What Is A Startup?

You’ve heard the term. Startup company.

Most probably you heard it in this context: “My mate’s working for this really cool little startup.”

Just me? Right. Either way, as the digital market begins to stabilise we’re seeing more and more people either founding or choosing to work for startup companies. I just have one question, what is a startup?

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Dan in the office, when questioned, claimed that a startup was ‘an idea’. For a less profound answer I consulted Wikipedia which states that a startup is ‘a partnership or temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.’ Most likely it’s something in-between.


The digital market is still growing but as mentioned earlier, it is stabilising. By this I mean that roles are becoming narrower and more defined, client and agency knowledge is greater and the big easy wins have been won – the frantic race of a young market is over.

We now have a whole breed of digital experts who have cut their teeth in agencies but are looking for more diversity and autonomy in their working life. Recent trends indicate that many are choosing one of two options, to move in-house, or move to a startup.

So back to the original question, what is a startup? The technical requirements fall into four categories: age, size, turnover and the ability to scale-up quickly, but having done my research I can conclusively say that there is no exact definition.

Taking an average of those people out there trying to define the technical paramenters, a startup looks something like this:

  1. No more than five years old.
  2. In the process of attracting finance and building clients in order to turn an idea into a business.
  3. Likely to be small in number – anything over around 50 people starts to look like an SME Turnover will not be more than the low millions.
  4. Crucially it seems, a startup needs to be a business that can scale-up and grow very quickly.

That sort of definition all seems a bit stale to me though, and many people like to define startups by the mindset and how they operate. Here’s a few looser definitions:

“A startup is a company working to solve a problem where the solution is not obvious and success is not guaranteed”

Neil Blumenthal, co founder Warby Parker.

“A start-up is a feeling”

Jan Koum, co-founder WhatsApp

“It stops being a startup when people don’t feel as though what they are doing has impact.”

Russell D’Souza, co-founder SeatGeek

Not bad, I think I’m getting it. To make sure it sinks in I will be going out on my travels again, speaking to some of these people that have left digital giants for agile startups and asking them what defines their new place of work as a startup.

Hold on a sec Matt, you mentioned SMEs, what’s an SME? Ok, I’ll ask them that as well.