Thursday, November 20, 2014

A few words on words

There was a fun little piece over on the WSJ small business blog the other day. In the post that caught my eye, three folks sounded off on the buzzwords that give them, as entrepreneurs, brain cramps.

David Kalt, founder of, a musical instrument exchange, is on his third startup. For him the bad word is startup, which he thinks you need to outgrow fast.

Startup might work for the first several months, or perhaps even the first year, of a company’s life, but at some point it’s time to move on and to become a business. To me, the words “amateur” and “startup” are analogous, as are the words “professional” and “business.”

Having spent nearly a decade in what must have been one of the world’s oldest startups, I’m with David here. He nails it completely when he writes:

When companies go for years calling themselves startups, it implies they’re not a real business, that they’re still clinging to the potential of tomorrow because they don’t have a very promising reality today.

Please go read Mr. Kalt’s full take on startup abuse.

Even though we eventually segued from designating our company as a “startup” to the slightly more realty-based word “restart”,I blushed as I read his words. And to think that I spent 9 years, 3 months, and 4 days there before leaving to restart my own career. (They gave me no choice. I was fired after getting into an argument on how we were going to position our latest round of lay-offs to the remaining employees. Advice to those who really want to hold on to your jobs:  Avoid heatedly saying to the startup restart company president anything along the lines of ‘You say what you’re going to say. I’ll say what I’m going to say. And we’ll see who they believe.’)

Exit strategy is the buzzword that drives Wayne Rivers, an expert on family businesses,  batty.

Since most of my experience was with outfits of the No Exit variety, this word doesn’t especially bother me. Yet I can see Wayne’s gripe, which is that many folks (mostly those in family-owned businesses) over-focus on their exit strategy, while ignoring the fact:

…that planning an exit strategy requires the simultaneous acts of planning entry strategies and leadership-development plans for those who must replace the departing executives.

Excessive focus on exit-strategy planning indicates to other stakeholders in a family business or entrepreneurial venture that achieving financial security and a high return on investment for the benefit of departing executives is more important than the other aspects of running a successful business, including continuing to deliver high-quality products and services and creating a great workplace environment.The typical exit strategy, then, is built around the financial needs of the departing generation with insufficient attention given to the practical and financial needs of the business itself and successor managers left behind.

My limited experience here was second hand, and not in a family business. The last family businesses anyone in my family was involved in were my German grandfather’s butcher shop, and my Irish grandfather’s bar. (And how’s that for a couple of ethnic stereotypes?) But I did join one small tech company shortly after it had been sold to a larger entity. Right before the sale, the founders – who were known as “the principals” – did what some might interpret as the unprincipled thing and rejiggered the options so that the lesser employees who’d been there almost at the creation would get precious little, while “the principals” would rake in nearly the full pot.

My favorite bad buzzword was suggested by Mary Liz Curtin, who owns and operates Leon & Lulu, a store in Detroit that sells interesting and cool furniture and other house stuff. (The antithesis of Bob’s Discount Furniture, I’m guessing.) Mary Liz, quite naturally, seems to think her job is about picking out interesting and cool stuff that people like, and selling it to people who like interesting ad cool stuff.

Seems fairly straightforward, but I seem to have it wrong.

Lately I have learned that I am a curator, with a carefully edited collection. We proudly exhibit a selection of artisanal products, from small-batch vendors, global resources or crowdsourced makers. We have a special synergy with our customers and are proud to be good corporate citizens.

Curator. Artisanal (which, hilariously, I often see as “artesian”). Small-batch. Global. Crowdsourced. Synergy. Good corporate citizens.

Well, she wins today’s buzzword bingo, which she definitely aces when she adds:

Lately some of our suppliers have been referring to themselves as our partners in business.

I have only one partner in business, my husband. We became partners by investing our money, working endless hours and sharing the many responsibilities of running an independent business, employing more than 40 people.

We buy from our suppliers as long as their product performs well for us. They sell to us as long as we pay our bills. How in the world does this make us partners?


Ah, yes.

In the good old days, everyone wanted to sell solutions, not products. And these days, everyone wants to be and have partners throughout their business ecosystem. (See: us techies have buzzwords, too!)

Now there’s no doubt that, if I lived in Detroit, I would be drawn to Leon and Lulu. What’s not to like about an outfit that sells cool and interesting stuff, and – frosting on the cake – is named after the owners’ pets.

Hell, if I lived in Detroit – and I’m making a wild guess about someone named Mary Liz Curtin here – there would probably be a good possibility that I, or one of my sibs, went to grammar school or high school with her. So, right off the buzzword bat, I’m probably going to know Mary Liz and like Leon & Lulu.

But, from a pure buzzword perspective, what are we to make of the store’s description:

Leon & Lulu is a destination lifestyle store featuring an eclectic mix of upscale furniture, unforgettable gifts, and accessories in an environment unlike any other.

I get that destination shopping means that you’re willing to go out of your way to get there. (At least I think that’s what it means.) And I do like eclectic, upscale, and unforgettable.

But lifestyle store?

Tell me, what isn’t a lifestyle store?

7-11 is a lifestyle store for those who crave slurpees.

My neighborhood hardware store is a lifestyle store for people who like to think they’re actually DIY handy-folk, but who basically hire someone to take care of anything other than the most rudimentary of repairs. It’s a lifestyle store for those who like to go into the hardware store on Saturday and chat with the guys who work there, then pay for their recycle bags or have a key made, and head home to wait for the guy to come caulk the windows.

Bob’s Discount Furniture is a lifestyle for those who want to watch football in his and hers faux suede recliners with embedded cup-holders.

And that’s Pink Slip’s final word on the subject…

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