Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Keep it Simple Stupid: A Language Guide for Non-English Speaking Founders

Paul Chen

In a recent blog post by Brad Feld, he stated:

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.

(Disclaimer - This post has some expletives, so consider yourself warned!)

I cannot agree more! I have been teaching English in the CEE Region for many years and the problem for many English learners is the fear of looking stupid when speaking a language that is not their mother tongue. The problem is seeded in the English learning experience of non-native speakers. Their teachers would reprimand them if their grammar is wrong, but not focusing on the content of their speech.  

The Polish language grammatically is very complicated. And you thought learning German was hard. In Poland, your IQ is often measured by how grammatically correct is your speech. The Polish President, Bronislaw Komorowski was made fun of when he made some grammatical mistakes. The result is that Polish English learners become very shy with their use.  However, many especially intellectuals would like to show how smart they are by acting like Fan-boys and using over-complex terms. As a result, they come off sounding condescending and obnoxious. During my lessons, I try to help them sound more natural. However, I often tell my students, it’s better to sound confident with simple speech than insecure with badly used complicated grammar and vocabulary.

Sometimes I attend some accelerators and pitch-offs, and when I do, I try to read up on the startups that participate. Many times, I become totally confused as to what the startup is doing. The description of their product and services is so filled with tech corporate jargon that it becomes a roach motel. I mean, after reading it, I am still as uninformed as ever. Sometimes, I just think they are selling bullshit dressed up in flowery tech speak.

Last summer, I had the privilege to hang out and interview John Biggs of TechCrunch.  I asked him what is something he could advise startup founders. He told me among others, to keep the language simple. During a demo day when your pitch time is limited, you need to get to your point really quickly. Additionally, often your target investor will have a limited amount of time. Rather than trying to show off your vocabulary, just use some simple easy to understand phrases to sell your startup. You will appear to be more confident and you will get to your point faster.

Like building your minimum viable product, it is often better to do more with less same goes with language. If your product is so fucking awesome, you should not have to sell it with bullshit.

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  1. Hey Paul,
    nice insights, well written! :) Your blog looks pretty interesting. For some more info on Poland's startup scene, check out these articles: Krakow Startup City Guide and Poznan Startup City Guide
    They're full of useful info if you’re into entrepreneurship :)
    Have a nice day!


  2. English is spoken throughout the world because it is soooo easy to learn! How many verb tenses are there?

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