2024-03-09 by Collin Green

Startup Lingo


Like all specialized groups, folks working at tech startups, especially engineers, tend to develop their own special jargon and references that can be totally opaque when looking in from the outside.

There are plenty of lists of actual business terms used around startups; this is not that. Instead, this includes mostly interpersonal language that usually has a sarcastic or negative angle to it. The list intentionally skips over standard 'business speak' and goes straight for the snark. I've roughly categorized them below by topic or by level of negativity.

You might hear these phrases in any tech startup (or on an episode of Silicon Valley) and they cover a wide area of meaning, ranging from a fun reference to a veiled insult, depending on the phrase and the context. Interesting, many of these are not new terms at all and have simply been taken up as part of the normal startup lingo. Often they come with semi-interesting backstories so if you find one you don't know the source of it is worth searching for it online.

Phrases About Business and Startup Equity

This first group of words and phrases are about business in general or about the common startup situation where employees are compensated partially with stock options, often in lieu of better pay. They aren't necessarily negative, although most can still be used in a negative way and context matters.


Bootstrapping means building a business without taking outside funding, which often means you get to retain equity ownership and control but you might have to compete against businesses that did take capital and are therefore far better funded than you are.

The phrase comes from the nonsense phrase "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" which, despite often being used unironically, was originally a sarcastic snipe at people blaming bad situations like poverty on the victims by calling them lazy (this is sarcastic because it is physically impossible to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps - you need another point of leverage).

Golden Handcuffs

Golden handcuffs refers to the idea that equity in a business can trap you there, unable to leave, even if you might otherwise want to. Often this is assumed to mean simply that 'the pay is just too good', usually because of monthly vesting of early stock options that have low strike prices (the price you pay for the stock) compared to the 'current' price, making your total compensation more valuable on paper.

However, there are also darker sides of golden handcuffs where it isn't just about 'not continuing to make money' but is instead more clearly about losing what you've already earned. Most startup stock grants require you to exercise the options (ie, pay money and get real stock in return) within a short period (often 30 to 90 days) of leaving the company or being fired. This means that if you don't have the extra cash to actually excercise your options (especially likely if you just got fired) then leaving or losing your job means you'll lose all those options, even though you earned them as part of your pay package.

Moveover, taxes get weird in these situations as well. In the US, when you exercise your stock options, the difference between the price you paid and the 'current market value' is treated like taxable income for the alternative minimum tax calculations (it's complicated; do some googling if you want to know more about AMT and the 'bargain'). If your company has been doing really well since you started then excercising your options might land you a massive tax bill that you have no way to pay since the stock is still illiquid and unsellable.

Golden Parachute

In the same way golden handcuffs trap you somewhere with money, a golden parachute is a term that has been in use since the 60s for something that bails you out of a bad situation. This is usually reserved for founders and executives and comes in the form of contractual guarantees such that even if you lose your job you still get a big windfall. Depending on who is speaking, this might be seen as a fantastic tool in the toolbox or an example of yet another way the rich get richer and the average working stiff gets screwed, similar to 'failing upward'.

Rest and Vest

Resting and Vesting is a cheeky term for simply doing the minimum at your job to not get fired while you accrue potentially valuable stock options. Most startup stock option plans vest on a schedule such that, after an initial period with nothing, the options are available for exercise a little at a time, usually with a new chunk available each month. Saying someone is 'resting and vesting' is effectively calling them some combination of lazy and entitled since they implication is that they aren't putting in the effort to 'earn' the stock they are vesting.

A Rising Tide Raises All Boats

A rising tide raises all boats is a saying used to suggest something is not a hyper-competitive, zero-sum situation and instead can have many winners all benefiting from each other's contributions to the space in general. This is usually a way to describe early markets and new ideas where effort by multiple companies can raise awareness of the market in otherwise ignorant customers, causing everyone to grow without having to compete with each other for particular customers or segments. This is generally the opposite of a mature, saturated market where one business' gain is almost certain at another's expense.

Phrases About Thinking

This short section includes metaphors or allegories that describe what a particular problem or strategy might be like and how to go after it.

Chesterton's Fence

Chesterton's fence is a parable about a naive boy wanting to remove a fence because he didn't see why it would be there in the first place. The wise man replies that if the boy doesn't see why the fence was put there originally then there is no way he could know if it is a good idea to remove it now.

This comes up a lot when reading code and wanting to replace something you think is stupid, ugly, or unnecessary.

Turtles All the Way Down

This is a complicated phrase with many potential meanings! It refers to a flawed line of reasoning requiring infinite regression. A common anecdote is of someone describing the world as impossible to exist on its own in space and therefore being balanced on a giant turtle's back. When pressed for what that turtle is standing on the answer is another turtle, and so on and so forth where it is 'turtles all the way down'.

Sometimes this is a self deprecating phrase about neverending work (see yak shaving) and sometimes this is an accusation of faulty reasoning.

Derogatory and Judgemental Phrases

Often jargon is used as a shorthand for insults or other personal attacks, especially if the target might not know what it refers to. Most of the phrases listed below attack ideas or behaviors without directly labeling a person (but definitely imply negative things about them; usually that they are stupid) so they are often used passive aggresively and can make it into situations where more direct insults would be punished or reprimanded.

Nobody Ever Got Fired for...

A common phrase with many potential endings (often 'buying IBM' or 'buying microsoft' but can be anything where there is a particularly dominant company or pattern), this describes the tendency for people to pick whatever is already popular because it is safe to go with the standard answer, even if it ends up poorly, because if you go with something risky and it fails you might look bad or be punished.

This can simply refer to the difficulty in displacing incumbent products or can be used to label someone's behavior as cowardly or even stupid by implying they are making choices for the wrong reasons.

Golden Hammer

A golden hammer is a solution or tool that someone always goes to, even if it isn't the right thing for the job.

Calling something a golden hammer is saying that it is incorrectly being used for too many things, usually implying the weilder / suggestor doesn't know more than one solution for things and relies too heavily on the one thing they know or that they don't see the nuance and differences between different situations.

"Golden hammer" describes the hammer in the phrase "if the only tool you have is a hammer then everything starts to look like a nail".

The CIA Simple Sabotage Manual

The CIA really did create a manual for 'simple sabotage' with a bunch of ideas for how to make productivity plummet and make businesses grind to a halt without doing directly destructive actions you can get fired for. In theory this was for sympathetic wartime citizens behind enemy lines but it gets referenced in the modern workplace because the resulting choas looks a lot like the day to day experience in which many of us are living. The bits about having lots of meetings, making decisions by committee, insisting on lots of process and review, promoting bad workers while punishing good ones, and using the wrong tools for the job are particularly common.

If someone mentions the sabotage manual it usually means they are implying someone is causing so much harm that it looks like intentionally making things worse.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect and Mt Stupid

The Dunning-Kruger effect is the observation that people who only know a little about a domain often vastly overestimate their own competence because they don't understand all the things they don't yet know, while experts often underestimate their own competence precisely because of their understanding of the depth of the field.

Referring to Dunning-Kruger is usually implying someone is at the peak of their undeserved confidence (sometimes called "mount stupid") as a way to undermine their point or to imply they are in for a rude awakening soon.

Ironically this isn't a very well understood (or even reliable) concept and is often mis-referenced by people who think they understand it better than they actually do.

Eternal September

Eternal September is a phrase from the early Usenet days when seasoned users were frustrated by and disdainful of the influx of new students on the internet for the first time each september when they started college and gained their first access.

The eternal part refers to internet access becoming more common in general, resulting in a constant stream of 'regular' people all the time (instead of just students and just once a year), diluting the Usenet culture so severely it effectively killed it.

This is a common idea for any early adopters as the thing they like or even helped pioneer becomes mainstream and loses its value as an identity or in-group, ie, "I liked that band before it was cool".

Cargo Cult

A cargo cult means a group of people doing things just because they see other, more successful, people doing it without understanding the why. This often comes up in startups when someone says one of the mega companies does something a certain way and thinks that will apply to their own company, which likely has vastly different goals, scale, and resources. This is similar to criticisizing something as being like a child playing dress up in adult clothing.

The phrase itself refers to the island religions that try to recreate ships, airfields, and even planes they saw from other cultures (often allied forces during world war two) out of grasses or wood in the attempt to get them to return with 'cargo' like when they first saw them.

Calling something a cargo cult is brutally critical and wildly insensitive, essentially attacking an idea as blindly following a misguided religion that doesn't actually understand any of the real things that are happening.

Bike Shedding

Bike shedding is a strongly disdainful term suggesting that someone is arguing about minutia that doesn't matter, possibly because they don't have the expertise to argue about anything actually important but they still insist on injecting an opinion on something.

The phrase comes from an allegory about a team building a nuclear reactor and while the experts discuss the design of the reactor itself, management happily nods and smiles but when they see the design for the bike shed they argue strongly and vehemently about which color it should be painted.


Shibboleths are particular actions or processes that are more ritualistic than practical and serve as ways to demonstrate in-grouping. This can be anything and includes things like:

  • nerdy t-shirts you need to know the reference for in order to understand
  • standup meetings
  • OKRs
  • business speak like 'circle back' and 'take something offline'
Mythical Man Month

The Mythical Man Month is an extremely famous book about the software engineering business that, despite being written in the 70s, still applies to an embarrassing amount of the industry today. The title phrase refers to the idea that business leaders often incorrectly treat software work (and people in general) like fungible cogs in a machine that can be swapped out or added to with predictable results, despite the mountains of evidence and experience clearly demonstrating otherwise.

Referring to the mythical man month usually means someone is suggesting something that doesn't reflect the reality of how software engineering works like comparing two projects against each other, making up arbitrary deadlines, or assuming that adding people to a late project will make it go faster.

A similar, if more narrow, phrase is "You can't produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant."

The beatings will continue until morale improves

This is a sarcastic, cynical remark usually criticizing leadership completely misunderstanding the incentives and disincentives their policies produce, either through ignorance or just plain stupidity. The phrase mimics a nonsensical policy designed to get some positive result (like higher morale) through some process that will definitely reduce that result (eg, beatings).

This phrase comes in many shapes and is often changed to fit the particular situation (like "the layoffs will continue until morale improves").

Interestingly, this originated from at least as early as the 1960s, perhaps first from a military cartoon mocking the idea that punishing people for bad morale will fix the morale problem.

Phrases About the Work

Rubber Duck Debugging

Rubber duck debugging is the idea that when you are stuck on a problem you can often solve it or at least make progress by simply having to explain it, even if you aren't explaining it to an actual person.

Technical Debt

Technical debt is a complicated term that deserves an entire post of its own.

Originally coined to mean that you can get leverage from prototype code like taking out a loan -- make a prototype (take on the debt), learn from it quickly, then throw it away (pay off the debt with a bit of interest) and build a better product than if you had just tried to build the final product on the first try (similar to the agile approach to software development, which has also been horribly corrupted in meaning until it is now unrecognizable).

However, the phrase "technical debt" is almost never used this way anymore and has instead come to mean any sort of code a person doesn't like or that slows them down.

Yak Shaving

Yak shaving is when you want to do a task but discover that you need to do a prerequisite first, and then another, and so on. Often by the end of the stack you are working on something that doesn't seem at all related to your original task.

Tim Clark writes a fun example:

"I want to mow my lawn. But my lawnmower is out of gas. I'll need to go buy some gas. But I don't have a gas can because I lent it to my neighbor. But my neighbor is on vacation and he has a code on his garage door where my gas can is. I could call him but I don't know his cell number. But his dad owns a yak farm down the street and I bet he has the number." But when you get to the yak farmer, he tells you that he left his phone at the house, and he has to finish harvesting the wool off of a couple more yaks before he can get it for you. That is how, on some Saturday morning, when you are asked why you are standing in the middle of a field, shaving a yak, you can truthfully answer, "because I need to mow my lawn."

This supposedly came from a Rocko's Modern Life episode where they celebrate a holiday called 'yak shaving day', but this explanation doesn't make much sense since the cartoon holiday doesn't have the characteristic stack of seemingly unrelated tasks.

This clip highlights the phenomenon (although some of the tasks are simply distractions instead of blockers):

Uncanny Valley

The 'uncanny valley' originally referred to robot design and the uncomfortable middle ground if you're not either clearly a robot or clearly a human. Similarly, you can feel this with any not-quite-good-enough special effects in a movie where if it isn't completely convincing it would have been better to just leave it out.

The term can be used for anything now where there are two extremes that both work but being in the middle and partially doing both at the same time is worse than either option, which often comes up in conversations about strategy and process as much as visual design and effects.

Edge Case and Corner Case

Edge cases refer to potentially overlooked places where rules may not work anymore, like how dividing by something is fine except when that thing is equal to zero. In software development, the phrase edge case has come to mean an unexpected or unusual situation that breaks something that normally works, like handling negative numbers, accounting for leap days, the Y2K situation, SQL injection, or people named null.

Similarly, the phrase 'corner case' is sometimes used to describe the point where two edge cases meet.

Startups are Weird

So there you go; twenty two words and phrases that get thrown around in tech startups, usually as a shorthand way to criticize something. Maybe you've heard these before and didn't know them all or maybe you're one of the people throwing them around but either way I hope this list was helpful, or at least entertaining. If you're in a startup or considering joining one you are now slightly better prepared for some of the (intentionally?) opaque, metaphor-heavy shorthand that is so common during the day to day grind.

For more details on any particular phrase it can be fun to use algolia's hacker news search and see how something is used in practice. As an example, here is a search about rubber duck debugging.