Off to a flying startup…

By Nicky Sullivan

There is so much chatter about startups that the word has become part of our daily screen-time furniture: Something that’s simply there, comfortable and something we don’t think about too often, unless we’re planning on using it for ourselves.


But if you did stop to think about it, could you really say what a startup actually is, against all the things that it is not; or adequately describe the kind of environment in which startups more generally thrive?


Have you ever imagined yourself at the helm of one of these enterprises, or have they always felt a little remote from how and who you are, or what you think you’re capable of? Have startups so dominated the entrepreneurial conversation that they have thwarted inspiration in those with less grand ambitions? With all this in mind, we thought we’d go back to school on the startup with a few simple questions.


What is a startup anyway? 


In brief, startups tend to be the high-octane, high-stakes mavericks who bet the house on creating a solution the world will want in the hope of becoming the next Amazon or Facebook. According to Neil Blumenthal, the co-founder and co-CEO of Warby Parker, in an interview with Forbes magazine: “A startup is a company working to solve a problem where the solution is not obvious and success is not guaranteed.”


Startups are the fledglings taking a punt on the future. They’re bold, dynamic, different and innovative. They’re building their own wings even as they’re climbing out of the nest. There are no hard and fast rules about their definition, which ties in with the startup ethos in itself.


Indeed, there are many who say startups are about attitude rather than parameters. These tend to be fast-paced, responsive and interactive companies that are designed to adapt to change; indeed, hope to become agents of change. And while they may be small, their ambitions are global. Growth is everything and the sooner the better. 


On the other hand, startups have a high mortality rate. By some estimates, around 90% will hit the ground before taking flight. 

Where are they happening? 


Well, there are no surprises in learning that the biggest startup cradles tend to be in cities like San Francisco, New York, London, Los Angeles, Boston, Tel Aviv and Berlin. Other high-ranking cities include Moscow, Paris, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Beijing, New Delhi, Sydney, Sao Paolo, Stockholm and Barcelona, which goes to show that startups are not just connected, they’re plugging in from all over the world. But what is it about these places that makes them particularly fertile breeding grounds for these savvy, multi-talented and hungry entrepreneurs? 


The main currencies that startups trade in and thrive on are access to ideas, talent, capital and customers. This means they are often found in big university cities where funding capital is maybe not quite as free-flowing as the beer at a freshers’ party, but hopefully not far off. These places benefit from the presence of innovation hubs and incubators, and common areas where people with ideas can talk, e.g. plenty of co-working spaces. 


But there are plenty of other ingredients in this powerful cocktail, in various quantities - events and networking opportunities, a population of ‘veterans’ ready to share their experience, a government (national and local) that is open to facilitating change and a ‘pay-it-forward’ culture of people who support each other, because they can and because the favour might just come back one day. It doesn’t hurt one bit that all of these cities also offer enviable lifestyles. 


When did startups become startups instead of plain old companies like before?


This goes back a little bit to “what is a startup anyway?” but it’s easier to say what a startup isn’t, than what it is. In the first instance, it isn’t a small business or even a small-to-medium business. In essence, if you’re setting up a company to make a nice, tidy income and cover a couple of holidays, this is not a startup. Unless your plans hover around the ‘world domination’ point of the axis, then you’re staid, steady and not a start-up (and more likely to survive as it happens). 


Small businesses need to work from day one, they tend to have a more fixed projection of what they will be in the future (often the same as what they are today) and they should have clear plans they intend to follow for achieving their goals. Startups, on the other hand, seem to be open-ended in everything except the scale of their ambition.


Why is it so big now? 


Since humans started surfing the web, we haven’t stopped exploring the limits of its extraordinary commercial potentials. Where once humans risked life and limb in the search of treasures in far-flung lands, modern-day explorers seek the treasures to be mined behind the elusive solution to a problem everyone needs to solve. 


Coincidentally, or not, when you take a wee look back through time, the phrase ‘start up’ appeared as commonly in books published around the 1830s as it does today. This was the height of the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of the British Empire; an era of change, upheaval and innovation as great, if not greater than, the one we’re witnessing today. The phrase may have had slightly different meanings then; in particular, it would not have been used as a noun, but its promise of new beginnings, ventures and exploration hold true over time. 


Who do you have to be to launch your own startup?


When startups have become a kind of modern-day rock star, this is perhaps the question many of us want to know the answer to. After all, who wouldn’t want to be the tech-equivalent of Freddie Mercury?


With so much energy - financial and rhetorical - being diverted towards startups, we wonder whether it makes ‘ordinary’ entrepreneurs feel a little like under-performers when entrepreneurialism can be one of the finest embodiments of courage, will, imagination, stamina, resourcefulness, independence, awareness, wit, single-mindedness and adaptability there is?


Perhaps the question should not be ‘how can I start my own startup’, but ‘how do I best capitalise on my own skills and abilities?’