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Title Inflation and the Rise of the Startup Ninja

Kauffman researcher Arnobio Morelix explores the growing trend of creative startup job titles — from czars to wizards.

Ninjas. Gurus. Czars. Creative job titles are on the rise. But what can possibly explain this growth, if growth is indeed happening?

The ranks of ninjas and rockstars in startups are seemingly growing. Anecdotally, inflated and creative job titles are considered so common now that they have even become fodder for comedy sketches like this one

Similarly, the data we have available points to a similar direction: LinkedIn professional titles, job ads and Twitter bios suggest a trend of increasing use of creative job titles.

It is easy to write off this trend as a tongue-in-cheek quirk. Probably, that is part of it. But I think that there is something else going on. Maybe this is another way to glamorize startup life. Or, maybe, the entrepreneurship world has a case of “medieval jobs envy,” in addition to a potential “zoology envy.” 

This is speculative, of course, but I see this broad trend as a title inflation of sorts. Developers become ninjas. Social media specialists become wizards. Analysts become warriors.

I venture that there are at least three mechanisms going on: 1) Employers use it to signal an informal workplace; 2) Companies use it to signal the value of their employees to outsiders; and 3) Employees accept the trade of titles for cash.

1) Signaling an informal workplace

Informal job titles signal informal workplaces to potential employees. If a company is working to recruit laid back people, informal job titles can be used to both attract folks who don’t care about typical corporate formalities and repel the people who thrive in more formal environments.

This year at SXSW I met someone with “Unicorn Whisperer” listed as the only job title on their business card (no joke). This sure signals to me this person works at a pretty informal place.

Ricardo Semler, capitalist and philanthropist, reports on his book Voce Esta Louco (he addresses similar topics in both of his books published in English here and here) that his employees are encouraged to put whatever title they want on their business cards.

If they want to title themselves “Warchiefs,” they are welcome to it. The reason for this is two-fold:

  1. They want to send the message that job titles are internally irrelevant, and the office is informal enough to make do without them.
  2. People should use whatever job titles that help them get their work done when interacting with outsiders, which leads to mechanism number two.

2) Signaling value to outsiders

Inflated and creative job titles may be used to signal value to outsiders – be it clients, partners, or suppliers.

This example is not really about creative titles, but it shows how “inflated” titles can be used to signal value. Danielle Morrill (who writes awesome stuff, by the way), is currently CEO of Mattermark and was Twillio’s #1 employee. Her title at Twillio was “Director of Marketing,” even though, by her own accounts, she was not really doing Director-level work for most of her time there. The title was intentionally fancier-sounding than her actual job responsibilities to make it easier for her to get meetings with outsiders — again, by her own accounts.

Because titles signal value, inflating the name of a position can be a very rational decision for an employer. It can also be a rational decision for an employee, who can use that job title to leverage future career negotiations. Which leads us to mechanism number three.

3) Trading titles for cash

As startups can be short on cash, giving impressive or clever titles may work as a method to make up for lackluster salaries. I tend to agree with startup entrepreneur Mike Vrekic who says on Quora that “since startups have no money, they invent titles to bestow unto their developers.”

It is tempting to classify this a new startup phenomenon, but trading titles for cash in one form or another has been going on for centuries, with cash-strapped monarchies trading offices and nobility titles for a bit of funding. The practice lives on to this day.

As we explored on this post, inflated and creative job titles may look a little odd, but this naming practice can be a very intentional and rational decision — making both startups and employees better off. It would be foolish to simply write this trend off as Peter Pan-style behavior.

But, because we never know how people outside our immediate work subcultures will perceive these titles, a cautionary comparison via HR recruiter Matt Buckland is warranted:

Something to bear in mind when you use a grandiose title on LinkedIn…. — Matt Buckland (@ElSatanico) September 23, 2014