It’s amazing how many stories about startups can’t help but mention the presence — or not — of a foosball or ping-pong table in the office. Sometimes they even come with a naive quote from the founder: “We organise tournaments each month — it really brings the team together!” The art of describing a startup in an article too often looks like a bad bullshit bingo game, making them seem like sweet hobbies rather than serious businesses.
In France, the official word for ‘startup’ is even ‘jeune pousse’ (young shoot), bringing to mind cute little saplings in a garden store. But we all know just how wrong this sort of thing sounds; so why is European tech media coverage still full of these unnecessary stereotypes?
Using condescending terms and tropes has a negative impact on the way startups are perceived.
It may be pure irony from the writer or just an unconscious but seemingly irrepressible need to create a certain distance with the subject, but the end result is the same: using condescending terms and tropes has a negative impact on the way startups are perceived.
That might have been understandable 10 years ago. But in 2019, the whole ecosystem would benefit from coming together to kill the patronising viewpoint that diminishes the importance of these businesses in our society.
Many young founders have their own responsibilities in this situation. Sometimes it’s because they don’t properly assert themselves in press interviews, but more often it seems like they are not entirely aware of the image they’re projecting.
Fewer pointless buzzwords, more explanation of the problem you’re tackling
Founders can easily fall into the trap of describing their business with startup jargon — ‘disruptive’, ‘innovative’ — because they think that’s what ‘works’ with journalists, and will make them shine and stand out from the crowd. It does not. There’s no need to run back to the (outdated) ‘Uber of…’, ‘Tinder for…’, ‘Deliveroo with…’.
As someone who is digging deep into an issue on a daily basis to solve it, you have a unique view on the social/economical/medical problem that real people are facing. A conversation with a journalist is a real opportunity to explain and educate.
Don’t feel like you need to personify the startup myth
The "Startup Nation" myth that took over France in the last few years is a good example of unnecessary folklore whose (unintended) consequence is to discredit entrepreneurs. Startups are not seen as the future of the economy, but as privileged youngsters who are hanging out around the open-space kitchen, occasionally having standup meetings before “Free beers Thursdays”, and sending emails with rocket emojis.
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Too many startups embrace an attitude that only makes them look naive. There’s no need to adopt a hierarchy straight out of the French CAC 40 stock market, but that doesn’t mean you need to resort to tired titles like ‘Sales Wizard’, either.
Focus on your vision and highlighting how your employees’ real skills are getting you there.
Similarly, why use the term ‘revolutionary’ when pitching when you haven’t revolutionised anything yet? This is important not just with the press, but with every piece of content that you send out to the world (newsletter, landing pages or even email signatures). Remember the purpose of what you’re doing. As a startup, the endgame isn’t to have a workspace filled with (not particularly interesting) perks. It’s to build an impactful company that solves a problem. So keep your focus on your vision and highlighting how your employees’ real skills are getting you there.
Language is a necessary part of getting startups out of the sandpit
So long as startups are seen as entertaining, they’ll have a hard time growing into real players. Laughter turns pretty quickly into scolding anger when a startup really starts to threaten incumbents. This is quite revealing of how institutions and large companies see entrepreneurs. As long as a startup is off playing ping pong, everything’s fine, we’re all just joking around. But as soon as the same startup finds a real market, disrupts the established order and becomes a threat to leading actors, the treatment is radically different. Everyone stops laughing and the startup is quickly demonised through a general overreaction. Things get real: legal charges, lawsuits and aggressive op eds. In France, the G7 versus Heetch case (traditional taxi firm versus ride-hailing app) was a good example of how things can go.
What people forget when we talk about startups and their fun offices is that startups are all about resolving problems, at the largest scale. In the entrepreneurial age we’re living in, they’re the organisations most likely to truly help our societies and institutions to make the shift from the Fordist era and improve the economy. They’re not a trend, they’re here to stay. In 2018, investments in European startups reached $23bn (about €20bn), 4.4 times the level of investment in 2013. Those investments aren’t arriving because startups are pretty and fun; they’re arriving because European entrepreneurs are building companies that matter.
So let’s give startups some credit, and in doing so help the EU tech scene to keep building respect at a global scale.