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Yesterday, I Went to the American Idol for Startups. It Made Me Want to Die. (thestranger.com)
244 points by fixie on Aug 9, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 88 comments

Really enjoying the author's prose. This had me rolling:

>>It’s like watching some sadist work over a baby lamb with a rusty crowbar and a broken gin bottle. The names of these startups sound like the products of an aggressive brain tumor on the frontal lobe. Crowdegy, Placeling, Kouply, QuoteRobot, Appthwack, Makegood, Onthego, Nickler, Kahal, Tanzio, Taskk. They’re all whimsical and unique in exactly the same way.

I agree. If nothing else its always refreshing to read a piece on HN written by someone with a command of language and writing. Sometimes it gets tiring reading bullet pointed articles about how to design an engaging landing page, or poorly written and thinly veiled link-bait blog posts meant to get free marketing ("Dear Mark Zuckerberg", or "If You're Doing X, You're Doing it Wrong").

I think there were two big points made by the author, and he argued them fairly well: be aware of how powerful language is, and if you're a "hacker" - which by definition is someone who thinks out if the box - look around once in a while and realize if you've become a member of just another Herd. Sure he made his points through pointed satire and ridicule, but i think we all benefit from laughing at ourselves once in a while.

The slog is awesome. To those outside of Seattle, the Stranger is Seattle's alternative "magazine"/"newspaper"/"culture digest".

My favorite choice line:

> This world of business, these job creators, have specialized to the point where they have developed their own language. This is normal, but the problem is that their language is as tepid and lifeless and dumb as any language that ever existed.

This is true whenever MBAs or marketing people get involved, no matter if it's at a small or large organization. They (We?) keep trying to invent "brands" and buzzwords because fresh coats of paint at least get first looks.


I believe its called jargon. MBA's do tend to document jargon more than other professions, but every job has them.

I just realized I must be too old for HN, because it reminds me of nothing so much as the writing that went into the "underground newspaper" my high school creative writing teach had us "publish" above the urinals.

And he gave us a term we can use - "linguistic nihilism"

>>It’s linguistic nihilism, in which everything means nothing and nothing means anything at all.

Surprisingly a more popular phrase then one might have imagined.

From 2005: http://curmudgeonjoy.blogspot.com/2005/10/instance-of-lingui...

Actually, I quite like the name Appthwack.

For those of you who are too young to have lived through the original dot-com boom, I can't recommend this 1999 article on company naming from Salon highly enough:


Read the whole thing, it's hilarious.

As soon as I saw the parade of names in the OP I was reminded of one of the names the naming consultants in the the Salon piece devised -- "Jamcracker":

When Altman and Manning presented the name Jamcracker to a client recently, the reception was not everything they had hoped for. "I put the name up in front of their creative people," Manning says. "There were a couple of women sitting in. One of them got up and said, 'Oh, that's disgusting.' Another said, 'This is really sick.' I said, 'Excuse me, what are you talking about?' They said, 'We can't explain it, but that name is just creeping us out. We don’t know what it is, but could you take it off the wall, please?'" Manning remains mystified by the incident. "There's apparently some strange, uncomfortable meaning attached to it in the minds of some women," he says. "God knows what that could be."

I'm starting to head off-topic here, but that sounds like a scene right out of William Gibson's _Pattern Recognition_. The main character has an allergy to corporate branding and logos, and charges an absurd fee to sit in on a marketing meeting and simply give yea/nay judgements on logos. She can't explain why or how she can tell what's going to be good, but her judgements are considered gospel.

The Jamcracker Services Delivery Network (JSDN) enables Service Providers to unify the delivery of disparate cloud services to their direct customers and through their channels. Key features include:


Oh goodness

Most of their Web site seems to consist of jargon and puffery--"across the enterprise," "enables" and "ecosystems."

They raised over $142M including $100M in one round in Oct 2000. Wired article:


Many, many years ago, I worked for a company called "Inter-Touch". It's now owned by NTT Docomo. What can I say that has not already been said?

Amusingly, there is a business called Jamcracker:


and, what's more, the copyright at the bottom of their website says 1999-2012. I wonder if the naming firm still sold the name after this article!

As the saying goes, there's a sucker born every minute :D

This got me wondering if the naming firm described as the minds behind "Jamcracker" still exists. Sure enough, it does:


And they have a useful page listing all the names they've ever sold:


Scroll down to "J", and... boom. "Jamcracker: Unified platform for IT management." Right between "Jacks" and "Jamoka."

I don't mind it, but it sounds like someone with a lisp is trying to say Aflac.

The first time we publicly demoed AppThwack it was pointed out. On the other hand, people seem to remember it and generally react positively. Who knows if it will stick, but we agree on it enough for now that it's better to focus on the product and getting customers.

My favorite domain of all time: www.therapist.com

I cannot read that any other way than, www.THErapist.com

I guess you haven't been to www.PENISland.com? For some years there was an actual page at the end if the DNS request. Now the domain hilariously redirects to www.penisLEND.com, which is funny and awkwardly enticing.

Haha I totally forgot about the wonder vacation spot; PENISLand!

Goes hand-in-hand with this post:


I got a kick out of "Mehole" and "Simplert" from the list of possibly real names a couple sentences later in the article.

I have no idea what their product or service would be, but I'm having fun thinking of things...


We've gone back and forth a ton of times, especially because of the obvious "Aflac" thing. We get a lot of comments that are positive, and of course some that are negative, but nobody seems to have a problem remembering it.

I'm way more concerned with providing a good product with a name that's "good enough." Also, it describes in slightly playful terms exactly what we do. We test apps.

How do you spell it? (no really, say it to someone on the road and see if they can tell how to spell it)

The first time I say it out loud to someone there's often a request to hear it again. If they're a native speaker it generally clicks with an emphasis on "Thwack." If they're not, spelling it clears it up rather quickly. Usually it's because they've never heard the word before.

Once people get it they repeat it, likely because it's an entertaining and weird thing to say.

I agree with the advice that names should be easy to spell, but I also think it depends on context. Nearly all of our customer acquisition starts visually, either through the site, banners, or press, so it hasn't really been a problem.

Who knows if we'll keep it forever, but it's working for now.

Definitely sounds like a form of brain tumor though.

Sounds like Sarah Palin's short list for baby names.

"These women and men have come together to do brutal violence to the English language, to leave the spoken and written word bloodied and victimized on a cold cement floor, wishing for the sweet relief of death."

I will read anything this author writes. Thanks for spotlighting this blog.

Tip: if you want your blog READ instead of skimmed for buzzwords and facts, make sweet love to the English language. Then worry about your content.

I'm sorry but I completely disagree with that. I got a distinct feeling that the author of this blog is in deep passionate love with himself and his writing, and the topic he is writing about is remote secondary to the flourish of his expression. I personally don't care too much about this flourish, when I get craving for it, I can read classic authors that tell real stories about fascinating things in great language and not a bit of snobbery about some geeks naming their companies wrong. When I read technical or around-technical article, I expect a decent command of English, but I expect the author to worry about delivering his point and not about loving his own voice so much that he can't stop embellishing and loses he sight of why he's doing it. Reporting and opera aria are different genres.

In this article, what is the point of it? That all startup ideas suck because they think too small? And the author instead thinks they should be doing... well, he doesn't. He just thinks they are named wrong, think wrong, dress wrong, speak wrong, live wrong and their future is wrong. Everything is wrong except for the one shining light that is the author of the article and his perfect whimsical metaphor-filled style. Bleh.

I get both of those impressions (your's and one up). Just because someone is an egocentric narcissist doesn't mean that they aren't on to something. In fact, as they say, it takes one to know one.

"...smart people I consider to be excellent writers—are unironically using the word “SPOTLIGHT” as a verb in an Hacker News thread."

I think you should figure out what content you want to convey first; throwing pretty descriptive words at a page with no content is a good way to get garbage.

I understand this sentiment. e e cummings and James Joyce might be interesting counter-examples, but then again they were not tech writers. I suppose that I mean incisive and beautiful prose will keep me coming back and paying attention to what you say (because it is a pleasure to read) rather than being lost in the flotsam and jetsam of articles bobbing to the surface of HN every day.

Anything worth writing is worth writing well.

But not everything is worth writing.

I would not even begin to disagree with you about the merits of beautiful prose, but would the article have been anything more than a collection of entertaining images and vitriol if the author hadn't been skewering a very real and obvious and silly trend?

Most of us have probably shaken our heads at some startup name or another, or rolled our eyes at a particularly unbearable lump of marketing-speak. So underneath all those pretty words and images lies a sentiment we understand and can sympathize with.

If you want your blog READ instead of skimmed for buzzwords and facts, write things worth writing.

"Hell, as I check my e-mail, I notice with a resigned shame that my coworkers—smart people I consider to be excellent writers—are unironically using the word “spearhead” as a verb in an e-mail thread."

Aaaaand this is where I dismiss the author as simply looking for things to complain about.

Complaining about names (as if that even matters). Complaining about the way they dress. Complaining about the way they talk.

Might as well end it with "get off my lawn!"

The naming part was a bit annoying. There's a very specific and calculated reason why startups go with uniformly butchered names like those: 1) domain names and branding you don't have to fight over (you have no money to do that as a scrappy startup) 2) you also don't bucket yourself into one specific function "UsefulSpreadsheets.com" can never become a food catering company, whereas "Xorgzyx.com" (or Google/Yelp/Amazon/Zynga and so on) can be whatever they want to be without having to rename themselves.

It's pretty naked snobbery. That's all.

Buzzwords must die.

I feel like you and I have synergy on that opinion.

"The women have it tougher. Their business casual is neither business-minded nor all that casual, a confusing melange of sundresses and sensible slacks, gossamer sweaters tossed over spaghetti straps."

That seems weirdly sexist to me. I guess I really like working in tech because I can wear generally what I want, and often in the summer, that means sundresses, instead of a stifling business suit. And I guess I always assumed the tech world, particularly the start-up scene, wasn't judging me as less business-like because of it.

TLDR: yes, a lot of the startup world is full of shallow business-speak, but don't you dare insult my sundresses.

I think you have it backwards. The sundress is overly-dressy. The shoes are designed to be looked at and to impress, rather than for comfort.

I think that sort of misrepresentation (not you specifically, the event) is what the author resenting. Read me out.

Brute utility defines romance of 'startup culture'. Humans understanding their world, and interacting with it in a straight-forward way. I'm modifying the code to do this. These effects will alter this part of our business. You're attempting to account for everything. Money has definite purposes. Your time has value measured in the sort of excitement that makes your brain burn like you were lifting weights with it.

Those conditions do not include men spending their money on jeans, and women spending self control on culturally approved foot torture. At that point the focus has moved from interacting with the business to something about social status.

Buzzwords really give things away. I'm only now learning that buzzwords are the most important part of modern established businesses. They're fucking amazing. A buzzword represents an abstract concept.

Abstract concepts come in two flavors. Those that represent something very specific/complex in concise terms, and those which represent something very vague/simple in bombastic terms. In use, they are the guardians of understanding and agreement. Secrecy and manipulation and power with publicly spoken words. A stark contrast to the liberal sharing of knowledge and honest curiosity of the startup dream.

I suspect neither you nor the original author have worn many women's clothing or shoes. Sometimes things look uncomfortable that are not. And why does it matter anyway if my clothing accurately reflects some abstract startup ethos? Startups talk about attracting women, but what happens when women get criticized for doing things a lot of us legitimately enjoy like wearing pretty clothes?

Either way, nothing is less business-like than judging a tech event by the attire of the participants. In tech, it's a lose-lose situation. Dress in a baggy Defcon t-shirt and don't brush your hair...you are too ugly and you must not be a "people person." Dress nicely...oh you must have just chosen those clothes to impress people, so you must be superficial.

Or if you want to be taken seriously, as the target of such criticism you could roll your eyes and devote exactly as much mental energy to such criticisms as they deserve, which is approximately zero.

Finding sexism in absolutely any scenario where there is a reference to sex is an all too common skill that one might be better off not possessing, but that's just my opinion.

That is definitely one of the better CollegeHumor videos.

from the internet-themed, I prefer this one http://www.collegehumor.com/video/2563451/internet-commenter...

Here's the author's bio and picture if it helps put this article in context: http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/paul-constant/Author?oid=...

>He became the 2009 I.D. Spring Roll Eating Champion after consuming 23 deep-fried spring rolls in two minutes.

Pretty impressive if I may say so.

So he's a hipster twat? Not too surprised.

>"You can do anything you want with an idea. It can be as big as you want. It doesn’t have to solve a minor problem that nobody ever really realized was a problem. It doesn’t have to fit into something the size of a button crammed into a “folder” the size of a button on a screen the size of a playing card. But everywhere I look, I see tiny little ideas,ideas that are almost petty in their inconsequentiality."

This. This sums up how I feel about the whole startup scene. The lack of real innovation is incredible.

The Stranger disappoints, as usual. Easier to poke fun at people's clothes and other shallow topics than provide something of substance. Don't get me wrong, I love the occasional quip, but the author has put zero effort into understanding the culture before casually ridiculing it.

A very pleasant surprise seeing The Stranger on HN today.

I was there yesterday, and we actually presented and ended up tied for second place. AppThwack (Not to be confused with a "brain tumor") is a rapid, automated QA service for testing Android apps on real, non-emulated devices in a massively parallel and fast way. I realize it's not a world-changingly noble mission, but I also don't think it's trivial or inconsequential. Regardless, here are my thoughts. I posted a bit more in the article comment, but thought I'd paste part of my comment here.

"This article is definitely entertaining. It's vapid and catty and well written, and accurately portrays an event from an outsider's perspective. Of course there are lots of things that look like "bad ideas" on their face. On the other hand, there are lots of ideas that seem dumb at first that grow into interesting companies that end up solving legitimate problems.

Overall I think the event was very well run and I met a lot of great people. I was there with the goal of getting something out of it, though, and that something was connections, potential partners/customers, and some more pitch experience. Obviously the author got what he was looking for as well.

I think it's important that the "startup community" (I hate that that's a thing people say) gets kicked in the balls every now and then. For example, this look at TechCrunch Disrupt: http://www.buzzfeed.com/jackstuef/scenes-from-the-pounding-h...

So those names were indeed terrible. But how the hell do you name things well? It's really hard.

The second you write some code you have to call it something, and I imagine that's the point where people think up janky cute names, and then it's in the codebase and that's that. I know for me I think up something stupid and then roll with that, presuming that if it ever makes it out of localhost it will be renamed to something sensible.

These people are just pitching, no wonder there names are like AwesomeSaucr and CakeBacon and what-not.

Jeff @ MakeGood; I pitched yesterday at StartupRiot.

For what it's worth, 'makegoods' are old ad-industry jargon for extra ads which have to be run to literally 'make good' on what you've sold to an advertiser... plus a half-way decent play on words. Our target clients instantly get what we do, and want a t-shirt = mission accomplished.

The article has exceptional wordcraft, that's true. However, of all the potential angles or stories he could have written, he simply phoned in this bashing of the attendees for wearing khakis and using "TPS Report" industry jargon. If he'd actually bothered to talk to any of these companies he could have written so much more.

I'm going to dust off my khakis and get back to coding up our solution for our clients who love us now.

PS: i hadn't looked at the author's bio until I saw the comment of someone who did and called the author a "hipster twat." Thanks for that, our office was rolling.

Names don't matter. Google is a terrible name. Yahoo is a terrible name. Do you think Facebook became what it is because of their name? Do you think MicroSoft got where it is because of the name? Do you think Linux and Apache took sizable chunk of their market afterward because their names were better?

Names are insignificant. You can pay millions for most awesome name on the planet and flop, and you can choose name like "git" and create awesome software that everybody uses. People would use anything under any name if they like it.

Possibly the worst names for the most popular software are git and gimp. Nobody cares. They use them, because they are awesome!

Woah. How did this drop from #2? There are articles above this on HN that have less points and were submitted at an earlier time...

It may have been flagged. If a post gets flagged enough it will get pushed to page 2 no matter how many upvotes it gets.

Must have hurt someone's feelings

I can't say I ever expected to see a Slog post on here. Slog's where I go for my daily dose of adorable animal videos at lunch, sex advice from Dan Savage, and Seattle/Washington state political news.

All that said, Paul Constant is a fantastic writer, and I'm glad to see he's found an audience here.

Not to be that guy but it's like the author is writing a novel. What's the tl;dr here?

The author attended an "American Idol" for startups. It's hip to have a startup. The names of said startups may as well be gibberish (yet they attempt to explain the meaning behind them). Pitches consist of ridiculous buzz words and maketing speak to cover up the fact that none of these ideas are solving problems or something that people want.

tl;dr of my own reply: Have you seen that movie Idiocracy? It's like that, but startups.

It's got what entrepreneurs crave.

He went to Startup Riot, saw a bunch of consumer internet startups pitching their product.

Complained about the names, the language used to describe the ideas ("content" vs "text", "consume" vs "read", etc) and the ideas themselves.

Half of the article sounds like sour grapes, half is legit criticism.

Eh, I don't know. I think it's wise to take a step back and listen to yourself from time to time. When you set out to do something, you start by learning, then by doing, then you recyle that process over and over. You entrench yourself with like-minded individuals, and everything starts to become second nature.

This is the exact moment that you should take a step back and read a piece like this. In the process of trying to succeed, there's a very good chance that you're going to pick up some habits from those around you. Some of those habits are good and will contribute to your progress, but many of them are just useless baggage.

When I read this piece, I thought to myself, "My god, we sound just like the Six Sigma biz-ops guys we make fun of." That's an insight I wouldn't pass up, even if it means feeling a little sting of broken pride.

Yep, I'm right there with you. I enjoyed this piece, and that's why I said half was legit criticism.

If I hear a startup unironically use the term "leverage" or "pivot" one more time...

I think it is allowed if they are engineering some sort of giant pivoting lever.

The author is somewhat disgusted at these people for paying $40-80 to spend a (nice) day inside, listening to each other's powerpoint presentations about startups with weird names which don't really solve anybody's problems.

Part of the hyperbole is normal for articles in The Stranger.

I think sometimes we need a Debbie Downer to critique a party. Imagine if a similar article like this was written in the late '90s ridiculing the excesses and frivolity of the dot-com boom. Perhaps even when things are going great, we should take a step back and think if we're really going in the right direction?

Even if the economics are better this time around, the aesthetics could be better as well.

I don't see how you get "sour grapes" out of this unless you know some backstory.

Ah, yeah, sour grapes was probably the wrong phrase. I was paraphrasing quickly.

I just meant a certain amount of pre-conceived, baked in "anti tech startup" mentality. It didn't seem like this guy was going in with a very open mind.

So what I meant is basically, half the article is legit criticism (ridiculous names, using ridiculous buzzwords and generally untenable startup ideas) - and half just sounded like some guy going being angsty against tech startups "just because"

The problems that startups are trying to solve are too small and too uniform, possibly because marketing language used to define those problems sounds good but means little.

shaaaaark tank

Come on, is about ten short paragraphs. In the time taken to post that and then go through the summaries, you could have read it.

I was one of the presenters at Startup Riot. Events like Startup Riot give early stage founders the opportunity to showcase their products and it is extremely important to keep this a safe place for newbies and encourage entrepreneurs to keep at it!

Two cents from a presenter at the event: http://www.moonsovermyhammy.com/post/29112090592/if-youre-a-...

Investors are so desperate to find the next homerun that they'll cater to the ridiculous that is speed dating for startup ideas.

I think that is a point missed by this article and many others. People are going after what they think they can get funded in large part. In the comments on the post there is a nice Peter Thiel quote about innovation in the physical world basically getting outlawed (his libertarian bent shows strongly here) driving innovation to software. And while I don't really agree with all of it, I really think that to a certain extent, be it through patents, super dominant companies, government prohibition, or even just cultural forces, it is really hard to go big.

When the dust settles, we all will remember those crazy startup euphoria days and this article would be one of it. Pretty soon we might need to ammend the Dictionary with new words or spelling corrections

"tiny little ideas" - for me the best startup ideas are those that start with some small idea, but it is actually a trojan horse to get something into the market that is actually very large.

That's assuming that there actually is a significant idea bound up in the tiny idea, which is not generally the scenario that the author is complaining about.

Of course. It was just a phrase that jumped out at me.

Some of the photos for 'Stranger Personals' that appear on the right of the article aren't really safe for work.

Anyone else have a bunch of pop-up ads when browsing there?

"When the language you employ to communicate your ideas is small and boring, your ideas are going to be small and boring."

That's how I felt reading this blog post. A long, pedantic, raging post that does nothing but demonstrate that the author has an inflated sense of his writing prowess. His post is basically one type of Hipster raging against the Hipsterisms of a different type of Hipster.

That line made me think of the Hemingway quote:

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don't know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

Two quotes from George Orwell spring to mind:

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."

"If people cannot write well, they cannot think well, and if they cannot think well, others will do their thinking for them."

nuff said...?

Great writing, reminds me of David Foster Wallace's work.

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