You can use jargon in your startup pitch
This article originally appeared in TechCrunch and is being shared here with permission.
Pitch determines your positioning and positioning determines your startup’s success. Naturally, there is a lot of advice on how to pitch your startup. Among this advice, one common suggestion is to avoid using jargon. In fact, pundits will tell you not only to avoid jargon, but also that your pitch has to be understood by a five-year-old. Unless your customers are five-year-olds, this is bad advice. Jargon is the shortest and most accurate way to explain a problem. The key is to ensure that your target audience can understand it. If you are selling to customers in a niche, you can use domain-specific jargon they are familiar with. It can make them feel like you are speaking their language.
Why jargon has a bad reputation
When I was a developer, I used jargon extensively when communicating with fellow developers. They appreciated it because it conveys the point accurately and saves everyone’s time. But when I became a founder, that became a problem. We had built a machine learning algorithm that worked without training data. When I pitched it to fellow developers, I would say that we are solving cold start problems in machine learning. Developers understood it. But when I pitched it to customers, none of them understood what I meant. I followed the common advice and tried to simplify my pitch by saying, “You can build machine learning algorithms like Google even if you don’t have much data like Google.” It still didn’t resonate. Finally, an e-commerce founder told us their algorithm to recommend products doesn’t work for new users because they don’t have much information about them. He asked us if our technology could solve that problem. We said yes and changed our pitch to “product recommendation engine for new users.” It worked.
The issue isn’t with jargon itself; it’s about using jargon that matters to your customers. “Product recommendation engine” is also jargon, but it addresses a problem customers care about, whereas “machine learning algorithm that works without training data” doesn’t convey what customers can use it for. It assumes that the problem we care about (“cold start problem” in our case) is something customers also care about, which is often not the case.
A Developer's Journey in Pitching
When jargon works best
In the early stages, you are usually building for a niche market. Even in such a market, you should be pitching technology enthusiasts in that niche. Here jargon works better. For instance, our initial product was an add-on for Google Forms that allows users to add calculations. Only Google Forms users knew that Google Forms does not support calculations and therefore knew our add-on would solve their problem. The others didn’t know what an add-on was and what calculations in Google Forms were for. If we tried to make it understandable for everyone, it would have been an explainer on Google Forms and what an add-on was. Or we would have diluted the pitch into something generic that no one cares about.
Our world is built on jargon
Consider HubSpot as an example. When they introduced their product, they could have simply described it as a CRM tailored for customers who visit your website. However, they chose a different approach by introducing a new concept known as “inbound marketing.” They needed to clarify that the conventional approach was termed “outbound sales,” where you actively reach out to potential customers. In contrast, “inbound marketing” represented a shift in strategy, focusing on selling to customers who come to your website. Their goal was to educate the audience about the effectiveness of this new approach and emphasize that their software was purpose-built for it, and that’s precisely the path they decided to take.
Introducing a new product category, such as inbound marketing, essentially involves teaching jargon to enough customers that it becomes a movement. This is hard, but if you are able to teach a new product category to your customers, they will recognize you as the leader of that category. Even if you don’t create a new product category, when you pitch your product as a CRM, you are still using jargon. CRM is a well-understood concept today, but 20 years ago few would understand it. Same is true for personal computers in 1970. Ultimately, jargon is contextual. Initially, no one understands it. Then technology enthusiasts understand it. Finally, late adopters understand it. Your job is to use the jargon that your target audience understands at a given point in time.
Its Turtles All the Way Down
When to avoid jargon
Your investor pitch should be different from your customer pitch. If your audience consists of investors or journalists, it’s generally best to steer clear of jargon. You can use the “pitch for a five-year-old” approach here. Even here, there are exceptions. You can use jargon like “Uber for X” if your audience is familiar with it. “Uber” is a form of jargon that efficiently communicates a business model and market size to investors. In that sense, “Uber” is domain-specific jargon that investors care about.
If your business operates within a niche market where such comparisons don’t apply, focus on crafting a pitch for your customers alone. Keep in mind that journalists may not write about you, and investors may not fund you because of the narrow market focus. Nevertheless, having satisfied customers should be your primary goal. As your product evolves to serve a broader customer base, your pitch will naturally adapt, making it more attractive to investors and journalists.
In our case, we found that our customers used our Google Forms add-on to calculate order total in their order forms. We noticed that Shopify didn’t adequately cater to the unique requirements of small businesses, and they favored Google Forms with calculation capabilities. As a result, we created an e-commerce platform tailored specifically for small businesses. Now I can explain our product to my ten-year-old son, and he understands it. However, it took three years for my pitch to transition from jargon to something understandable. As the saying goes, “The greatest journeys are the ones that bring you home,” and I wish you the same.