Obtaining venture capital is substantially different from raising debt or a loan. Lenders have a legal right to interest on a loan and repayment of the capital irrespective of the success or failure of a business. Venture capital is invested in exchange for an equity stake in the business. The return of the venture capitalist as a shareholder depends on the growth and profitability of the business. This return is generally earned when the venture capitalist "exits" by selling its shareholdings when the business is sold to another owner.

Venture capitalists are typically very selective in deciding what to invest in, with a Stanford survey of venture capitalists revealing that 100 companies were considered for every company receiving financing. Ventures receiving financing must demonstrate an excellent management team, a large potential market, and most importantly high growth potential, as only such opportunities are likely capable of providing financial returns and a successful exit within the required time frame (typically 3–7 years) that venture capitalists expect.

Because investments are illiquid and require the extended time frame to harvest, venture capitalists are expected to carry out detailed due diligence prior to investment. Venture capitalists also are expected to nurture the companies in which they invest, in order to increase the likelihood of reaching an IPO stage when valuations are favorable.

Because there are no public exchanges listing their securities, private companies meet venture capital firms and other private equity investors in several ways, including warm referrals from the investors' trusted sources and other business contacts; investor conferences and symposia; and summits where companies pitch directly to investor groups in face-to-face meetings, including a variant known as "Speed Venturing", which is akin to speed-dating for capital, where the investor decides within 10 minutes whether he wants a follow-up meeting. In addition, some new private online networks are emerging to provide additional opportunities for meeting investors.

This need for high returns makes venture funding an expensive capital source for companies, and most suitable for businesses having large up-front capital requirements, which cannot be financed by cheaper alternatives such as debt. That is most commonly the case for intangible assets such as software, and other intellectual property, whose value is unproven. In turn, this explains why venture capital is most prevalent in the fast-growing technology and life sciences or biotechnology fields.

If a company does have the qualities venture capitalists seek including a solid business plan, a good management team, investment and passion from the founders, a good potential to exit the investment before the end of their funding cycle, and target minimum returns in excess of 40% per year, it will find it easier to raise venture capital.