Silicon Valley jargon: what these 7 words really mean

Silicon Valley is where millennials go to find fame and fortune… and expand their tech vocabularies. The startup ecosystem is rife with buzzwords and the language of the industry has also become trendy in the corporate world with words like “leverage” replacing “synergy.”

Love it or hate it, the jargon fiends can’t be stopped. We created a quick guide to some of the most popular expressions coming out of the Bay Area startup scene.


The official meaning: A startup that’s worth more than one billion dollars.

Example: Slack’s a real unicorn. They’re only three years old and they’re worth over three billion dollars.

The unofficial meaning: Someone, somewhere invested in us at a billion dollar valuation. A small fraction of these companies will actually be purchased or IPO at a valuation over a billion dollars.

Example: Basecamp just became a unicorn by raising a one dollar round for a one hundred billion dollar valuation.

Cap Table

The official meaning: A document that shows the ownership of a company.

Example: We’d like to invest – please find our term sheet attached. For next steps we need you to send us a copy of the cap table.

The unofficial meaning: A perpetually broken document that carries early mistakes into the present, so that they can start drama in the startup.

Example: So, I saw the cap table and it turns out the CEO’s cat has more equity than me.


The official meaning: Changing your product or company direction based on user feedback (or failure to attract users) or some other fundamental shift in circumstances (like running out of money).

Example: We were working on this mobile shopping concept called “Tote” but we just pivoted to doing image boards. We also renamed; now we’re called Pinterest.

The unofficial meaning: A response to desperation and problems with the fundamental premise of the company. “Good news everyone! We’re starting over but instead of having the risk of a new company you can have the increased risk of a new company with a busted cap table.”

Example: Did you hear Clinkle is pivoting from micropayments to doing a loyalty check-in app? 2009 called, they want their business model back.

Growth Hacker

The official meaning: A person whose job it is to maximize one metric in a short time frame.

Example: We’re looking for a growth hacker who can double our number of users by the end of the month.

The unofficial meaning: Someone who uses words like “viral,” “disruption,” and “Chai Latte” in the same sentence. Not to be confused with a traditional marketer who does boring things like finding customers and educating them about the product.

Example: “Wanted: Growth hacker who can get our app 1,000,000 downloads in the next week. Potential for equity.”

Hockey Stick Growth


The official meaning: When you build something people want and it starts spreading like wildfire.

Example: Tesla has been doubling month on month for the past year – that’s some crazy hockey stick growth right there.

The unofficial meaning: When you cherry-pick one of 200 metrics, and use it to make a killer ‘up and to the right’ chart. Truncate an axis and group data strangely if needed and then figure out the narrative that explains why this metric is the one that really matters.

Example: “We’re seeing hockey stick growth in the number of users who download the app, uninstall, and then download again. That’s because our app is too amazing and they literally cannot believe it. Please give me some money.”


The official meaning: When a new player gains a significant amount of market share in a mature industry by offering a new tech-driven solution.

Example: Airbnb is seriously disrupting the travel accommodation industry.

The unofficial meaning: One of the best-known ways to rapidly decrease your credibility when pitching your company (see also: “we’ll monetize by selling the data” and “revolutionary”). Should only be used seriously when describing someone else’s business.

Example: Here at Wells Fargo our innovation labs are disrupting the banking industry by making accounts opt-out instead of opt-in.


The official meaning: Resourceful and creative approaches that save everyone time.

Example: The sales team did 20% better this quarter by including a meme in their third follow up! They’re a smart and scrappy group.

The unofficial meaning: Often an excuse for disorganization or technical debt in a startup. Still way better than the alternative of prioritizing organizational efficiency over growth. Pick your poison: duct tape or red tape.

Example: We haven’t written a scraper for that yet – we just pay an intern to spend eight hours on it every week. I guess you could say we’re pretty scrappy.