The word "startup" has taken on a very unfortunate meaning over the years. I used to think of my own business as a startup, but as its definition evolved, I quickly realized I didn't fit that description at all.
The word "startup", by definition, means the act or instance of setting in operation or motion. Or, more appropriately, a fledgling business enterprise. Given that, you could assume that just about any up and coming business is, in fact, a startup. But you'd be wrong.
What it means today
While the definition will vary from entrepreneur to investor, there's one thing that most startups have in common these days: many seem to be in it for the money. You see, we're in the middle of a gold rush, and everybody wants a piece of the pie.
Back in the day, running a startup meant that you shared a certain passion and solved a certain problem. It was a culture, one that you submitted to because you wanted to make the world a better place. When you were a startup founder, the last thing on your mind was an exit strategy. Hell, some didn't even have a monetization strategy. You just wanted to build something awesome and feel good knowing people used your product.
That's not to say that making money isn't important—after all, you have to eventually monetize to stay in business—but sustainability is very different than superabundance. The problem now is that most people are taking that million dollar shot. They care less about what they're building, more about how they're going to get rich, and they're indifferent to the quality of their product.
You can thank acquisitions like the $1 billion Instagram deal or the absurdly high $19 billion WhatsApp purchase. Big companies are buying up products and services like they're going out of style, and each high-dollar acquisition just adds fuel to the fire. The idea of becoming a millionaire is poisoning the startup well.
As a result, "startup" has become synonymous with a business whose primary goal is to make a bunch of money through investments, acquisitions, or the holy IPO grail. They're like the new get-rich-quick schemes.
Why I'm taking it back
While my company doesn't share the same traits as those above, I always considered it to be a startup. I bootstrapped it back in 2007 and, to this day, I haven't taken investments of any kind. To me, that's one of the most beautiful things about the startup world. You can create something from virtually nothing and, the next thing you know, you're running a profitable business.
What starts as an idea evolves into a product or service, and it's made great by the passion you have for building it. But when you start thinking more about the money than the experience, you end up adding to the landfill of half-hearted products that nobody ever wanted. If you have an exit strategy before you have an idea, you're doing it for the wrong reason.
For me, this issue came to light a few years ago when someone made me feel very ignorant for calling my own business a startup.
You run a startup? Who have you pitched your idea to? How much are you seeking for investment? What's your exit strategy?
None of it applied to me, but the questions were asked with such certainty that it felt like they should have. That's become the expectation for startups these days. After I explained that I wasn't doing any of that, he responded with:
Oh, so you're not a startup. You're a bootstrapper.
Suddenly, my product wasn't interesting because I didn't plan on getting acquired or raising millions of dollars.
In hindsight, I should have corrected him. You see, I've come to realize that it's not my version of "startup" that's been skewed. It's those that think startups have only one purpose—to generate multi-million dollar payouts—who are getting it wrong.
A startup isn't a wealth generator. Yes, one of their functions is to sustain a business financially, but that's not the reason you should be in the game. A startup is an idea. It's a passion. It's a culture. It's a business that aspires to make the world better, no matter how large or small.
From now on, when you hear me talk about startups, don't be confused by the people who are starting up just to cash out. Know that when I use the "s" word, I'm referring to those who are doing what they love for reasons that amount to much more than just dollar signs.
I'm drilling a new well. I'm tossing out the trash. I'm taking "startup" back.
Photo courtesy of Katherine.