So much of startup life is rooted in jargon. While shared terminology can be super helpful, using problematic words across an entire industry can also cause harm. Using problematic language en masse impacts more than how we build companies. By perpetuating problematic language, we’re actually perpetuating problematic ways of thinking within the companies we’re building and in the broader world about how people should be treated.
The words we choose — or more often, use without intentional choice — have power. As a community, we can choose better.
You know how you find business -isms like ‘ping them’ and ‘circle back’ creeping into your non-work life? Yeah, language comes with us wherever we go. While those examples are pretty innocuous, much of startup language is rooted in the cultural soil of high-growth, massive-scale capitalistic paradigms.
Because of this origin, the bulk of problematic startup language are the terms that commoditize people — something that runs pretty rampant in our ecosystems. Don’t worry! You can still be hella capitalist and choose better language than these gross terms.
Let’s start with the biggest offender in my book: monetization.
Monetization requires extracting value to drive financial gain. Think about it in terms of more physical or traditional industry, like mining, where you’re literally monetizing the ground by extracting the natural resources within. In an extractive action, you’re taking from something in order to create your profit. This in turn creates wealth, usually for those who tend to wield control over the resources that don’t need to be owned (again, like the literal earth).
In the technology and startup world, this extraction of natural resources often comes from within people’s experiences, identities and their time. (Hello, attention economy! Hi there, people as the product!) So if you’re talking about monetizing a social platform, what you are talking about is extracting commercial value from the very natural, necessary and commonly owned human social experience — social experiences that are part of who we are as human beings.
If somebody is monetizing our life experiences, they’re extracting value from something that is inherently individually and collectively ours.
Instead of monetization, I propose every entrepreneur who gives a shit starts talking about creating value. Creating value isn’t just the antidote for or the opposite of extracting value. Choosing the word create establishes a fundamental shift in the power dynamic at play. In monetization, the relationship is that you, the business, extract value from the people who use or buy your product or service to serve the business’s financial gain. If you frame your business in terms of creating value, you’re flipping that dynamic on its head. Rather than trying to get people to give you their money (selling at), you’re putting your business in a role of service to solve a want or need. By offering something that creates value for the people you serve, any transaction is a mutually consensual exchange. It’s additive, not extractive.
By simply choosing a better word to talk about how our businesses drive revenue, we might change the thinking so that tech companies serve people who use our products and services rather than serving their users on silver platters to other companies.
Humanizing the language we use requires examining the words we currently use to talk about the very people who use our products and services. This brings up the other major offender in startup jargon: user. Yuck. Does anyone want to be called a “user”? You might not really mind, especially the more entrenched you are in techlandia, but it sure doesn’t feel like a compliment.
User has functional connotations — we’re referencing the person’s relationship to the product. They’re the people who use our ______. I use shoes to walk. I use a spoon to eat soup. Vans wouldn’t call me a user. Whoever made this spoon (CB2 or Ikea, I think?) wouldn’t call me a user. The chef who made the soup wouldn’t call me a user.
Customer, wearer, guest — non-tech industries choose and use specific, human words. Why can’t tech?
Choosing more human-first terms than user also brings us more accuracy. (And the startup world loves specificity!) Much like an apparel company, home goods manufacturer and restaurant choose the right terms for the people they serve, the different verticals and sub-verticals within tech must choose for ourselves. DTC brands may opt for customers or buyers, or they can take it a step further to choose a term even more accurate. You produce and sell coffee? You have drinkers! Build and license business software? You have clients! Create and distribute content? You have an audience, friend!
It’s really not that hard to think of a better noun. (And if you really can’t think of one, just call us people, okay?) The time spent thinking about how people engage with what you offer won’t just change the language you use, it has the potential to change how you approach serving them — and the better you do that, the better you are positioned to stay in business.