The world of startupland and venture capital: intuitive to some, but a place of mystery to outsiders and newcomers.
We know jargon can be baffling — and we want startups, and Sifted reporting, to be accessible to everyone regardless of industry or background. It’s time for an open-door policy on the ever-growing lingo of the startup ecosystem.
So we’ve decoded even the most confusing of startup terminology.
If you don’t know your VCs from your LPs, your VR from your AR, or if talk of the metaverse, intrapreneurship or acqui-hires goes straight over your head: this one’s for you.
Here’s the Sifted glossary of every term founders and operators need to know.
Biotech refers to the marriage of biology and engineering to create new products and services, from genetics to protein manufacturing, longevity to neurobiology. Biotechnology is a part of healthtech but also includes many other non-health innovations, such as lab-grown meat and materials science.
An umbrella term for innovative technologies based on scientific breakthroughs, like the development of quantum computers, robotics and artificial intelligence. Deeptech companies can be harder to scale than, for example, a software company or a gig economy startup, because there is not yet a clear market for their products, and they usually need a lot of money upfront for development with very long waits for potential market application.
Edtech, short for “education technology”, refers to startups working on technological innovations for learning and teaching. That can mean tech to change the way people learn at school or university, or for upskilling employees in the workplace.
Fintech is a catch-all term for any business that uses technology to provide financial services — usually with the aim of speeding them up, making things easier, or automating them. This can range from neobanks like Revolut and Starling, which have challenged traditional banks by offering customers services such as money transfer and deposits, to spend management fintechs like Spendesk, which aims to make corporate spend management easier for companies and employees.
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How (and how not) to run a startup.
Gaming startups include both games developers and providers of games infrastructure. That could mean anything from supplying cloud streaming services, to coming up with new ways for gamers to socialise.
Gaming is also often seen as a stepping stone to the metaverse, as people become accustomed to interacting in virtual worlds. There is also a growing strand of cryptocurrency-backed games, where gamers can earn cryptocurrency from playing games or from creating them, such as Accel-backed Sky Mavis’s Axie Infinity.
Greentech, also known as sustainability tech, refers to any type of technology that mitigates or reverses the effects of human activity on the environment. The definitions of different subsectors are still being hammered out, but related areas include cleantech, which aims to reduce environmental impact and create greater efficiencies, and climate tech, which creates solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
📥 Every Thursday, Sustain brings you the biggest stories in climate tech, from gigafactories to ESGs — you can sign up here.
Healthtech uses tech to solve issues in the healthcare market. This includes digital health, telemedicine, femtech, medical devices and software as well as some biotechnology that is specifically focused on health, like longevity and neurobiology. In a broader sense, it can also include medtech — aka, technology designed to help medical professionals with their work.
Micromobility is focused on all the smaller, more lightweight modes of transport which usually operate at slower speeds. These include, but are not limited to: escooters, ebikes, bicycles, electric skateboards and shared bikes. Startups also often develop platforms to make renting and sharing them cheaper and easier.
SaaS stands for “software as a service”. It refers to software systems, which are centrally hosted by the company that sells it and then sold to others, usually on a subscription basis — so companies that buy the software don’t need to manage the infrastructure themselves. Usually, the software is being sold from one company to another company, rather than directly to a consumer, making it a B2B (business to business) SaaS.
Venture capital and investing
Acceleration — or accelerated vesting — is when a startup employee’s vesting schedule is sped up — meaning they are eligible to receive more of their equity sooner.
When one company buys another company — usually a bigger company buying a smaller company. The smaller company becomes part of the bigger company and ceases to exist as an entity, though what happens to the staff can vary — some companies will keep the teams intact, others will integrate them into the rest of the business and some will make layoffs while keeping the product.
When one company buys another company to acquire talent in the second company. In other words, the acquirer isn’t so interested in the intellectual property or business of the target, but in bringing talented employees onto their team. Can be especially relevant in tech when fast-growing tech companies acquire other companies to quickly scale up a certain function, such as software development.
A high-net-worth individual investing in a personal capacity. Also likely to be your first source of external funding after friends and family (if you’re lucky to have rich — and possibly foolish — enough friends). Former founders who have sold their business often turn to angel investing with the money they made from the sale, creating what’s called a flywheel effect in a local startup ecosystem.
Bootstrapping means starting your business and building it using your own money, managing day-to-day life from the operating cash flow. The advantage to bootstrapping over raising from venture capitalists is that you don’t have to raise money from outside investors and give away ownership in the company in return for giving them a stake in the business.
The burn rate is literally that — the rate at which a startup burns through the VC cash it’s raised — so, it’s essentially a measure of negative cash flow. You’ll usually see it quoted in terms of monthly startup spending.
A capitalisation table (frequently abbreviated to cap table) is the document detailing the breakdown of the company’s ownership structure and current valuation. They can become extremely complicated. Make sure you have one written down (your VCs will expect this)!
Employee or founder equity options often have a so-called cliff, which means that they cannot be converted into shares for a set period of time. So, for example, an employee might get 100 share options over four years. They might also have a one-year cliff, meaning that none of the options will vest (be given over to them) until the employee has been working for 12 months. Often used to ensure early-stage employees don’t gain access to all of their agreed equity immediately upon starting, in case they leave after a short period of time. In the case of founders, the cliff is used to ensure they earn their equity back and stay focused after a fundraise (or so say VCs).
Crowdfunding is where early-stage startups raise money from the public. It means thousands of “everyday” investors coming together to write small cheques to support companies. It’s usually done via online platforms, like Seedrs and Crowdcube.
A direct listing is when a company directly offers their shares to the public on a stock exchange without using intermediaries (banks) to facilitate the listing process. No new shares are created, versus a traditional initial public offering (IPO) when new shares are created and underwritten by banks. The most prominent example of a European tech company using a direct listing was Spotify’s 2018 direct listing on the NYSE. For a great overview of why Spotify took this decision, read here.
Equity refers to shares in a company. These can be held by founders, investors in a company, and also a company’s employees. It’s commonplace for startups to offer equity, or ‘stock options’ to employees, though some are much more generous than others.
Often referred to as a liquidity event or payday, this is when the investment is sold, turning an equity stake into cash. It normally happens either when a startup goes from being a private company to a public one, through an IPO or SPAC, or by being acquired by another company. Exit can also refer to when a founder sells their shares in the company, to exit as an individual.
A metric used to measure a company’s profitability — i.e., the percentage of revenue left over when costs are accounted for. It’s calculated by taking away the costs of goods sold (COGS) from your net sales revenue, dividing by the revenue and multiplying by 100. Gross margin is a key metric for working out your startup’s break-even point and how efficient the business model is.
Impact investing relates to any investment which intends to generate a positive social or environmental impact (alongside a financial return). There are a plethora of ways to benchmark the impact of an investment; one of the commonly used frameworks is the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
IPO (initial public offering)
Graduation — once this happens you’re officially no longer a startup! Your initial public offering turns your private venture into one listed on a stock exchange, where shares can be publicly traded by anyone. This step entails greater market scrutiny as well as regulatory obligations.
LP (limited partner)
The investors who supply venture capital firms with money to invest. They can be governments, pension funds, family offices, sovereign wealth funds or really wealthy individuals.
Two companies of a similar size decide to merge into a new company. Can result in a completely new company. They follow a similar process to acquisitions, so are often lumped in together under M&A — mergers and acquisitions.
MRR refers to monthly recurring revenue — i.e., the amount going into the business each month from its subscribed customers. ARR is annual recurring revenue. A metric usually tracked by SaaS (software as a service) companies because subscription businesses mean recurring revenue.
An investor’s portfolio refers to the businesses that it has invested in. You might hear the word in the context of VCs or angel investors describing a startup they’ve invested in as one of their “portfolio companies.”
Pre-seed and seed
Often the first institutional money that goes into a startup after the founders have exhausted their friends, family and personal savings. These rounds can be provided by angel investors and sometimes institutional investors (seed funds).
Pro-rata rights give investors the right to maintain their ownership percentage in later financing rounds. It’s great for investors because it guarantees them a seat at the table in later rounds, but it can be tricky for entrepreneurs. Giving pro-rata rights to future investors can shut out good investors from future rounds, or founders can be forced to give up some of their share in the startup in order to fulfil the ownership requirements of previous investors. Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures has a good overview here.
Series A, B, C etc.
A Series A is the first large round of money raised after a seed round, usually once the startup has demonstrated real potential through product/market fit. Series B, C and so on describe subsequent rounds.
SPAC stands for ‘Special Purpose Acquisition Company’, and they became pretty popular in 2020 and 2021 among tech companies aiming to IPO quickly with minimal regulatory hassles. A SPAC is a company that’s listed on a stock exchange and is loaded with money raised from investors so as to acquire a target that isn’t yet public. So when media say a tech company does a SPAC, they’re usually referring to the process of this listed company buying a private tech company or startup and taking it public.
When founders don’t have a lot of cash but need help getting things off the ground, they sometimes choose to offer shares (equity) to employees in exchange for their hard work and time — instead of a salary. This doesn’t drain their cash flow as much as conventional salaries do, but it’s a controversial tactic.
The document outlining the key terms of a proposed investment, and will likely refer to the cap table, anti-dilution, liquidation preference, pre/post-money valuations, etc. A signed term sheet does not constitute an investment, but rather outlines how to proceed should both parties agree on the terms.
A company’s valuation indicates its current worth and is calculated as the number of outstanding shares multiplied by the share price. For private companies, like many startups, the number of shares and their value can be closely guarded secrets.
The rate at which equity is earned, for example in a vesting schedule of four years, each year will earn 25% of the total amount. Usually subject to a cliff — see above.
Stands for venture capital — AKA the people who fund startups in exchange for equity — or venture capital. VC is different from other capital sources available to new companies, like loans, because startups don’t pay it back. It is generally seen as a good fit for fast-growing businesses (or at least those that hope to grow fast) with the potential to become seriously valuable in a short period of time. VCs (the people) usually offer their expertise alongside their capital — not that startups always want it.
A venture partner is someone who is usually not a full-time member of the investment team at a VC and works with a limited scope. They can be full or part-time, and might assist the VC with anything from sourcing deals or LPs, or working directly with portfolio companies post-investment.
For the entrepreneurs…
An accelerator is an organisation that plans cohort-based programmes for startups to gain access to capital, mentors and a network of others in the ecosystem — most importantly, investors! The world’s most famous accelerator is Y Combinator.
A beta release is part of software and product development cycle for startups. The beta release is not the final version of the software or product — and often has some issues that the developers hope will be found by the first batch of users. It can be an open beta – released to the entire public – or a closed beta – released only to a selected group of users.
Being a successful company isn’t all about hitting sky-high valuations, it’s also about survival. That’s exactly what a cockroach is: a company that is optimised for sustainable, steady growth. The term was coined by 500 Startups founder Dave McClure in 2013. Common characteristics of a cockroach include preserving resources, reducing costs to optimise profits and hiring just a few people in the team.
A unicorn on steroids. This is when a company hits a valuation of $10bn+.
Early adopters are the people who use a startup’s product or service first (or early in a startup’s journey). This group of users start using the product during the beta release and are usually more tech-savvy than later users. They are the ones that a company hopes will give the feedback on the product and will also give a first idea of whether the product will be successful or not.
A founder is someone who has founded a startup — potentially solo, or as a cofounder.
Friends and family round
A type of early-stage investment given to startup founders from close friends, family or peers who believe in their idea. Friends and family rounds usually occur at the very start of an entrepreneur’s journey to help get the business off the ground.
A sustainable twist on the unicorn. Gigacorns are a theoretical group of companies that could each remove one gigatonne (one billion tonnes) of CO₂ from the atmosphere per year — that’s more than produced by all flights in 2019 (before the pandemic). No business has got there yet!
Go to market (GTM)
Go to market strategy is the plan for the company to release its product to the market successfully. It can include a number of different steps but the main things are to find market-fit with customers, develop a marketing strategy and position the product against competitors.
Iteration means making minor changes to a startup’s business model based on the results of testing its product or service, aiming to refine it continually.
A launch is when a company makes access available to its product or website — essentially, kicking off the public-facing section of the business.
MVP (minimum viable product)
A startup’s minimal viable product (MVP) is usually an early version of its product, minus any bells and whistles — enough features to be usable. Developers and teams can release an MVP to get feedback from customers and get an early product to the market quickly so they can start getting feedback and iterating (see above).
A pitch deck is a presentation that founders create to explain to investors the purpose of their startup, the problem they are trying to solve, how far along they are and what they see as their potential growth within five to ten years. It usually includes information on the key people on the team and what their strengths are.
When a startup changes its business model or strategy from its original plan. It can be in response to market changes (i.e. a travel company that “pivoted” when flights and people were grounded during Covid-19) or if they struggle to find product-market fit for their original idea (i.e. a startup selling to one segment finds that is not their core customer, and pivots to sell to another type of customer).
Companies which haven’t yet hit that seven-figure valuation, but aren’t far from touching the $1bn milestone. Generally, a soonicorn is a high-growth company with a valuation of $400m+, and will likely hit the $1bn valuation mark within 24 months.
A startup’s total addressable market, often shortened to TAM and occasionally also called total available market, refers to the total market demand — and therefore total revenue opportunity — for a product or service that a startup offers.
NOT a mythical creature in the tech world (we wish). A unicorn is a private company that is valued by its investors at over $1bn. There are many ways in which companies can calculate their value.
Much like the gigacorn, zebras act as a greener sibling to the unicorn. Zebra companies are focused on becoming profitable instead of hypergrowth. That approach to scaling usually also includes adopting business practices with a conscious mind on ethics, inclusivity and the environment.
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Chief innovation officer
The executive in charge of managing the process of change and innovation at a company. Coined in the late 1990s, the term initially meant the people managing the digital transformation of a company, but now the role tends to be much broader and will encompass multiple strands, such as collaboration with startups and opening innovation programmes.
This is when corporates take minority equity stakes in startups, in much the same way that venture capitalists do. Sometimes corporates will set up a separate venturing arm to make these investments, sometimes they will invest directly from their own corporate balance sheet. Often corporates will invest in startups for strategic reasons, hoping to create partnerships with the companies — or perhaps to acquire them at a later stage.
Intrapreneurs are also known as entrepreneurs-in-residence. A system that allows a corporate employee to act like an entrepreneur within a company or organisation.
Venture builders, sometimes known as startup studios, startup factories or venture studios, are organisations that build new companies and help them scale and succeed. Venture builders may do this independently or on behalf of a corporation. Some large corporations create internal venture building units to create startups.
A type of corporate-startup collaboration where the corporate doesn’t invest in a startup, but gives them business at a very early stage of their development. The terms are usually a bit different from a normal supplier agreement — it might involve running a pilot project or creating easier procurement terms for smaller, younger companies.
📥 Sign up to Future Proof, our weekly newsletter on venture building and corporate innovation — you can sign up here.
Crypto and blockchain
Bitcoin was the first cryptocurrency - as in a blockchain-based, decentralised digital currency. It was created in 2009 by an anonymous individual or group going by the name Satoshi Nakamoto. It was envisioned as a way for people to send money over the internet securely and anonymously, without relying on traditional banks. It’s not widely used to buy goods or services like a cup of coffee, but it is often used as a store of value similar to gold. Its price has shot up in recent years and fluctuated enormously, leading some critics to call it a speculative bubble.
Blockchain is a digital ledger of transactions that is stored in a distributed way across a peer-to-peer network. Advocates say that the advantages of a blockchain are the fact that it is transparent (the full ledger of transactions is visible), decentralised (it’s not stored in one central place) and secure (the transactions cannot be altered or falsified). There are many different blockchain networks and blockchain technology has been used for digital currencies or contracts.
Cryptocurrency, or crypto, is a digital or virtual currency that’s secured by encryption techniques. The best known — like Bitcoin and Ethereum — are decentralised networks built on blockchains. In other words, it’s digital money that can be exchanged into physical money (fiat). The price of most of the main cryptocurrencies has been volatile, to say the least, in the last few months.
To keep the decentralised record of transactions on a blockchain constantly updating and working, cryptocurrencies rely on individuals supplying the electricity themselves (or mining), who are then rewarded with actual currency. Mining is essentially a competition to be the first to validate transactions and enter them into the public ledger of transactions. For the successful ones, the reward is a newly created coin. The process is controversial for consuming huge amounts of energy — in 2020 Bitcoin consumed more power than all of Argentina.
A decentralised autonomous organisation is an online community — a kind of co-op — that essentially works as a governance and crowdfunding entity over a blockchain. They’re loose, leaderless groups that build products and make investments.
This Bitcoin cousin is a payment network (or blockchain) with its own virtual currency, called ether. It is the world’s second most recognisable (and valuable) cryptocurrency as of early 2022. It was designed to be used for more than just currency, and users advocate its applications for buying NFTs and in other Web3 products.
A non-fungible token is an asset in the digital world that can be bought and sold like any other piece of property, but which has no tangible form of its own. It’s a database entry that’s stored on a blockchain — effectively a digital deed or certificate of ownership. Examples of NFT uses are the sale of digital art and membership into online communities.
Web3 refers to companies, products and services that embrace decentralisation and community-building, most usually achieved through using blockchain technologies. Web3 companies position themselves in contrast to Web2 companies such as Meta and Google which have built centralised platforms for a large userbase that does not have the right to directly input into the creation of the platform.
For the techies...
Artificial intelligence is a general term to describe the ability of a computer to do tasks normally done by humans, such as perceiving images, recognising speech and learning how to complete tasks.
AI is commonly used by startups to optimise learnings from large data sets — but AI also has common everyday uses, and advanced uses. One of the most advanced recent AI achievements was DeepMind’s AlphaFold programme being able to predict the way proteins fold. The most common type of AI today is a “limited memory” AI, which learns by analysing huge amounts of data and emulating how humans react to them.
An API (application programming interfaces) is a tool that allows different pieces of software to speak to one another, unifying the different elements of a tech stack and making it easier for a developer to work with.
Augmented reality (AR) is different to virtual reality (VR) — so beware of using the terms interchangeably! AR is used to extend reality with virtual, with the help of machine learning algorithms which recognise elements of reality. For example, a car windscreen might display traffic information for drivers or a tourist might be able to see a T-Rex coming to life when viewing a display at a museum through their mobile phone.
The backend is the nuts and bolts of a service — essentially any part of a website or product that owners and developers can use but users cannot. Typically it will include databases, servers and applications, and involves both maintenance and improvement.
The frontend side of a product or website is what customers see — tools they interact with and manage themselves. That includes design elements as well as functionality, navigability and readability. It should be clear to use and meet the needs of the customer.
Haptics is the use of technology to create the sense of touch using vibrations or forces such as ultrasound. Haptics can be used to create the illusion of touching an object in the virtual world.
Immersive tech is technology that immerses a user into a different environment, or digitally extends the user’s environment. Often this is done using a virtual reality headset.
Machine learning is a branch of artificial intelligence based on the idea that systems can learn from data, identify patterns and make decisions with minimal human intervention. Image and speech recognition — for example, chatbots like Siri — are based on machine learning.
A series of new technologies, including quantum computing, quantum sensing and quantum communications are all based on quantum theory, which explains the behaviour of material and energy at the subatomic level.
Quantum computing, for example, is based on the idea that a subatomic particle, such as an electron, photon or ion, can exist not just as a 1 or a 0, as bits in classical computers can, but they can also be both 1 and 0 at the same time. It opens up the possibility of much more complex computations, for example modelling proteins or generating genuine random numbers.
A stack is the selection of tech tools that a company uses to run its service or product. In many cases they are designed to interact with one another, giving the owner the ability to cherry-pick the most applicable and useful tools for their situation. For instance, a startup could use different software for managing customers, to running the website, to providing payments. Together they represent the stack. Some elements may be custom-built from the ground up; others may be third-party tools. An API can help these different tools speak to one another.
UI, or user interface, is everything a user sees or interacts with on a website or app. Making your UI clean and easy to use is a vital part of design. UX sits upstream from UI — thinking about a customer’s journey and the goals of the product will necessarily impact interface design. More technical than conceptual.
UX, or user experience, is how users feel when they interact with your product. Is a website pleasant to use, easy to understand and simple to navigate? Or is it frustrating and hard to read? It’s a broad term that can encompass not just digital interfaces but everything about a product. More conceptual than technical. Not to be used interchangeably with UI!
A computer-generated environment that many users can enter and explore, and where they can interact with others. Often this is in the form of avatars, or computer-simulated characters. Massively multiplayer online games are some of the most commonly known virtual worlds.
Stands for virtual reality. Supposedly the Next Big Thing in 2016… and 2017… and 2018. May now have been replaced with the metaverse. (See earlier listing.) VR headsets enable people to enter virtual worlds.
Wireframing is a very early-stage step in the design of a website. It often involves a bare-bones visual plan of where different elements of a web page will be positioned and establishing some common user journeys. After a wireframe has been agreed upon, design and content are added. Can be either low or high fidelity - the former is typically used in the early stages of design, whereas the latter is a fully-fledged approximation of the finished product (essentially a mockup).
Other useful-to-know terms (that we didn't want to leave out...)
B2B is short for business-to-business and describes a business model focused on selling to other companies. Example: SAP.
B2C is short for business-to-consumer and describes companies focused on selling to individual consumers. Example: Spotify.
Board of directors
The board of directors are the highest management level of the company, often made up of the cofounders and CEO as well as investors and independent experts or advisers. The board makes most of the biggest decisions about the company.
CAC (Customer acquisition cost)
Customer acquisition cost is a metric for judging how much a company spends getting each new customer, which can include spending on marketing, sales or staff salaries. Useful to balance with lifetime value (LTV) to ensure each customer isn’t a net drain on revenues. VCs love to look at LTV divided by CAC: if it’s over 4, you might be in luck.
A person who travels the world while working remotely from their laptop. These people have occupations that only require an internet connection, and often work at startups. Dropshipping — or the practice of selling products on the internet without ever holding inventory — is another popular digital nomad profession. It became more popular during and after the pandemic when more companies allowed employees to work from anywhere. Wherever there’s good Wifi, you will find digital nomads.
D2C is short for direct-to-consumers and describes what customers the company are focused on. In D2C it is the manufacturers that sell direct to individuals without going through a middleman like a shop or an external marketplace.
LTV (Lifetime value)
In the startup world, LTV stands for lifetime value (rather than loan-to-value, a ratiometric used when banks sell mortgages). It’s a measure used by companies to judge the amount of money they can expect to get per customer over time, so is particularly relevant to startups with subscription models. Can be calculated differently for different sectors, but generally, the sum is the average revenue per user multiplied by the average consumer lifespan.
A form of service model where a product is usable for free users, but more advanced features are reserved for those paying. Companies of all types use this: SaaS tools can lock some features, video games use free-to-play to draw in users before charging for add-ons in the game, and even media companies tend to offer several free articles before charging for full access.
A process of startups testing customer acquisition tactics at a rapid-fire rate and constantly iterating on the results. This tends to mean a small team of people experimenting with dozens of different methods and types of marketing and iterating on them fast. Early-stage startups often do this, though it can lead to problems further down the line if they haven’t focused on their product enough.
Science fiction writer Neal Stephenson coined the term “metaverse” in his 1992 book Snow Crash, using it to mean a computer-generated universe. It is generally understood to be a highly immersive, shared virtual world where people gather to play games, socialise and work. Metaverse purists say that the metaverse must be interoperable — and will therefore most likely be underpinned by cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens.
P and L (income statement)
The profit and loss (P&L) statement is a financial document that summarises revenues, costs and expenses for a company. It’s also known as the income statement. It is different to a balance sheet. These are publicly available for listed companies, but might only be available publicly for larger private companies (scaleups).
Stands for return on investment, or the value that a company or an investor can expect to see from the money they put into a product, a service, an employee or a startup. A useful measure of efficiency. It can be used as a vague theme or a precise measurement, typically by dividing the net return by the cost of investment (to see it as a percentage).
These definitions were curated by the Sifted team. Are there any key terms we've missed? If there's additional startup terms you'd like defined, let us know using the Typeform below.