7 Words That Must Die in 2010

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Another year gone and, with it, another decade in the books. 10 years ago today, we all were frantically wondering what the hell was going to happen when the digital apocalypse descended on us in a thing we all called the Y2K bug. The natural disaster that could have been was the first global digital crisis that never happened. Well, that and AOL chatroom dating, but that’s a different issue.

Over the last 10 years, the digital economy collapsed, but not before laying the groundwork for the digital world we live in now. Massive telecom behemoths riding high on the digital bubble of the late 90s (MCI Worldcom, Global Crossings), laid tens of thousands of miles of fiber traversing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and tying the world together…. and then promptly went bankrupt as a result. But not without leaving their enduring mark on the planet.

MySpace brought social networking to the masses. Friendster tried and failed. Facebook perfected it, kinda. Blogs gave every person the ability to reach the world. Twitter gave every person the ability to live tweet their breakfast experiences. Flickr gave the world a reason to buy digital SLR cameras that most camera owners use embarassingly.

But more importantly, but not unique to our digital world, the web gave us a new language. New buzzwords. New verbal and written diarrhea. These words cause other people, who are a little more grounded in reality, to punch people. But at least the punchee thinks he sounds important.

This past year has brought even new words into our lexicon. As the Washington Redskins are to the chalk marking the endzone, I hope we as technologists, entrepreneurs, digital communicators and, in general, web people can learn to avoid these words in the coming year and decade.

Down Round

With the economy tanking in 2008, the word “Down Round” has been introduced (or re-introduced) to our vocabulary. A down round is a round of financing (generally venture) that is based on a lower-than-before valuation. It does not mean “less money”, though. It generally does mean, however, that the money given is in exchange for a lesser value on the company thus being a greater percentage of company ownership. This word must die because it is not productive for entrepreneurs to get financing just to give away more of their companies in exchange.

Fail-Safe Venture Investment
Photo by Phrenologist

Too Big To Fail

Another product of the financial crisis, the words “Too big to fail” were used to justify bank and corporate bailouts at AIG, GM and other places. Now it has taken on a life of its own where anything that is perceived to be big is labelled “Too Big to fail”… Like Twitter.

Cloud Computing

Cloud computing is not new but with the Obama administration trying to put a premium on cloud services and the launch of Apps.gov to provide a list of GSA-recommended cloud service providers, everyone is now going in the direction of this technology. Not that it’s a bad technology, but everything in moderation.

Real Time Web

We all want instant gratification, but this push for “real-time” is becoming more buzzword that actuality. Between services like Twitter and instant publication notification services and protocols like PubSubHubBub and RSSCloud, this infatuation needs to get tamed a bit. Incidentally, a similar word that must die and means the same thing is “push”, as in “push notifications”. If your product is real-time, call it something other than real-time for the sake of my sanity.

Zombie

Now I realize this one is a little controversial. I’ll probably get loads of hate mail. In fact… wait a minute….

Okay, I’m back. Just had to create a new Gmail filter to send emails about this post containing the word “Zombie” to the bit bucket.

Alright. Zombies. Let me be clear. There are no zombies. Despite great survival guides for the zombie apocalypse, zombies don’t exist. So let’s stop pretending they do.

Zombie Apocafest 2008 - Justin's quarantine camp
Photo by dunechaser

In 2009, zombies took on a whole new level of myth and legend with plenty of zombie books, movies and games – most notably the Xbox Live bonus “Nazi Zombie map” in Call of Duty: World at War. Just stop.

Social Proof

I hadn’t heard of a term called “social proof” until earlier this year. Apparently, the word has been around for at least a few years. But now that I’ve heard it, I can’t stop hearing it. The word describes a psychological phenomenon where people lend decision making to group-think. We call it crowdsourcing elsewhere. When I determine what my actions will be based on what others are doing, I am demonstrating “social proof”.

Besides the horrible concept of being a lemming and following (the political discourse is a good example here), the word “social proof” must die. It’s bad enough that we use groupthink or crowdsource. We shouldn’t use this one too.

Wave

Whether the new Google product that is in private beta stage, or the new terminology surrounding microcontent as instituted by the new Google product, the idea of a “wave” as a form of communication is ridiculous on it’s face. It’s just as bad as being in a social situation and talking about tweeting. It must die.

Transparency

Another word that has been in our lexicon for a few years now but, if we’re lucky, will be killed in 2010: Transparency. Having its roots in both politics and online business interactions and customer service, it is neither transparent nor endearing. Let me put it this way: If you say you’re transparent, you’re hiding the truth. Let’s move on from the transparent-love.

What words would you kill off?

Startup Layoffs — The Unkindest Cut

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Watch for RollingHeads.jpgLast week, Seesmic let seven of its 21 employees go — a full third of the company. Were they in a crisis? Depends on how you look at it. CEO Loic LeMeur had raised $12M, a Series B $6M of which came in June. But do the math: 21 employees, fully loaded is around $200k/month. Tack on bandwidth, storage, other hosting costs, legal and other services, marketing expenses, T&E . . . expenses are upwards of $300k/month. And with negligible revenue, that’s pure burn. At that rate, Seesmic would hit the wall in just over a year.

There comes a point in every CEO’s life when they realize that things have turned for the worse. Accompanying that realization — along with a gnawing knot in the stomach — is the stark reality that something needs to be done about it. These are the times that try . . . you know the speech.

CEOs worth their salt — or if they’re rosey-glassed types who prefer to ignore bad news, then the COO realists who watch their backs — keep an eye on the numbers, and know exactly when breakeven’s coming . . . or when the money’s going to run out. What changes things — and probably what changed for Le Meur — is the wellspring drying up. And at that burn rate, in this climate, he would have to start raising another round in six months (it always takes longer than you’d think).

Oh — there’s one other thing. Seesmic’s Series C would probably be at a lower valuation than Series B. You want to see things get complicated (ugly, even), go through a down round. New money makes out all right (it’s called the Alternative Golden Rule), but previous investors get squeezed. (Angels often get squished.) Employee options go underwater, plagues and locusts descend, and there’s a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth.

So Le Meur did what he had to do.

Letting people go is a miserable experience. And no matter how carefully you plan it, how humanely you handle it, it sucks. Everyone knows startups are risky, but startup hires are the most passionate, dedicated folks around. (Yours aren’t? Sorry — you hired the wrong ones!) Meanwhile, company founders think only of success. They radiate it. And they make promises, explicit or implied, to every employee ‘join us, work hard, and you’ll be rewarded.’ I’ve said those words dozens (really, maybe hundreds) of times. So when it comes down to having to let people go, a promise is broken. To them. And to their families.

Layoffs suck. But they beat the hell out of running out of money.

When all financing options disappear, your world comes crashing down, believe me. Once you’ve been there, you take a far more pragmatic view of letting people go.

I expect in the current climate to see a number of RIF announcements. I hope they’re done right. (There is a way to do it right.) Because on those occasions when they’re not, things are going to be interesting. Unlike the first bubble, today everyone’s voice can be heard — blogging, twittering, commenting, we can expect to read (and hear, if people comment using Seesmic) about some remarkably uncivil behavior, especially on the part of first-time CEOs.

Next post: Layoffs done decent.