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What is a "Startup"?

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I recently volunteered to act as a curator for Startup Genome, an online catalog of startups and startup communities found at I did this because I'm pretty involved in the Chicago startup scene having started my first company 20 years ago, worked with a number of startups (a few of whom have founders in the Chicagoland Entrepreneur's Hall of Fame), and am a member of 1871 where I and a few hundred others are working on creating new digital businesses.

But an interesting question arose... what is a "startup"? Webster's defines a startup simply as "a fledgling business enterprise". This is the definition I've used in writing this column the past few years. But the startup genome definition (as yet not officially defined) looks like it will be a bit tighter; apparently not just newness and size define "startup" in the classical tech sense.

A few commentators have tried to put specific metrics in place. Microsoft uses 3 years as the limit for applying to their Bizspark program for startups, so some folks think this should be a criteria. Another criteria is number of employees, for example 50 (which is the limit for ACA compliance). Another criteria that actually makes sense for startup genome, because it came about as part of studying what made startups "successful"- generally defined by funding- is intent to scale non-geographically.

Personally, the challenges for "fledgling business enterprises" are pretty common: you need an idea, you need to find customers, you need to find cash, you need to find resources, you need to find a way to pull that all together to deliver value, you need to figure out how to grow, and you need to figure out how to make money. And then you probably need to do it over and over again.

So my definition remains "fledgling business enterprises", but it's really those with the intent to actually follow through on their idea and make it- or something they run into along the way- into a real business. My hope for startups in the new year is that they get plenty of encouragement and help to do just that.



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