There is a lot on the matter of startups there on the internet. There are entire pages – like ours – dedicated to the startup problematic. There are newsletters and online magazines. There are blogs, forums, and YouTube channels. No matter how much we write on startups, though, this one simple questions still waits to be answered:
What is a startup? What is the actual definition of a startup?
But is it that simple, this question? At all?
A Matter of Definition
The answer is: no. It is not simple. The fact is that the basic questions are often the hardest – this one being no exception. But what is the reason? The reason it’s hard? When – in fact – it seems so simple?
Well. Let’s start from the beginning.
Although it’s not often a problem to tell whether or not a certain brand is a startup, it often is a problem to tell what a startup is in general. For example, there can be no doubt that Airbnb is a startup, that Space Exploration Technologies Corporation is a startup, that Uber is a startup. Even Google was a startup at its beginnings. That’s true. To tell what is a startup, though – what is a startup in general – we’d have to find out what connects all these brands: these four and thousands more, tens of thousands, hundreds even. Some kind of shared, distinctive characteristics all of the startups do happen to have. Some indicatives. And that doesn’t seem so simple. (Does it even sound possible?)
And even after we’ve done it – presuming it is possible – we couldn’t be sure if our definition is the proper one. Let’s face it: there would be a competition. Even now, there are numerous definitions of a startup in general. People who came up with them are working hard to convince the others that it’s their one that’s the right one. But so are all the others. And it’s not that these definitions are even similar. In fact, the differences happen to be quite the big ones in some cases. So. What can we do with that? What do we do?
The Classic Definition
The classic definition of startup (“classic” meaning – in this case – built on all startups’ shared characteristics) would go as follows:
“A startup is an entrepreneurial venture which is typically a newly emerged, fast-growing business that aims to meet a marketplace need by developing or offering an innovative product, process or service. A startup is usually a company such as a small business, a partnership or an organization designed to rapidly develop scalable business model. Often, startup companies deploy technologies, such as Internet, e-commerce, computers, telecommunications, or robotics. These companies are generally involved in the design and implementation of the innovative processes of the development, validation and research for target markets. While start-ups do not all operate in technology realms, the term became internationally widespread during the dot-com bubble in the late 1990s, when a great number of Internet-based companies were founded.”
While this particular definition – it’s source being Wikipedia – is extensive enough as to provide You with an idea of what to call startup, what it doesn’t provide You are the tools You’d need to tell whether a problematic brand is or isn’t one. Furthermore, a lot of stuff is left vague here. There are also some problematic generalizations (coming with words like “often,” which provoke further questions, like, for example, “how often?”) Thus, this kind of definition is not the worst one around. It’s not perfect, though – it is flawed.
Whether or not it’s enough for You would depend on Your particular goal. If You’re an entrepreneur, it can be enough, I believe. If You’re an academic or a startup aficionado, though – it’s more than probable that it won’t suit You. This definition. Well: at least not for long. Sooner or later You’ll stumble upon a case that it won’t let You call itself a startup – nor a non-startup – based on this definition.
What can be done then – to break this kind of impasse?
The Classic Definition vs. Other Kinds of Definitions
Well. There is no – nor can there be – perfect classic definition of a startup. There are other kinds of definitions, though. We are using them all the time.
The first one is the simplest. It’s when You point at a thing and name it. It’s called “an ostensive definition.”
The second one is similar at first, but then it reveals its specifics. It’s when You mention a specific brand as a paradigmatic example of startup. For example: “Google is a startup,” “Google is one of the best examples of startup companies,” “A startup is a brand like Google,” “What startup is is a brand like Google,” etc., etc. Also, to make things clear, You can list more than one brand: “A startup is a brand like Google or Airbnb,” “What startup is is a brand like Google or Airbnb,” and so on. This kind of definition is sometimes called “a paradigmatic example” or “a paradigmatic example-based definition.” When it comes to startups, it’s one of the most widespread ones.
(The name comes from the term “paradigm,” meaning “a distinct set of concepts or thought patterns, including theories, research methods, postulates, and standards for what constitutes legitimate contributions to a field” [Wikipedia – once again.])
While the second kind of definition can be mistaken with the first one, it’s not all that hard to tell the difference. The ostensive definition is when You point at something and then name it. “This is a startup,” “That is a startup.” You list no example here, no paradigmatic case. What You do is You do point. When it comes to the second kind, You don’t point – You do list.
A simple difference. Still: one worth remembering.
While this explains the reason it’s easier to tell whether or not a certain brand is a startup, it still doesn’t bring us closer to the actual definition of a startup in general. It appears that coming up with such a definition – and making it flawless – is a daunting task indeed. So far, there is no need for a perfect one, it would seem. It can turn out to be useful sometime in the future, though. Thus, the academics are working round the clock to overcome the obstacles, both these logical and these methodological. It doesn’t seem – however – that they’re closer to it now than they were before.