Learning another language is tough
Capital raising is hard; it’s a lot of work, stressful, and time-consuming. As if that weren’t bad enough, you also need to know how to ‘speak VC’ – otherwise, you’ll just end up confused and frustrated.
So what does that mean? Do you speak VC? Truthfully, it’s not as hard as learning a new language but you do need to listen carefully and understand what’s being really communicated. (Many thanks to Alexander Jarvis for this very useful ‘dictionary’ of VC-speak!)
Basics of Speaking VC
Let’s start with the basics. There are three fundamental responses you’ll get from a VC after a pitch. Granted, there shades of meaning and no answer is absolutely definitive (circumstances change, and people can change their minds). But VCs are usually pretty clear about what they want and what suits their portfolio and investment thesis: No, Maybe, and Yes. You just have to know how to interpret what they are saying.
The VC won’t be investing – or at least leading. But probably not investing at all. While they may join in the ‘feeding frenzy’ if you line up a stellar group of investors, you shouldn’t count on them. Keep in touch, but don’t hold your breath.
VC Says: I like what I see, but I need to run this by my partners.
VC Means: Expect an email in a week or so where we decline to invest. I won’t be investing but don’t want to say this to your face, so I’ll blame it on people you haven’t met.
VC Says: Let me review this and get back to you.
VC Means: Again, expect an email where we decline since I don’t want to say that directly. (That said, they may actually mean it, so follow up in a week just to make sure.)
VC Says: This is too early for us. (Or, “Come back when you have more traction,” or some other variation.)
VC Means: This is about as direct a “No” as most founders get. In this case, it’s usually a hard ‘No’ but the VC doesn’t want to say why.
VC Says: Keep us in the loop; if you get traction, we’ll take another look.
VC Means: See above, except it’s even more passive-aggressive.
VC Says: Thanks for coming (followed by any socially ‘friendly’ questions).
VC Means: Hard pass.
VC Says: We are patient investors; stay in touch so we can invest in the next round.
VC Means: Hard pass, for now. Maybe (possibly) I’ll look at the next round. Maybe.
VC Says: Thanks for coming in. If you can get a lead investor, we’ll invest.
VC Means: Either “I don’t understand what you are doing but maybe somebody else smarter than me does”, or “I’m not interested but maybe somebody else will be.”
You’re in with a chance. The VC thinks you might be investible but they still have questions that need to be answered. In this situation, you only have one more chance: Ace it and you’re in; blow it, and you’re out. Be sure to directly address any questions or concerns they have and be as detailed as possible. It’s an opportunity to turn ambivalence into enthusiasm, so come loaded for bear.
VC Says: Let me introduce you to (someone important) and get their input.
VC Means: I’m sitting on the fence. The basic stuff is all in place, but I just want to make sure I haven’t missed anything.
VC Says: Can you help me understand (X) a bit better.
VC Means: I’m interested, so I’m willing to actually do a bit of work (which I’m going to ask you to do for me). I’m not 100% committed & there are some things I need to understand first.
VC Says: Can I talk to some of your customers?
VC Means: This is a tough one. If they ask this after the first meeting, then it’s a red flag: they don’t respect your time or your customers’ time. Proceed with caution. If it comes after the second or third meeting, then it’s great.
VC Says: This is really interesting, but the pitch needs work. I’ll be happy to help you with this.
VC Means: This is directed internally as much as externally; that is, “I’m not the decision maker but I need to show deals to my partner; if I clean it up, I’ll not only look super-engaged, but I may have found a winner.” It’s hard not to be a bit ambivalent about this response, but it’s not a “No”.
Job done! But keep your focus, be responsive and positive, and turn on the charm offensive. It’s all about love at this point. That said, keep chasing other options so there’s a bit of competition for your equity.
VC Says: Let’s organize a session with your co-founders/team.
VC Means: I like what I see, and need to see what the rest of the team is like.
VC Says: I want you to meet one (or more) of my partners.
VC Means: We play team ball, so getting buy-in from the rest of my firm.
VC Says: Let’s organize another meeting to dig into (X).
VC Means: I want to be sure I completely understand what I’ll be investing in.
VC Says: Are you free to meet up later this week/early next week?
VC Means: Super-strong buying signal: I’m really interested and want to block out other potential investors.