The Uber of Startup Lingo: A translation of 47 startup one-liners

A guide to help friends and family understand startup speak

If you like this article, check out another by Robbie:
What People Really Think During a Board of Directors of Meeting

Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

The startup world is a funny place without trying to be. Like other industries, we’ve created our own subculture and language to communicate with like-minded people. What sets us apart from other industries is the breadth of this made-up language and the pure absurdity of its usage. I imagine it can be difficult for Normals (that’s what we call non-startup/techie people) to understand what we are talking about. That’s right, we’ve even come up with a word to describe people that aren’t like us. They are the Normals and we are the non-Normals…wait a second.

I wanted to help all the Normals out there understand us better, so I put together a list of things you might hear a startup person say. For each one-liner, I provide how a Normal might interpret the sentence. Imagine if your Mom overheard you at a family get together talking about your startup. Mother’s can be sneaky like that.

I encourage all the non-Normals to read each sentence without any startup baggage— as if you were hearing the collection of words for the first time. Harken back to the days when you were….Normal. Don’t we sound ridiculous?

Moving Fast and Breaking Things

Also known as: running a startup. After listening to a startup founder for 30 minutes, you’d be convinced running a startup is comparable to the work shown in this picture:

We are just getting started, so we plan to break things and move fast. Or is it move fast and break things?

Normal’s response: Breaking things and moving fast sounds like you are committing some sort of crime. If you are moving fast and breaking things, that sounds like when you were a toddler.

Translation: Mark Zuckerberg is famous for saying he wants his developers to: “Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you are not moving fast enough.” He was trying to say he didn’t want the fear of failure to be something his developers worried about. Failure was ok. (Zuck has since changed his tune.)

Of course our goal is to be a famous unicorn some day.

Normal’s inner dialog: I knew I should have checked in on him more during college. The drugs are really affecting him.

Translation: Aileen Lee coined the term “unicorn” to mean a startup whose valuation is above $1 billion. Being in the “unicorn club” is something the tech press talks about a lot, so it’s considered a measuring stick in the startup world.

We’re ramen profitable but are hungry to grow.

Normal’s response: If all you are eating is ramen, I bet you are hungry.

Translation: Paul Graham coined the term ramen profitable to mean a startup that makes just enough to pay the founders’ living expenses (who are presumably just eating ramen). This is generally targeted at younger people that have lower personal burn rates. Hard to be ramen profitable with 4 mouths to feed! That’s a lot of ramen.

We are a lean startup and are as hungry as ever.

Normal’s response: It’s good to be lean, but are you eating enough? Being lean and hungry isn’t a good combination.

Translation: A lean startup actually has a specific meaning. It’s a popular methodology for creating and building a startup that was popularized by Eric Ries.

I’ve invited a well-known serial entrepreneur to give a talk during breakfast next Wednesday.

Normal’s response: I know you like Lucky Charms, but to invite someone that sells cereal to give a talk?

Translation: Serial entrepreneur is someone that’s started multiple companies. They don’t even have to be successful companies either. Start two failed companies and bam, you are a serial entrepreneur.

We’re running out of dry powder so we asked our existings for a bridge.

Normal’s response: What kind of powder do you need? You asked your existing what for a bridge to where?

Translation: Dry powder is another word for money. She asked her existing investors for additional money (i.e. bridge) so she can buy more time before raising another round of funding.

After not achieving product/market fit, we’ve decided to pivot into an adjacency.

Normal’s response: Are you entering some kind of dance competition?

Translation: There is a lot of ground to cover here. We use the term product/market fit to describe a product that customers really like. A “pivot” means to “change your plans” and “adjacency” is a related but different market to the one you are currently in. Said another way, the company is changing its business model because customers didn’t like the old one enough.

Our demo day is next week and I’m scheduled to meet with two members of the PayPal Mafia.

Normal’s response: Please don’t take money from the mafia! That won’t end well.

Translation: It is common for startup accelerators to host a “demo day” where they show off their current group (aka “batch”) of companies to potential investors. The PayPal Mafia is not a real mafia, but the term given to describe a group of early PayPal employees that have gone on to great success with a variety of other companies. Many are investors now so it wouldn’t be unheard of for one or more to be present at a demo day.

When we started to Slack, everyone stopped using email.

Normal’s response: Oh no, your company is starting to slack-off and now you aren’t using email anymore!

Translation: Slack is a group chat tool that started to become very popular around 2012. The founders of Slack positioned it as a great alternative to email, but inside of most companies it results in significantly more messages being sent than what we used to send via email.

We are still in stealth mode so we are trying to stay under the radar.

Normal’s response: You are working on jet fighter technology now? Doesn’t that cost a lot of money?

Translation:Stealth mode” is a silly way of saying you are being secretive about your company and not sharing any details.

A unicorn isn’t cool. A decacorn, now that’s cool.

Normal’s response: I must not be cool because I’ve never heard of a decacorn.

Translation: A unicorn is the word for startups valued at $1 billion or more. Decacorns are startups valued over $10 billion. It’s another totally made-up word so don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of it.

For my next company, my goal is to be a centicorn. If we aren’t successful we’ll end up living off candicorn.
John doesn’t want to join a startup because he’s vesting in peace at Google.

Normal’s response: John died at Google?

Translation: When you join a tech company, it is common to be granted stock options. Options can turn into real stock over time through a process known as “vesting”. Actually options turn into a guarantee that you can buy stock at a particular price once they vest (yes, it is a little complicated). The longer you are with a company, the more options vest. Someone “vests in peace” when they’ve been given a lot of stock options to work at a growing company and don’t want to leave, but also aren’t very happy with their job and are just sticking around to liquidate their options in the future.

After fixing our burn issues we should have a solid run rate by end-of-year

Normal’s response: When did you get burned? Glad to hear you are running again.

Translation: “Burn” is how much money a company is losing. “Monthly burn rate” is how much money a company is losing each month. Most early stage startups don’t turn a profit so it isn’t uncommon to be losing money. “Run rate” is how much money the company is making on an annualized basis. It is common for startups to talk about what their run rate will be at the end of the year (after unprecedented growth) as a way to make them sound more successful than they are right now.

Raising Capital

Also known as: Begging wealthy individuals and investment firms for money without making it seem like begging.

We’ve been talking to local angels about our seed.

Normal’s response: Do you eat with that mouth?

Translation: Angels are wealthy individuals that make (typically) small investments in startups. “Seed” is short for “seed round” or the first round of funding that a startup raises. After the seed round comes the Series A, Series B, etc. That is, unless the company hasn’t done enough to attract investors to a Series A round and needs a bridge (sometimes referred to a Seed 2, Seed 3, etc.) to help get to a Series A. That clear up everything?

For the next round I’m going to focus on value-add institutionals.

Normal’s response: You are going to focus on crazy people that can help you?

Translation: Value-add is a clunky business term for “helpful.” Institutionals refers to institutional investors such as venture capitalists. A common pearl for entrepreneurs is to only focus on “value-add investors” when in reality, most companies aren’t so well-positioned to be that discriminating when it comes to “selecting” investors.

After bootstraping for a year, I’m thinking of doing a round with friends-and-family.

Normal’s response: I’d be happy to buy the first round of drinks. You’ve been working so hard.

Translation: Bootstraping means the founder(s) have been paying all the expenses out-of-pocket or from the company’s income. A “round with friends-and-family” means he’s broke and asking you for money ;)

We are going to crowdfund our idea on kickstarter to see if it will go viral.

Normal’s response: <Quizical look>

Translation: Crowdfunding has become a popular way to assess interest in a company and raise some initial money. Sites like Kickstarter enable anyone to set up a project that others can give money to in exchange for early access to the product.

We are going to keep things simple and use a convertible note with 20% discount and a $4M cap.

Normal’s response: That doesn’t sound simple at all.

Translation: A convertible note is a popular way to structure very early stage fundraising deals. Two important variables of a note are the discount and cap. Here is an example.

We thought we had our lead, but he came back with a lowball pre, overarching ROFR, and participating preferred liq pref.

Normal’s response: I don’t know what those are, but they don’t sound good. Lick pref?

Translation: He’s negotiating a term-sheet with an investor and mentions three terms that often come up during negotiations. A “lowball pre” is a low pre-money valuation or what the company is worth pre-investment. ROFR (pronouced row-fer) stands for “right of first refusal” and is a standard term that gives the investor the right to purchase shares if the founders want to sell early. The “liq pref” is liquidation preference which determines how the proceeds will be shared among stock holders upon selling the company. It gets complicated, but a “participating preferred” liq pref means the investor gets to “double-dip” when the company sells so it’s not something the founders want.

We received an exploding term-sheet with a no-shop.

Normal’s response: Did it really explode? I’m recording that new series on the Unibomber from Discovery Channel.

Translation: An “exploding” term-sheet just means it has an expiration date on it. She has to make a decision about whether to sign the term-sheet by a certain (often aggressive) date — like 24 hours. While some people complain about them, a term-sheet expiration isn’t uncommon, it’s just a question how far out the date is. A “no-shop” simply means the company won’t talk to other investors while trying to close on the funding described in the term-sheet. Investors don’t want to go through the time and money necessary to close a new financing if the entrepreneur is going to go with someone else last minute. No-shops aren’t easily enforceable so it’s a weak provision.

We are using our first undesirable term-sheet as a stalking horse to get more movement.

Normal’s response: A stalking horse sounds like something from a bad dream.

Translation: A stalking horse is used to motivate others into action. One of an entrepreneur’s greatest weapons during fundraising is competition among investors. If you can credibly claim to have a term-sheet from an investor (no matter how horrible the terms), the fear of missing out effect may cause other investors to submit competing term-sheets.

We are still trying to unpack the reasons we didn’t get into Y Combinator.

Normal’s response: What’s a Y Combinator?

Translation: Y Combinator is a well-known startup accelerator that provides mentoring and seed funding for startups. “Unpack” is a silly synonym for understand.

Revenue Management and Growth Hacking

Also known as: Sales and Marketing. Yep, we’ve replaced traditional department names with new names!

Our churn rate has gone up with our bread-and-butter product.

Normal’s response: So you are churning butter now?

Translation: The churn rate is a measure of how many customers stop using or paying for a product. A key measure for many startups, a low churn rate indicates the product or service is valuable to its customers because they keep using it.

Our growth hacker was at our booth giving away shirts to unsuspecting future customers.

Normal’s response: You are hacking a growth at your booth? That sounds gross.

Translation: As mentioned before, growth hacking is the startup word for marketing and a growth hacker is a marketer.

Initially we are going to start with a freemium model to gain social proof.

Normal’s response: Did you say premium? I’m glad you are going to charge a premium for your product to get proof customers will pay.

Translation: Actually it’s the exact opposite of that. Freemium is a popular model where you don’t charge for the simplest version of the product. The thinking is that you don’t make paying for a product a reason not to use it. Then if the “customer” can get hooked, they’ll pay for it. Social proof is a startup-y way of describing whether people like your product or service.

We’ve had a lot of traction and expect hockey stick growth.

Normal’s response: Don’t hockey sticks slope down?

Translation: This metaphor has been around since the days of Gretzky. If you pretend like you’re holding a hockey stick from the bottom, it slopes up sharply. Everyone would like to see this kind of growth rate because it means the business is doing really well.

We pivoted from B2C to B2B to improve monetization.

Normal’s response: The only word I heard was “monetization”.

Translation: Pivoted simply means to change the business in some significant way. B2C is business-to-consumer, which means a business that sells directly to consumers (e.g. Wal-mart). B2B is business-to-business, which sells to other business or enterprises. Monetization is a fancy word that means “to make money”.

We are firing our customer because they kept draining resources from our customer success team.

Normal’s response: How do you fire a customer? I thought you only fired employees?

Translation: Most companies are happy to have every customer they can get. However, some customers are bad for business because they take up a lot of time with questions. The “customer success” team is the startup-y way to say the customer support team. To take it to the most happy-happy-joy-joy extreme, we could just call them: “making the people paying us happy and successful” team.

Customer Development and Full-Stack Engineering

Also known as: Product and Development. A whole book could be written about the jargon used by the product and development teams inside a startup.

I was talking to a customer about their pain points and was disappointed when I realized our solution was more of a vitamin than an aspirin.

Normal’s response: What’s wrong with a vitamin? I take several myself. My doctor won’t let me take an aspirin.

Translation: A startup never wants to be called a vitamin! A vitamin is optional. Its usefulness tends to fade away over time. It’s not addressing a critical need. An aspirin makes pain go away. A startup wants to be more like an aspirin than a vitamin.

We’re going to spend two months in alpha before we go to beta.

Normal’s response: Are those places near here? Two months is a long time to be gone.

Translation: “Alpha” and “beta” are labels given to early stages of product development. Spending two months in “alpha” means spending two months getting lots of feedback from users on a very early version of the product. The beta period is to get feedback on a slightly more complete version of the product. After that the company officially launches the product.

Our MVP won’t be worth saving.

Normal’s response: Doesn’t sound like he’s the “most valuable” if you can’t hang on to him.

Translation: In this case, MVP stands for minimal viable product and it’s part of the lean startup methodology. Instead of spending a lot of time creating a polished product before you get any feedback, a MVP is a very scaled back version of the product that you use to get early feedback. The idea is to not waste a lot of time building a product unless you get feedback.

We decided to go Agile so we hired a scrum master.

Normal’s response: It’s good to be agile, but a scrum master sounds like some sort of fighter?

Translation: Agile is a software development methodology that “advocates adaptive planning, evolutionary development, early delivery, and continuous improvement.” Ok, that wasn’t helpful at all. Scrum is an Agile framework for development and a scrum master is a term for the team leader.

We’re going to do extensive A/B tests in the hopes of failing fast and iterating quickly.

Normal’s response: Why would you want to fail fast? I was hoping you could keep this job unlike the other ones.

Translation: A/B testing is method of testing two versions of a product or web page to determine which is better. In recent years, the startup community embraced the notion of failing fast as a form of learning. So the thinking goes, you learn the most when you fail at something rather than when you succeed. Not everyone agrees that there should be so much emphasis on failing.

People Operations

Also known as: Human Resources. Once again, new name for an old thing for the sake of making Normals feel like outsiders. How big is your People Ops team? I wonder if anyone calls them the Pee-Ops team?

Operations on People?
Our team got together last week to work on a inspirational bhag.

Normal’s response: You worked on a b-hag?

Translation: Bhag stands for “big, hairy, audacious goal” and was popularized by Jim Collins in his 1994 book, Built to Last. A bhag is essentially a vision statement for the company.

We interviewed a rockstar the other day, but she requires more equity than we have in our pool.

Normal’s response: You know rockstars aren’t very reliable. They stay up all night, get up at 4pm, etc. You have a pool at your office?

Translation: Rockstar like ninja, guru, and jedi, are all self-aggrandizing terms that mean “very good”. But we can’t say “very good.” Instead we need to use other words that make us sound even more awesome!

We like to make sure all our employees have skin-in-the-game.

Normal’s response: You don’t do anything sadistic at your company, do you?

Translation: Skin-in-the-game is a silly term used to mean “ownership”. In this context it means that all employees have stock options so they have some financial interest in the success of the company.

He came with a referral, but we passed because he was a brogrammer.

Normal’s response: Did you say programmer? I thought you needed to hire lots of programmers?

Translation: No, brogrammer. A brogrammer is male programmer that is obnoxious.

We studied Netfix and created a deck that covers our culture.

Normal’s response: There is a Netflix documentary on building decks? Screened-in or open?

Translation: Netflix created a slide deck that was widely circulated in the tech community, which describes its company culture and values. Many companies have tried to emulate them.

Our best employee is a flight risk which may mean more turnover ahead.

Normal’s response: Sounds like you are running a prison.

Translation: An employee that is a “flight risk” means they may leave the company soon. Turnover is the rate at which employees are leaving the company. Startups want to keep turnover low because it’s highly disruptive when an employee leaves.

Exiting

Also know as: Selling the company, shutting down operations, or heaven forbid, going public.

This is what exiting is like, right?
We started looking for a soft-landing and got an acquihire offer from an 800-pound gorilla.

Normal’s response: I’m not following how you can have a soft-landing with a gorilla.

Translation: A soft-landing via acquihire is another way of saying they sold their company and all they got out of it was a nice salary (and maybe a little bit of cash up-front). An 800-pound gorilla is another word for a big, dominate company in their market. Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc.

After two down rounds my friend’s company entered the dead pool.

Normal’s response: Your friend was depressed and died?

Translation: A “down round” happens when a company raises money at a lower valuation than a previous round. A down round can be very depressing because investors are saying your company is worth less than the last time you raised money. Startups should get more valuable over time, not less. The deadpool is a term for when a company shuts down.

Did you see all the skeletons in their S-1? At least they are in the three commas club.

Normal’s response: What’s a three commas club? Must be a fan of the oxford comma.

Translation: An S-1 is the form used by companies that are preparing to have an initial public offering (aka going public). The form often includes lots of details about the company including any negative issues (skeletons). The three commas club is another way of saying something is worth more than a billion dollars.

The Uber of X

Did you read the funny Uber of Startup Lingo article on Hacker News?

Normal’s response: I’m not interested in a story written by a hacker about sexual harassment.

Too soon?


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