When a start-up launches, especially a start-up built for start-ups, it tries to anticipate the most common questions – and answer them in a FAQ. At YouTern, it seems we missed one.
The most common question we receive from companies posting internships is:
“How do you define a startup?"
Over the past few days, I’ve seen this question asked in several other places, including an interesting series of Tweets today that referred to Steve Blank’s (http://steveblank.com) definition: “A start-up is an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model”.
If it’s good enough for Steve Blank, it’s good enough for me. Right?
The trouble is, it just isn't that simple.
Early in YouTern’s development we took a shot at this conundrum by saying “YouTern connects emerging talent with start-ups and entrepreneur-driven companies.” We chose that language because at the heart of every startup is an entrepreneur, or several. We recognized there are many dynamic small businesses that may not qualify under a strict definition of a startup, but would benefit greatly from an infusion of enthusiastic, youthful talent. The choice of words just made sense, and it still does.
So we can revise Mr. Blank’s definition slightly to place the entrepreneur at the center of the model: “A start-up is an entrepreneur-driven organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model”.
Yet, some would argue that a certain amount of risk is central to the development of most startups, as is innovation. We agree, especially since a start-up faces far more adversity getting to market than say a McDonald’s franchise or a hair salon. We can further refine the definition to make it sound even more like a startup: “A start-up is an entrepreneur-driven, innovative organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model while mitigating risk.”
But wait! There’s more.
I’ve recently read articles in high-profile publications like the New York Times where Virgin America (a “start-up” airline?), Apple (a $50 Billion company) and even Ford Motor Company were all referred to as “start-ups”. So does the size of the company indicate whether you’re a start-up – or eliminate you from consideration? Sorry, but no matter how impressed I am at Ford’s remarkable turn-around – and that it didn’t spend our tax dollars to recover – I wouldn’t instinctively consider it a start-up.
Using our evolving definition, however, it just might qualify. For now, we’ll resist the temptation to add a “size” oriented adjective. As Steve Jobs says: “Apple is an over $50 Billion company. I like to forget that because that’s not how we think about Apple.”
Which brings us full circle to our definition of a start-up.
I was recently talking with an executive from a phone systems company. They didn’t necessarily innovate, but they did improve aspects of the technology. They bundled interesting components to save their customers – mostly start-ups – money and time. They were clearly hungry to fill a niche with excellent customer service. When I was asked if internship candidates would consider them a start-up, my answer came quickly:
“Being a start-up is a mentality; an attitude. Your company is a start-up.”
At that moment, there was no doubt that the passionate executive was leading a start-up company. Maybe not on the same level as the next Google, Facebook or Apple. But a “start-up” nonetheless – by any definition.
At YouTern, we believe there are many small companies that meet these criterian. They overcome obstacles on a daily basis through perseverance, passion and attitude. Like a more traditional view of what a start-up company looks like, they consistently contribute to our innovative business climate – and certainly serve as enthusiastic mentors to our future business leaders.
Now, how do we add “perseverance”, “attitude” and “passion” to our ever-changing attempt to define a start-up?