it does without resorting to buzzwords.

“We visually organize your email and cloud-based content for ultra fast access,” says Rathod, reading from his promotional materials. “It’s visual storytelling with any type of content.”

What is my cloud-based content, exactly? It tells stories? I ask Rathod if he can explain this more clearly.

“We have a library that’s just a feed of content. You can search content by type. I have five email accounts and my Dropbox account here. So if I’m looking for a PDF document, here’s a stream of all of my PDF documents from these accounts using a visual interface.”

Translation: Cubes is actually an app that pinpoints anything that’s not plain-Jane text in your email or Dropbox accounts (a photograph, an excel file, a YouTube video), takes snapshots of those things, and then bundles them together in a standalone app. The idea is, if you receive a lot of photo attachments via email, for example, it will be easier to find them if they’re kept separate from your cluttered inbox.

Rathod says he’s prone to jargon in part because his product is simply hard to explain. Cubes is not quite an email inbox, not quite a Dropbox clone, and not quite a photo library. “It’s always hard to get the right verbiage,” he tells Quartz.

Michael Bergmann is another startup founder who can’t ditch his addiction to jargon. The 35-year-old German describes his product, Indy Cloud, as a “know-how and synergy platform.”

“A synergy platform means that many small businesses are on one platform and together they create value for them, because we can bundle their demand and they get better deals” he says.

Indy Cloud is really a web app (that’s the “cloud” part) that’s kind of a Microsoft Excel alternative, designed specifically for small businesses. The software forces users to follow a specific procedure for inputting category names and data, so that tweaking one spreadsheet leads to a corresponding tweak in another. Change Company A’s address to 123 Main Street in one spreadsheet, and all other spreadsheets with Company A will update accordingly.

Bergmann isn’t happy describing Indy Cloud as a Microsoft Excel alternative, however. In his view, Indy Cloud “has a database solution.” It’s also “reactive.” Excel is neither of these things.

“I think the most accurate, concise, and jargon free way to describe Indy Cloud is maybe ERP,” he says. “We are an enterprise resource planning solution.”

Even companies making simpler products aren’t immune. Undone, a Hong Kong startup that makes custom-designed watches, describes itself as a “disruptive consumer brand with state of the art customization technology with original content platform.”

SparkShare, an Australian company that makes a video chat app, describes it as a “video reactions network.”

Actually, it’s a watch.
Actually, it’s a watch.
Image: Undone.watch

“It’s jargon, but it’s the only way that we can start out when we explain ourselves,” says co-founder Chris Parker. “We could turn the jargon on [even more] and say that we’re a ‘cloud-based streaming content delivery network,’ but we find that it doesn’t resonate with people.”

Startups resort to jargon in order to sound more interesting than they actually are, Casey Lau, a startup event organizer in Hong Kong, said.

“The word ‘cloud’ sounds very expansive and grand,” he says. “But if you just said ‘We’re on the internet,’  which is what ‘cloud’ usually means, then it doesn’t sound as exciting.”