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What’s with the hyperbolic language founders are using to describe their startup?

- March 13, 2015 5 MIN READ

Revolutionary. Game changer. First of its kind.

It’s time we address the hyperbole that’s been sewn into Australia’s startup scene.

Startups do need to be acutely aware of making an impact when they’re engaging in self-promotion – whether it’s in the context of pitching to investors or journalists or just boasting at networking events. But starting out with a bold statement like ‘I’ve been working on a game-changing, first of its kind, revolutionary technology’ will immediately invite scepticism (“Oh really? Prove it”) or set off eye rolls.

Same goes for statements like ‘we are the Uber of X’ or we are the Airbnb of Y’, which are often unrealistic comparisons. Even though such comparisons are usually made to make the product/service easily understandable, it comes across as a little douche-y. Using the names and statuses of hugely successful companies (when there’s no partnership or other relationship in place) will not serve any emerging startup well because they look very little in comparison. It’s like me saying ‘I’m the Sarah Lacy of the Australian startup scene’. I wish, but no.

It’s worth looking at the definition of revolutionary. Oxford Dictionary defines ‘revolutionary’ as “involving or causing a complete or dramatic change” or “engaged in or promoting political revolution”. The former is more applicable in the context of startups. I would question whether an app that solves an inconvenience is causing a complete or dramatic change in an industry. The iPhone was revolutionary, but it wasn’t the first touch-screen phone or the first mobile phone with applications.

The reason the iPhone was revolutionary is because it was the first phone with an operating system (iOS) as advanced as its desktop counterpart (Mac OS). It was also the first phone with multi-touch display. All those gestures (e.g. flicking, swiping, scrolling, pinching, etc.) that we’ve become accustomed to when using our smartphones is a result of Apple reimagining the way a user would interact with their mobile phone.

The iPhone was essentially the first mobile computer and also the first phone that came with data plan bundles. If you think data is expensive now, 10 years ago we wouldn’t be able to use our phones the way we do without having to refinance our mortgages.

Other technologies that can be classified as revolutionary include medical inventions like the cochlear implant, the ultrasound and prosthetic limbs. Then there are software inventions like Napster which completely fucked over the music industry before meeting its demise, and let’s not forget, the first digital computer which emerged in the mid-20th century.

The word revolutionary, then, is clearly being used out of context – at least most of the time. How can a startup be revolutionary before it has actually revolutionised an industry? At most, It’s a bold prediction, especially when it’s used shortly after the startup has launched.

The other reason why this language is problematic is because founders are starting their pitch/presentation/conversation with what should be the concluding statement. The audience, listener or email recipient needs to come to the conclusion, on their own, that the technology is potentially revolutionary, game-changing, and a first of its kind. It’s not a case of ‘tell and it will be accepted’.

Why not just stick to the facts? I’m not talking about monotonous recitals of numbers or being a Debbie Downer like one of the startup founders who pitched in the first episode of Shark Tank Australia and could barely crack a smile. In a data-fuelled age, storytelling is most effective when accompanied by facts and honest, pervasive enthusiasm, not shameless exaggeration.

After all, we’re in the postmodern era. We don’t just accept things as true. We question everything – including the ‘revolutionary, game-changing and first of its kind technology’ that some founders are selling.

The phrase ‘first of its kind’ should especially be used with caution because it can be factually incorrect. There are 7.1 billion people in the world. Can founders really be sure nobody else has come up with a similar solution? It would be wiser for founders to do their market research before making such a statement – and by market research, I mean ‘seriously, just google it’ or ask around.

Besides, why are we so hung up on originality? Nothing is entirely original. It’s either a different version of what already exists or a unique combination of what already exists. It’s market demand and execution that matter.

Entrepreneurs can copy as they will, but should to strive to do it better. Or they at least need to be open to the fact that someone else may be creating something very similar to what they’re creating – in which case, sniffing out competitors and finding out how to execute better is a pretty solid strategy.

Besides, competition is what sets the benchmark. It defines the ranking by default. If there are 20 people offering the same product/service, somebody is going to be number one and somebody is going to be number 20. It’s about delivering value for money to customers.

Dean McEvoy and Justus Hammer launched Spreets.com.au in Australia in 2010 after finding out about the idea through US site Groupon. Within eight months, they were approached by Yahoo! and within 10 months the company was sold for $40 million. The founders never described Spreets as a first of its kind or revolutionary. It was the Australian version of a successful US business Groupon which subsequently found success in Australia.

So what’s with all the hyperbole being used in self-promotional material? It’s self-destructive because it instantly disengages the audience. It assumes passivity on behalf of the audience. It assumes they are incapable of critically evaluating the solution presented to them.

A persuasive presentation, pitch or conversation should start out establishing ‘what is’ (“This is the current state of the world”) followed by ‘what could be’ (“Imagine if X”).

In a TedxEast talk, Nancy Duarte explains why this is important: “You have to set this baseline of what’s currently on the table. What the problem is. What’s the elephant in the room? What’s happened that’s brought us to this point? And then create this call to adventure by creating this contrast between what currently is, and what could be. What could be in the future? What it could look like with this roadblock removed. What it would look like with this initiative resolved.”

By highlighting the gap between what is and what could be, the audience is presented with a dilemma and nobody likes an unsolved problem (except entrepreneurs, because an unsolved problem is an opportunity). After being presented with ‘what could be’, the audience will likely be frustrated and curious, and the founder then has the perfect opportunity to sell her/his solution.

“What happens is, suddenly, what is does not look as appealing as what could be with your idea adopted. So that contrast starts to make the status quo undesirable, and this new place in the future more desirable. And then you have a call to action close to the end, but then you can’t end at a call to action. You actually need to establish a new bliss,” Duarte says in the aforementioned TedxEast talk.

And then comes the conclusion: ‘this is why my startup could be game-changing’.

“[Y]our conclusion should explain how amazing the world is going to be with your idea adopted. Or how great the company is going to be. Or how great your life is going to be if you do this thing,” Duarte says.

That said, startups don’t need to be revolutionary, game-changing and a first of its kind for it to be successful. In Australia, most startups are oriented towards solving inconveniences than reimagining the future. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we’re being realistic in the claims we make.

featured image | Source: blog.sli.do.