All the VC Terms You Need To Understand If You Want To Secure Funding

Darlene Menzies has made it her business to understand the funding landscape in South Africa. But six years ago she was on the other side of the table, pitching her start-up to a room full of investors. Here's what she knows now, that she wishes she'd known then.

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I clearly remember my first large pitching opportunity over six years ago. It was an evening cocktail event organised by one of the legendary pioneers of South Africa’s venture capital (VC) community, Brett Commaille.

Darlene Menzies

It took place on or near the top floor of the Reserve Bank building in Cape Town. One of the reasons it’s so vividly etched in my memory is that I had to climb more than 30 flights of stairs to get to it because as a chronic claustrophobe I don’t do lifts. After reaching the right floor and catching my breath I stepped into a room full of 30 or so high net worth individuals — my introduction into the new world of Angel and Venture Capital investors. 

Looking back, I wasn’t as nervous as you might expect, partially, I thought, because I had prepared well and I whole-heartedly believed in the product I was pitching. But in hindsight, I realise it was mostly because I was wonderfully naïve. There are some benefits to being a greenhorn. 

The pitch itself went well, I had been briefed to keep it simple and short. I described the solution we had developed, the problem it was addressing and what the size of the potential market was. I spoke briefly about the competitors and what our differentiators were, what the business model was and shared our go-to-market plan. I covered the size and pedigree of our team, as well as my skills and experience as the founder (aka the jockey) and ended with details on how much money we were looking for and what we would use it for. I was relieved when it was over and felt confident about my delivery. 

A bunch of hands shot up, which was positive. I felt encouraged; the hard part was behind me. Or so I thought. My nightmare began when I took the first question. “Great pitch, I love what you guys are doing. Please can you tell me a bit more about the traction you are getting, what your current burn rate is and how much runway you have.”

My heart sank and I felt my cheeks start getting hot. I didn’t have the foggiest idea what he was talking about. I could tell he wasn’t intentionally trying to embarrass me, but nonetheless his VC jargon made his questions sound like enquiries about cars and airplanes or something mechanical rather than anything I was working on.

I put on a brave face and asked him if he would mind explaining to me what it was he wanted to know so that I could try and answer him. That was the start of a steep learning curve as I began to navigate the world of early stage capital raising.

Six years on, the South African start-up and venture capital community has matured and grown dramatically and there are many more entrepreneur events, training opportunities, start-up competitions and pitching coaching sessions, which has resulted in some of the lingo becoming more commonplace — even so, raising venture capital still largely remains a very foreign and intimidating world for novice entrants. Back then I wished I’d had access to a practical VC-made-easy glossary and step-by-step manual as a beginner’s guide. I’ve been threatening to write one ever since. 

After surviving my harrowing Q&A baptism of fire, I starting working my way through the world of term sheets and deal negotiating and came across many more acronyms and VC-specific terminology that I had to learn to interpret and understand. Below are just a few of the terms I would love to have known about and understood before my climb up those Reserve Bank building steps. There are many others. 

Deck (or pitch deck) refers to the short presentation you will give to the investors. Guy Kawasaki, a well-known American investor, recommends his 10/20/30 rule as an easy guide for your deck. He says make sure your presentation consists of ten slides, take no more than twenty minutes to get through them and use a font that is no smaller than 30 points per slide.

You must showcase your MVP (minimum viable product). This is a product developed with the minimum features to ensure it is sufficient to satisfy early adopters. The final, complete set of features is only designed and developed after considering feedback from these initial users. 

Traction

Traction refers to the number of people who have already started using your product or service and provides a means of proof to the investor that people want/need what you are selling. Traction is best measured by the number of paying customers acquired over a defined period.  

Churn rate

If you are running a business that sells products/services via subscription, then potential investors will want to know your churn rate. This refers to the number of customers who bought your product and never continued using it i.e. those you lost after acquiring them. This figure impacts your growth forecasts. Tip: make sure that you have built the churn rate into your forecasts so that your numbers are solid.

Burn rate refers to the amount of money the business requires monthly to cover operating expenses. You can definitely expect to be asked what your current and anticipated burn rate looks like should you receive growth funding.

Runway refers to the number of months that the business has sufficient cash to continue to operate before it runs out i.e. if you have R200 000 in the bank and your burn rate is R95 000 and you are not expecting any immediate income from sales then you have two months runway. What investors want to know is how long the business can keep going until it has to close. Once again expect to be asked your current runway and your future runway in terms of the amount of money it will take to achieve the desired numbers.

Hockey stick

This is a common term used to describe the kind of growth curve in a start-up that an investor is keen to see. It refers to the exponential growth of things like users or page views, but mostly to revenue, which is projected to occur once a particular inflection point is reached. Early stage investors like to invest before this point is reached and then to sell their shares once the hockey stick growth is achieved. 

Exit strategy

Venture capitalists only plan to invest in your business for a limited time period, usually between five and seven years, before expecting to receive their returns. An exit strategy is a planned approach to them leaving in a way that will maximise their benefit and minimise damage. A typical exit strategy is a plan to sell the company once it has achieved its anticipated growth targets. In this case they may want to know who you foresee would be prepared to buy your company.

Term sheet

The term sheet is the document presented to the start-up by the venture capital investor once they have decided they would like to invest. It outlines the terms by which they are prepared to make the financial investment in your company. You are entitled to negotiate the terms with the investor before reaching agreement. The signed term sheet is not legally binding, unless stated, but rather it contains the final terms of the investment that will be used to draw up the legal documents for the deal. Always seek legal advice before signing a term sheet. 

Do your research

My encouragement to entrepreneurs who are looking to raise venture capital is to have a coffee or two with a few seasoned founders who have already done deals in order to get firsthand insights about what to expect when you engage with VCs — from the time you land the pitching opportunity to when you sign a deal and get the money and everything in between.