Fingernails on a Chalkboard: “Pivot” and Other Lame Business Expression Fads

As a venture capitalist, I am exposed to all the latest fads in business expressions. When a word or phrase is hot, I get to hear it over and over again in pitch sessions, at board meetings and at conferences. No matter where I am, the latest fad expression seems to pop up everywhere. Whether a particular phrase really applies to a situation or not, most people think it’s cool to use the latest lingo. For those of us who hear these expressions frequently, it starts to sound like fingernails on a chalkboard—especially when they are so obviously used just for the sake of using them. So, plug your ears and let’s scroll through some of the worst business expression fads over the past decade or so. It will be fingernail-screeching fun!

In the late 90s the word “synergy” was all the rage. Everything was synergistic. One plus one was always greater than two. There were synergistic businesses, synergistic people, synergistic policies, synergistic politicians (Does that mean we’ll have more of them?). I even had one employee talk to me about the synergistic relationship between himself and his spouse. I almost asked him if this type of synergy was akin to polygamy.

After synergy came “coopetition.” It was no longer good enough simply to compete or cooperate—you should do both at the same time. Coopetition didn’t just apply to the relationship between one company and another. There was coopetition between departments in companies, coopetition between co-workers, coopetition between neighbors, and coopetition with my sparring partner when I was practicing karate. Can’t I just focus on winning, please? Sometimes it’s just wrong when competitors don’t simply compete.

From there we all got ill with a virus: Everything was going “viral.” Most marketing plans I saw included a component described as viral. Yet few understood what the term really means. A truly viral business spreads rapidly because customers will often introduce others to the product or service during the action of using it for themselves. Examples of actual viral companies include Hotmail, Dropbox and Survey Monkey. It was so tiring being told for the umpteenth time that a business would have a highly viral affect of happy customers wanting to spread the word about its product or service. But that isn’t viral…that is just good old word-of-mouth! One thing was sure, I felt a bit under the weather after every outbreak of viral verbiage.

More recently, I found a rapid emergence of people saying “then a light bulb went off” to describe when they or someone else came up with an idea. This one is a particular pet peeve for me, because it’s just downright stupid. Since when has the little cartoon of the person getting a bright idea been drawn showing a light bulb over their head with the light off? I even heard the famous physicist Michio Kaku say this on a tribute show to Steve Jobs! I am almost certain that when Steve Jobs came up with his many brilliant ideas, it was like a light bulb turning on. Maybe this is part of the cleantech explosion representing our desire for increased energy efficiency? Come on, we have LED light bulbs now—turn the damn light on when you get a bright idea, will you?

And now we come to the latest business fad word: “pivot”. If a business hasn’t made a pivot, then it must not be up with the times, because they all seem to be pivoting! The word “pivot” is most commonly used by entrepreneurs to show that they have learned from their mistakes and adjusted the company’s direction as a result. But a pivot is, by definition, a fixed point on which a mechanism turns. So, when an entrepreneur proudly says that they have “made their pivot,” have they now stuck themselves in position never again to move forward? Are they rotating endlessly in a new direction? (We call those the “living dead” in the VC world—yikes, another fad expression!) If they break out of their pivot and move forward will they be penalized for traveling? Pivot shmivot! Why wouldn’t one just say that they had “redirected” their business … meaning that they are still moving forward but in a different direction? Because, using the word “redirected” isn’t cool or hip enough – it’s the latest fad.

Soon the pivot fad will fade to be replaced by the next hot expression. But each hot expression leaves a residual footprint that never completely goes away. So, if you come to pitch your company to me and you explain the great synergy amongst your management team, the coopetition you’ve demonstrated through your strategic alliance with a key competitor, your great word-of-mouth viral marketing, how a light bulb went off when you got your great idea or your beautifully executed pivot, I hope you will understand why I may be wincing a bit. All I will hear are fingernails on a chalkboard.

David Gold heads up cleantech investments for Access Venture Partners. He is also the author of the GreenGoldBlog.

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