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Tech Startups in the Ellen Pao Trial: Z-A-A-R-L-Y, Z-U-O-R-A and T-U-M-B-L-R

How do you spell that? What does it do?


Rarely have Silicon Valley’s whimsically spelled startup handles seemed odder than when a witness in a trial needs to spell them out for the court recorder.

Is that Clout with a C, she asked?

“With a K,” said the witness.

Of course it is.

In a very serious lawsuit in which executive Ellen Pao has alleged systematic gender-based discrimination by the powerhouse venture firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, these moments are a reminder of the sometimes silly culture celebrated on the ground in tech — where founders label billion-dollar companies based on jokes or puns or the arbitrary addition and subtraction of vowels to find an available URL.

They’re also a reminder of just how insular this community is and how a stream of obscure startups and venture capital terms make no sense to someone outside of it — like, say, a judge, attorney, court reporter or jury.

At one point, Judge Harold E. Kahn interjected to ask about a particular startup that former Kleiner Perkins partner Chi-Hua Chien was involved with, called Zaarly.

Chien explained that it helped people order local services.

Defense attorney Lynne Hermle interjected: “Very useful, your honor.”

Then T-U-M-B-L-R came up. And Z-U-O-R-A. “Y.C.” is the startup program Y Combinator. “Path” is the name of a company. In the courtroom, both the techies in the know and those who were hearing them for the first time smiled at the absurdity. The levity was an equalizer.

There was, however, one former little startup that flowed off legal tongues more smoothly. When Hermle cross-examined Chien, she noted that he had spotted Facebook in its earliest days when he was at Accel Partners.

“Is that the same The Facebook that’s now Facebook?” she asked Chien.

He said it was.

“Were you in the movie?”

“I was not in the movie, but I was in the book,” he said.

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