What is a ‘startup’?

Here at Work in Startups, we are often asked what types of companies we classify as a startup (and similarly, what it takes to make it onto our site!) In the interest of transparency, we thought we’d expand on how we think a “startup” differs from other labels commonly tossed around, such as “scaleup”, “SME”, or even “small business”.

Full Disclosure: it is highly subjective! There is no single, universally accepted definition of a startup. It’s a much more broad-reaching term than others you might hear such as ‘unicorn’ (a privately held startup company valued at over $1 billion). Confusion is possibly rooted in the rise of companies keen to define themselves as a startup (it’s a sexy tag after all), even when they don’t fulfil many of the characteristics that others would deem essential.

What are the features of a startup

In our humble opinion, these tend to be the two key features that differentiate a startup from any old company:

  • Growth – is it expanding and growing rapidly, in terms of either customers, new jobs or financials? Yes? Potentially this company is a startup! There’s a relatively widely shared blog post on this which goes into much more detail on why this angle is often considered the most important: http://www.paulgraham.com/growth.html
  • Innovative – the startup industry has become culturally synonymous with the concept of disruptive business models. For us, a startup needs to offer something fresh!
Often but not always: a tech focus or component, VC funding (or likely potential to receive/qualify for funding in the near future), some element of risk (not a traditional service with hundreds of comparables), interesting employee perks and an “owner culture” (which could mean equity awards readily available to staff).

Meanwhile, these features can help the eagle-eyed spot where a company is on its journey to unicorn status (i.e. when is it likely no longer a startup):

  • New – the exact age before a company falls into ‘scaleup territory’ is up for debate: some experts set as low as three-years-old as this cap. We modestly say about five-years-old, absolute maximum ten.
  • Small – headcount (like age) is a nice marker for when a company has graduated to ‘scale-up status.’ We think this happens when you exceed roughly 100-200 members of staff.
  • Revenue – as with all of the numbers in this list, a revenue of more than £10 million is a rough metric, to give you a general feel. Effectively: no unicorns allowed!

At Work in Startups, we think that growth (or growth potential) is the most important identifier for startups. While our opinion is based on rather a lot of startup companies and job ads, we wanted to see what our lovely and knowledgeable twitter community thought. Interestingly they had other ideas…

As you can see the results overwhelmingly favoured how recently the company was founded – although it is clear that growth is quite important! This really suggests that checking a variety of metrics (cue our handy-dandy list) is the only way for us to truly hunt the next unicorn!

Note: we include a combination of start up and scale up jobs on our site, as despite the terminology being murky, we tend to find our audience is broadly interested in both. Do feel free to get in touch though if you have any comments on this!

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Glenn Blackman
2 years ago

The definition of a startup is difficult as you say, some of the awards sites relating to startups define the number of years trading as the key metric (as your Twitter community suggested). There are undoubtedly a lot of new startups coming into existence at present as the recent lockdowns have led many people to re-evaluate their situations.