“We’ve been smashing all our milestones for the last 12 months, and now we’re hoping to keep killing it over 2018.”
How many times have you heard that sentence, or something similar? Or how many times have you yourself said your company was “crushing it” or “dominating”?
These words have become an inherent part of the global startup ecosystem, but prominent Australian leaders are now questioning their purpose and declaring the language of startups needs to change.
In a tweet earlier this month, Australian startup community figurehead and regular advocate for diversity and equality Annie Parker declared she would no longer be “crushing, killing or smashing things”. Instead, she is looking to “build, grow & elevate” this year.
The tweet received an overwhelming amount of support, with more than 250 likes and 60 retweets, and many members of the #startupaus community chimed in to back Annie’s pledge, such as Emergent chief executive Holly Ransom and inkl chief executive Gautam Mishra.
Speaking to StartupSmart, Parker said it was difficult to pinpoint where the “frequently bro-centric” language of startups originated from, but she believes it could have something to do with the “heavily” white male culture of Silicon Valley.
“Words matter. Whether you like it or not, potential employees, customers or investors will make judgments about you or your business based on how the language you use makes them feel,” she says.
“The words we use become part of the social structures of the groups that we’re in — they become signifiers and symbols of belonging. But more than that, they become an ‘othering’ tactic.”
Parker says the continuous use of this language will inevitably appeal to a certain audience over others, leading to a perpetuation of that culture and an increasingly large divide between different ‘tribes’.
“The startup lingo of killing, crushing and smashing things is all so negative, and the irony is it actually doesn’t represent the startup ecosystem at all. As builders and makers, we are nurturing, crafting and growing. So it’s a bit odd that we don’t use more positive words to describe our industry,” she says.
Even something as simple as using the term “guys” to describe a group of people, both men and women, has becoming increasingly commonplace. Parker says she’s guilty of using the term as well and questions why she does when she’s “clearly not a guy”.
“It’s all a part of my own internalised unconscious bias of course — and it’s something I’ve committed to making a serious effort to improve on,” she says.
Leaders have a big role to play
Techfugee’s Australia co-founder Anne-Marie Elias says Parker’s tweet caused her to reflect on her own practices, telling StartupSmart she uses terms like “smashing it” quite a lot.
“It was a real point of pausing and reflecting,” she says.
She views the startup scene as quite young (not in a condescending manner, she stresses) and says leaders such as herself and Parker have a role to play in pushing the needle on these topics.
“We have the responsibility to set the agenda. We should be being kind to each other and creating a supportive and inclusive environment,” Elias says.
“The language we use affect how younger people in the industry behave, so we need to move away from that aggressive language.
“There are mental health implications as well from using really aggressive language.”
Elias says it can be challenging to think of different words to use, especially when she admits she’s so comfortable with the language she has used in the past. So she’s focused on “inverting” the language, taking Parker’s advice to look at terms like “elevating”, “getting to a higher level”, or “exceeding expectations”.
To instigate change, founders and startup teams should hold each other to account, says Parker, who has instructed her team to pull her up if she uses more aggressive terms.
“I’d love for every founder to start considering how their language affects their business, everything from the front page of their website, right through to the way they write job descriptions,” she says.
Elias agrees, and says its also up to leaders in the community to set a precedent and continue to hold each other to account, saying that “with leadership comes responsibility”.
“This language is not okay anymore in this day and age. We’re trying to heal a community, not tear it apart, and as leaders, it’s up to us to change this,” she says.
A code of conduct for staff is another suggestion from Parker for companies to let employees know the expectations around things like language. It also allows other employees to provide founders with feedback if they feel people aren’t living up to the standards.
“The quote that software is eating the world is still true — the bigger truth is that culture dictates how its served. Let us aim to build the most positive and helpful culture we can,” she says.