🤟🏽 How to speak the language.
Non-technical? New to startups? No clue what NFTs, DAOs or web3 could possibly be? Learn how to learn the language of the spaces you want to grow into.
But lately I've been thinking a lot about the kinds we don't talk a lot about - the implied, subtle, everyday jargon ones.
The insider talk, the acronyms and lingo. The shortcuts that enable insiders to "get there faster" but that keep outsiders firmly marked and outside.
I think about this a lot because starting a brand management/business role with a Chem degree required learning a lot of new concepts and terms fast - profit and losses, qual vs. quant research, cashflow - words that I struggle to remember now because they're so second nature.
After a decade of learning the language of corporate America I decided to start over in tech startups. That was a harsher reality check. I neither spoke the language of startups (mvp, pivots, runway, burn) nor of tech (fullstack, backend, ship, sprints, agile) or of investing (dilution, valuation, cap table, liquidity, options).
Of all the things I could have feel insecure or self conscious about, my lack of speaking the language made me feel like an outsider for the longest time.
I didn't feel like I had the words to show and communicate I belonged at the table.
So I had to learn the language, and fast.
I back in that place today as I'm exploring the worlds of NFT (nonfungible tokens), DAOs (decentralized autonomous organizations) and web3. Because I don't speak the language (yet) - minting, wallets, gas fees, tokens - I again feel the uncomfortable licks of my clumsiness, my naivety, my outsider-ness.
But now, I have no qualms about unapologetically being new to a language. Like I would bravely order a pain au chocolate "en francais" in Paris and endure the brutal look of disappointment and suffering on the part of the server, I push on.
So here's how you learn to speak the language. Whether you're looking to leap from a big company to starting a startup, or a non-technical founder looking to build a tech company, or just someone that is curious about a space that has an intimidatingly high amount of jargon and lingo.
The low down
🗺 Create a "fuzzy map". Lingo is shorthand for concepts. Map out the concepts and build maps of associated words. It literally can start at the back of a notebook. Each time you come across a word you don't know, write it down. Look it up and start to understand where it fits into the over all picture.
When I was trying to learn about the world of taking outside investment, there were big conceptual buckets of: terms of valuation, terms of control, returns, risk etc. I found over time that all of the other terms fit under there (preferred/common, liquidity, options, lead/follow, LPs/GPs etc).
The key was to start a map of the overall concepts in a "fuzzy" way. To collect words and start connecting them up.
☎️ Phone a friend. I now cringe about the fact that I asked one of my friends who lives in Seoul and works in private equity to give me the lowdown about venture capital and investment terms. Because I now know the difference and how that's not really his expertise.
But the key was that I trusted him. And he knew enough for my purposes to break it down in a way that I could understand and most importantly - ask the dumb questions. The most obvious, 101 things that insiders know instinctually and that outsiders most feel awkward about. He never made me feel bad about asking him and even with the time zones and all the ways I could have found someone “better”, he was exactly who I needed to start learning this language.
So find a friend. Maybe they know a little, maybe they know a lot. But pepper them with questions. Be curious. In my experience, most people love being able to a) help a friend but b) feel knowledgable themselves by teaching someone else.
The key is to pick high trust people over highest expertise.
👯♀️ Practice and put it into practice. The hardest step. The one that makes me the most self-conscious. Using the lingo and the words myself.
The first time someone asked me how much I was raising and on what valuation, I'm sure I probably stammered "$300K... and well, I've been doing a lot of research and looking at a lot of companies in a comparable space and I really think $3M is a reasonable thing...." my voice would have faded into the distance on the most uninspiring of high notes.
Now I look them straight in the eye and would say something like "2 on 10 post-money". No way 2015 me could have pulled that off. I had neither the knowledge nor the swagger. But I had to let the words marinate in my mouth. I had to spit them out, as uncomfortable as it was for me and the person across from me.
And yet, like that boulangerie in Paris, there's nothing for it but giving it a go and paying for learning with your amatureness.
It needs to become an everyday thing - putting the concepts and the words into practice until it starts feeling natural and second nature.
👀 Follow the insiders. Never before has it been so easy to follow the “experts”, the inside people and passively immerse yourself in the ecosystem. I’ve found Twitter to be the single best way to follow the people you might know, which lead you to others. You won’t get this exactly right at first (eg. you’ll end up following people who, after forming your own POV and instinct, you learn don’t align with your philosophy or values in the space, but you’ll easily be able to follow and unfollow and actively shape the voices you fill your space with.
💪🏽 Keep going. Keep being unapologetically curious. Keep asking the questions, keep taking notes, keep refining your understanding. Have debate of ideas with friends also interesting in these topics.
Because the truth of it is, learning a language is less about learning the lingo and more about figuring out the concepts this group holds most dear.
(Chinese is very action oriented and doesn't waste a lot of energy on many tenses. In fact it has 3 - past, present, future. The actual verb doesn't change, you just add words to the phrase. French, on the other hand, has 18(!) tenses because it's a people that like to describe in detail the many states of being. You'll find very similar things in what is valued in OOL - object oriented languages vs. functional).
Languages are such a beautiful thing, in my mind. They have the power to convey ideas that will make you never see the world in the same way again.
But so too, do they have the power to exclude, to keep people on the outside.
So by learning how to learn languages you'll find yourself becoming fluent in worlds and ways you never thought possible.