How To Talk The Talk

Here's a lesson in Geekspeak for all you offline country cousins

Summer is pretty much over, but you're finally heading out on a much-deserved vacation, part of which you'll spend pondering how you, too, can join the Internet gold rush. Your packing list: sunscreen (check); business book with `digital' reference in title (check); e-commerce business plan that's scalable, extensible, and defensible. What, you don't have that? You're in trouble, mate. There's now a digital counterpart for the old cliche that every L.A. busboy and cab driver has a screenplay in his back pocket. As I sat beneath a swaying palm tree in Hawaii on my vacation, I heard a couple formulate, debate, and abandon an entire e-commerce business plan. It had something to do with printer drivers. And the whole episode took place in a single poolside sitting, punctuated only by his run for mai tais and her intervention in their toddler's tussle with another kid in the shallow end. But since most of the business planning took place in Geekspeak, I suspect the uninitiated within earshot were clueless. As comic Steve Martin used to say about the French: They have a different word for everything.

As a public service, Digital Dispatch would like to provide this handy-dandy clippable guide. With it, you can talk loudly and make your beachmates think you're a player in the Internet world. You can so confound your offline kin with jargon that they'll quit making fun of your eight-year-old Honda. You may even impress your children. But don't try this on the college crowd. Here in Silicon Valley, more than a few undergrads refer to their tuition checks as "seed financing."

The trick to sounding like an Internet entrepreneur is to use these terms while directing a sneer and a narrowed-eyed squint at anyone who dares question what you're talking about. Fact is, as the new economy--oops, sorry, the New Economy--gets more and more hyped, attitude and jargon are far more important than logic or clarity. Use these terms, act confident, and you'll not only sound like an Internet CEO, you may also end up raising venture money you didn't even realize you were asking for. Here you go:

BUSINESS MODEL. Silicon Valley business plans are no longer about business, they're only about "business models." Quite literally, this translates to: "the way we'd like to make money if making money were the point of being in business in the New Economy." Practically speaking, the term helps you avoid annoying questions about revenues and profits and gets the focus where you want it, on your resolute march toward 110% market penetration and presumably the 22nd century, when money will no longer be relevant.

Sadly, the trouble with Internet business models seems to be that so many give half the business away for free and overcharge for the other half. This might work, if only the other guy's business model weren't the mirror image of that strategy, thus making it possible for customers to get everything for free.

VALUE PROPOSITION. When you're discussing possible new ventures, use the term "value proposition," the New Economy way of saying "the point." Like most such terms, the notion isn't new. The railroads' value proposition, for example, was that you would pay dearly to save months walking or wagon-riding and several layers of skin to get hauled across the country in a seat. But if you use some kludgy term like "the point" or "the idea" these days, someone will invariably suggest that your free-coupon search engine is a rather mundane concept. The techno-smarty-pants "value proposition" gives you the cachet of a riverboat gambler. "The table limit here is too low," the term suggests. "Take a walk with me up on the promenade deck, and we'll discuss a bet I find a little more interesting."

THE INTERNET SPACE. Yet another euphemism for the word "business" in the age of profits-optional. Silicon Valley entrepreneurs don't have competitors anymore, they just have "people who are in our space," and it's very much in fashion to define competitors right out of your space. "Their free-coupon search engine is only a value-add in a very, very small corner of this space," is one way of putting it. Actually, that means nothing, but it sounds at once condescending and brightly confident. If you're still encountering skepticism, shake your head sadly and comment that few people realize how "deep" your space is.

EXTENSIBLE. No one actually knows what this means, but it's something your scheme absolutely must be. It has something to do with the value proposition that your business model will work not just in your space but can easily expand or extend into another. It's a kissing cousin of another overused whiz word--scalable--the Internet equivalent of an elastic waistband. Your business can grow without changing underwear, er, investing in a new server farm.

THE DIRT WORLD. It's replacing "bricks and mortar" as the I-world's description of folks who sell real stuff to real customers who carry icky things like cash and shopping bags and expect such disgusting amenities as public rest rooms. The contempt is palpable. When referring to this Old Economy model, curl your lip, stress the word "dirt," and jerk your thumb toward the window.

OFFLINE. It used to mean your computer wasn't currently connected to a network. Then, it was used in meetings to get kibitzers to shut up: "Can you two take this discussion about the Halloween-party menu offline?" But like "dirt world," it has come to refer to people who aren't getting "it." The "offline" world is the new Luddite colony of those who don't use e-mail and haven't ordered their direct-marketing people to develop Web-based order forms. Offline people let L.L. Bean catalogs and other "dead-tree" products pile up in their Maine cabins. I fear a postapocalyptic movie starring Kevin Costner or Mel Gibson will some day portray "The Offliners" as angry, murderous, nuclear holocaust survivors who pray to an all-knowing being they know only as Java.

VIRAL MARKETING. This used to be called "word of mouth." Now, the crux of every e-business plan calls for happy customers to do your marketing for you. Yippee! Now we can spend the marketing budget on beer! (It's fair to point out that customers can spread the word on the Net at several orders of magnitude faster than by chatting loudly on a commuter train.)

MONETIZE. An inevitable stage in your business plan is when you go public, cash out, and retire. In the New Economy, it's actually possible to do this before any customers show up. However, technically, to monetize a New Economy business is to figure out where and how to inject actual revenues in the thing. Don't confuse this with investment capital, which is virtually limitless. No, this is the real ka-ching of customers who have accepted your value proposition. For Halloween fun, you can deploy the term "monetize eyeballs." This sounds terrifying and ghoulish, but it actually refers to figuring out how to make money off people who are simply and innocently looking at your site. Come to think of it, that is terrifying and ghoulish.

INTERNET TIME. At one level, it's the luxury of abundant, overflowing, compelling opportunity in a stubbornly 24-hour-a-day world. At another, it's what everyone tells you you now must do everything in--or else. Most poignantly, Internet time has replaced the headache, flat tire, and little Johnny's ear infection as the digerati excuse for why we're in such a bad mood all the time; why we didn't call you back or remember your birthday; why our "personal infrastructures" (Geekspeak for friendships and marriages) are potholed and creaking; why dentists are opening trailer offices in our company parking lots; why our kids have taken to e-mailing us from the school computer lab to remind us to please not forget soccer practice (again).

The real translation, I fear, is speed at the price of sacrificing thought--and thoughtfulness.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.