What Is a Startup?

Ultimate Guide to Startup Companies

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We hear the word ‘startup’ all the time, but many people are still wondering, "what is a startup?"

Essentially, a startup, or start-up, is a young company with a business model that supports innovation. For example, if you were to develop a unique software program that addresses an unsolved widespread problem, create a business plan, and acquire funding, you’d be a tech startup entrepreneur!

Startup founders often have a vision for a product or service that can impact the world in a positive way. In fact, this is the essence of business, to solve a need, want, or problem that millions of individuals all over the world share, and receive monetary compensation in the form of profit from that solution. 

Startup companies, unlike large bulky corporations, are very lean in their operations and can focus on rapid growth in the very beginning. There isn’t any bureaucratic “red tape” to get through in order to push a project forward or bring an idea to fruition — startup founders can immediately assemble a team and start solving problems for their customers.

In this article, we’ll further explain what defines a startup company, how startups are typically funded, how they differ from other types of businesses, and more.

Also Recommended: Check out our list of startup ideas and our guide on how to start a startup.

What Is a Startup Company?

Characteristics of a startup company.

As the term implies, ‘startup’ is not a permanent phase for any business — nor does it solely refer to companies in the tech sphere. It’s a vital, early stage of the business life cycle, and can refer to virtually any industry.

In general, startups tend to have few employees and fast growth potential. They provide products with widespread appeal that either don’t exist yet, or solve a problem better than the options currently available.

To quickly review, here are the main characteristics of a successful startup company:

  • Innovative
  • Disruptive
  • Problem solving
  • Fast growing
  • Scalable

A Brief History of Startups

Startups haven’t always been viewed in a positive light. Many people blame the events of the Great Depression for reckless startup investing, which led to legislation restricting the way unregulated companies could advertise for investors. Since then, startup funding has largely been provided through venture capital or “friends and family” investors (more on this in the next section!)

The modern-day popularity of startups has its roots in the dot-com boom of the late 1990s. Investing in small-scale businesses was extremely commonplace during the rise of the internet — which is also the reason many people associate startups with tech firms to this day.

Startup Facts

  • Startups are companies designed to grow rapidly and scale upward without geographical constraints. This is the primary differentiator between startups and other young businesses.
  • Most startups’ expenses exceed their revenue, which is why so many of them require external financing. Without it, there would be no way for these companies to effectively develop and market their innovative products or services.
  • Oftentimes startups are built around an exit strategy — they’re designed with the end goal of selling the company to a larger corporation.
  • Many startup owners are “serial entrepreneurs.” They’ll come up with a startup’s initial idea, put in the work to get the ball rolling, then hand off the day-to-day responsibilities to someone else so they can focus on launching one of their other startup projects.

Learn more about the anatomy of an entrepreneur and visit our startup founder series to gain entrepreneurship insights, lessons, and advice from founders themselves.

Examples of Startups

Some of the most innovative products and services you use today were likely the result of a startup that succeeded and made its way into the broader marketplace. We’re going to walk through some examples of innovative startups, and how they were able to reach millions of customers and make a positive impact in the world. 

Apple

Nearly everyone on the planet has heard of or personally possesses an Apple product of some sort. Whether it’s the iPhone, iPad, MacBook, or Apple Watch, what started from a small idea initially became a multinational company that distributes high-quality products to customers worldwide.

Amazon

Amazon is the leader in online commerce, but it wasn’t always that way. In the early days of Amazon, Jeff Bezos decided to create an online bookstore where users can buy and sell books in a simple manner. As they grew over the years, Amazon has increased its product offerings to nearly any product imaginable. 

Facebook

Facebook began as a small startup that was intended to be a social network for students on college campuses. Over time, they continued to grow, develop their platform, and are now used by billions of people all over the world to stay in touch with friends and family. 

Blue Apron

Blue Apron is a startup company that was able to transform the food industry through ingredient-and-recipe meal kits. Busy professionals or families who don’t have the time to shop for unique ingredients can take advantage of Blue Apron’s offering. All they have to do is follow the instructions and use the ingredients sent to them in the mail to cook a delicious meal. 

Mailchimp

Mailchimp began as a small startup but has grown into one of the largest email providers in the world. Businesses everywhere are in need of reliable email providers who have high deliverability and can ensure their messages get to their prospects or customers without being lost in transit or sent to spam. Mailchimp was able to create a platform that’s easy to use and enjoyable. 

Airbnb

The hospitality industry was completely transformed by Airbnb. Instead of staying in and booking hotels, travelers could now rent out someone’s home and enjoy the benefits of staying in a cozy, homely space. Airbnb has now grown worldwide and is used by travelers for lodging and hosts as a source of income. 

Recommended: Read more about the top startups to watch, founder insights, and strategies of the most famous companies by visting the Get Inspired section of our Startup Center.

Types of Startups

Getting to know the type of startup you want to create will help you establish the market and growth potential available to you. There are six types of startups, all best suited for a different type of entrepreneur based on their abilities, goals, and wants.

Lifestyle Startups

Lifestyle startups are companies that are centered around the founder’s interests and passions. This kind of startup business allows the founder(s) to participate in their favorite activities, and hopefully make money doing so. For example, a passionate guitarist that opens a music store or starts a business teaching music lessons; this would be considered a lifestyle startup.

Small Business Startups

A small business startup isn’t usually created with scalability in mind. These small startup companies are born out of a desire to start a business that will provide enough capital to be financially stable but not necessarily to grow tremendously. An example of a small business startup could be a small grocery store, salon, or restaurant.

Scalable Startups

A scalable startup is a growth-oriented company that takes an idea or concept and works to rapidly grow the business and achieve the highest profit as quickly possible (think Silicon Valley or New York startups). This type of startup requires thorough market research to identify exploitable market opportunities.

Social Startups

Social startups are created to make a difference or positive impact on the world around them. Unlike other types of startups, social entrepreneurship startups are not created to gain wealth; though it is possible to profit from this type of startup business unless it is a nonprofit organization. They are created with the intention of using an idea to create positive change.

Large Company Startups

Growing a big business takes innovation and reimagining; this is how (and why) large company startups are born. Startups that are created by large companies in order to introduce a new product, or to reach a new audience, are backed by the support and capital of the big business. Any new business created by a large, existing company would be considered a large company startup.

Buyable Startups

Buyable startups are companies that are built with the intention of being acquired or bought in the future. Rather than grow or expand their business, these startups are created with the hopes of being acquired early on.

Need some inspiration to help you launch your company? Check out our list of the top startups to watch!

Startup Funding

As mentioned previously, startups are typically funded by the startup owner’s friends and family, or by venture capital firms. These firms, which gained popularity in the 1970s, provide seed money from a group of investors and mitigate risk by pooling together to fund a variety of startups.

Continue reading to learn more about the various ways startups are funded.

Bootstrapping

For startups, bootstrapping means to build your company with no outside financing. Essentially, you invest your own savings; utilizing the resources you already have to build your business from the ground up. Once your self-started business is established, your initial profits are then invested back into your business until you receive additional capital or your business grows substantially.

Friends and Family

Most startups rely on friends and family loans to get their business off the ground. Sourcing funding from close relationships isn’t typically as simple as asking the question over coffee; asking friends and family to invest in your business should be done with care. Four steps to respectfully source financing from friends and family: Present your case, propose clear repayment terms, share your backup plan, then create a written agreement.

Crowdfunding

The rise of crowdfunding has largely revolutionized the way startups are funded. Crowdfunding allows people from around the world to invest in companies using a tiered reward system that provides equity in return. Some niche crowdfunding sites are aimed solely toward startup funding, but even mainstream crowdsourcing platforms like Indiegogo offer equity-based financing opportunities. Some niche crowdfunding sites are aimed solely toward startup funding such as SeedInvest and CircleUp, but even mainstream crowdsourcing platforms like Indiegogo and WeFunder offer equity-based funding opportunities.

Venture Capital (VC) Firms

Venture capital (VC) firms invest in startups to gain profit as the company grows through funding phases such as Series A, B, C, and D. They typically will take an active role in the business, sit on the board of directors, or request to become part owner of the startup. Since VC investments are done in exchange for equity rather than debt, your startup will need to show promise of high-growth potential and innovation in order to secure this type of funding.

Angel Investors

Similar to VC firms, an angel investor provides capital for startups in hopes of a high return on investment (ROI). Typically, angel investors are people with an excess of money to spend on risky investments. Many times these investors provide seed funding during the early stages of a startup that can be difficult to secure financing for. 

Startup Accelerator

Startup accelerators are programs that offer funding and resources such as mentorship to startups in their early stages. Once used by successful startups such as AirBnB and PillPack, these are fixed-term programs built to supply aspiring entrepreneurs with the information, community, and capital needed to create the startup of their dreams. 

Startup Incubator

Startup incubators are community-based programs for entrepreneurs in the early stages of their startup’s lifespan that provide initial funding, mentorship, and training. Typically, startup incubators are housed in a collaborative space that encourages community building with a month-to-month lease that gives entrepreneurs access to a shared space and all the tools their program has to offer. 

Startup Grants

Unlike loans, startup grants provide capital for entrepreneurs that you don’t have to pay back. Most often startup grants are given either by the government or organization to startups that apply and meet the qualifications of the grant. Many startup grants are given with specific rules and regulations that dictate the way the money is spent; for example, if a grant is given to your startup to invest in developing new technology, it cannot be used for any other purpose. 

Startup Loans

Startup loans are funding that is paid back to the lender. These loans can be acquired by applying with a business lender such as a bank or another lending institution. However, there are requirements that you’ll need to fulfill in order to receive this type of financing such as creating a business plan and the proper documentation required by the lender. We recommend checking out our guide on how to get a startup business loan.

Startup Investing

Startups often seek outside investors in order to help fund their vision, fuel their growth, and obtain the capital they need to hit the ground running. The business gets the capital they need, and the investor receives a portion of business equity in return with hopes of an outsized return in the future. 

The most common types of startup investors are venture capitalists (VCs) and angel investors, also known as “angels.” As a startup founder seeking investment, you’ll want to determine what percentage of your business you’re willing to give up for an investment in your company. 

Typically, investors can request anywhere from 20%-25% of your business in return for capital investment. You should be prepared to negotiate with investors and understand the amount of capital you require to get your startup off the ground. 

Many startups also choose to receive funding through a startup accelerator, such as Y Combinator. Accelerator programs provide investment opportunities for startups and give them the resources they need to succeed.

Can the Average Person Invest in Startups?

Yes. Before the 2016 Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act, there were limited options for the average person to invest in startups. In order to invest in startups prior to 2016, you had to be an accredited investor or invest through a publicly traded fund.

However, the JOBS Act provided the opportunity for the average investor to invest in startups through equity-based crowdfunding, opening a new door for startups to raise capital as well as a new vehicle through which investors can invest in startups.

Pros and Cons of Startups

Starting your own business is no easy task, and it often requires long hours, perseverance, and a constant drive to hit your goals and make your vision a reality. Here are some of the pros and cons of startups, and what you could expect as a founder. 

Advantages

Creating your own startup company has a large number of advantages, and founders often see the pros as outweighing the potential cons. As a founder, you’ll have the ultimate form of flexibility in how you run your business, the decisions you make, and the projects and opportunities you wish to pursue. 

Founders often have a vision they’re trying to make a reality, and a series of goals they are attempting to accomplish through their company. Remember, the primary goal of a successful business is to provide a superior product or service that makes people’s lives better or easier in some way. When you see how you’re positively impacting your customers, you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment and pride. 

Additionally, if your startup is successful or acquired by a larger company, the monetary advantages can be life-changing.

Disadvantages

The advantages of startups are plentiful, but there are also some common disadvantages that founders should be aware of. 

One of the most prevalent disadvantages when it comes to running your own business is the risk of failure. You are never guaranteed to succeed, and whether your startup is successful is entirely up to you as the founder. 

You’ll likely encounter a great deal of stress while building your company, and you’ll be required to deal with your competition, create innovation within your industry, and likely seek capital investment into your business. 

All of these items are difficult to achieve in practice and will require a significant amount of work and effort with no guarantee of success. Trying and trying without giving up is how resilient founders make their dreams a reality.

How to Start a Startup

When you have a vision for your startup in mind, it’s never too early to start building your company and making your dreams a reality. In this section, we’re going to walk you through the essential steps of starting a startup.

The first thing you should do is assess your entrepreneurial skills. What experience do you have with starting a business, and what industries or niches are you adept in? It’s never a bad idea to get outside help or seek insight from someone experienced if you need to bounce ideas off of somebody. Generally, entrepreneurs are driven, energetic, independent, organized, open-minded, and enthusiastic about their business and ideas. 

If you’re determined to start a business and know that you have what it takes to make it happen, it’s time to develop your startup idea, validate your idea through market research and feedback, and create a business plan. Think about what you’ll need to do to build your product or service, and what it will take to begin distributing your products to customers. 

When your roadmap is complete, begin building your founding team. This can include co-founders to fill in skills or experience gaps, a startup lawyer to help you understand the legal requirements and help you stay compliant, and advisors or mentors for support.

Another essential part of launching a startup is formally establishing your company. This involves creating a name, choosing the right legal structure (e.g., corporation, LLC, etc.), deciding on a location, acquiring licenses and permits, and so on.

Once all of these elements are in place, you might decide to seek outside funding. Pitch your business to investors, and if they agree to invest capital into your company, you’ll immediately have the funds you need to grow rapidly. 

At this point, your focus should be on continuing to innovate, keeping your customers happy, establishing your brand, and growing your startup through hiring, new marketing, and so forth.

Startup Culture

The modern workplace is becoming less formal every day. “Casual Fridays” have morphed into “casual everyday” in many offices, a trend that originated in the startup sphere.

“Startup culture” is a bit of a catch-all term that’s often used to describe any company with a relaxed, fun and cooperative work atmosphere. The startup-culture mentality has expanded far beyond small Silicon Valley tech firms and into major corporations. Today, companies like Amazon and MasterCard offer their employees perks like casual dress codes, relaxing work environments, recreational activities, and more. Employers like these believe that the “cool office” trend actually leads to increased productivity, because employees are able to focus more on their work than adhering to formalities.

The next phase in the development of startup culture might be to make communication more casual. The email-centric communication structure of the dot-com days is being largely replaced by real-time collaborative intra-office messaging services like Slack, which more accurately represent the way we speak in casual conversation.

Startups Summary

“What is a startup?” isn’t as simple a question as it may seem. The definition of a startup varies depending on who you ask, although there are some common characteristics that apply across the board.

Generally speaking, if a company lasts more than a few years, has more than a handful of employees, or is generating multi-millions in revenue, it’s probably grown past the startup phase.

If you want to know more about any aspect of startups, we have a wealth of information here at Startup Savant. Whether you’re looking for information on forming a specific business structure, details on incorporation service providers to help your startup grow, ideas for branding and marketing your new business, or much much more, you’ll find it all here.

FAQ About Startup Companies

How do you define a startup?

A startup is a young company born out of a desire to solve a problem, fulfill a demand, or bring a unique product or service to market. Typically, startup companies are funded solely by their founders or, with the help of friends and family.

What are the types of startups?

There are six types of startups:

  • Scalable startups that are built for rapid growth
  • Large company startups that are built to innovate
  • Social entrepreneurship startups that are create to positively impact the world
  • Buyable startups that are built to be acquired
  • Lifestyle startups that are centered around the founder’s passions
  • Small business startups that are created to fulfill the needs of its founders

Startup vs small business: What is the difference?

The fundamental difference between a startup and a small business is longevity. Generally, while small businesses are focused on sustained growth; startups tend to focus on gross revenue and rapid growth since this is a temporary business model. Learn how to start a business or how to start a startup.

What is the lean startup?

Developed by Eric Ries, a lean startup is a methodology that tests the viability of a startup company or product through experimentation and hypothesis testing. This method is based on gauging the interest of customers to produce a product or service with a market built-in.

What is a unicorn startup?

Some startup companies have a level of success that’s unmatched among all of their peers, and their massive level of success can only be described in one way – as a unicorn. 

When a startup company has an incredibly innovative idea that transforms an entire industry, the rarity of such an event is what led to the name “unicorn startup.” These are companies that are privately held and have a total market value of over $1 billion, and when a startup exceeds $10 billion, it is termed a “super-unicorn startup.”

What makes a startup successful?

There are a multitude of ways to make a successful startup but the foundational reasons startups succeed are: A usable and unique product or service, sufficient financial backing, and unrelenting dedication to making the success of the business. For more advice, check out our list of startup tips for success. For even more inspiration, check out these entrepreneur stories of startup success.

What makes a successful entrepreneur?

Starting a business takes a great idea and an even greater entrepreneur to make it all happen. Great startup founders are passionate, adaptable, confident, and have an eye for detail.

How long are you considered a startup?

Your company is most likely still considered a startup if you have less than 100 employees and high growth potential that your business hasn’t quite achieved yet. Furthermore, startups typically still need some maneuvering to establish the right business model and products for their market.

How do you come up with startup ideas?

Coming up with the right startup idea can happen in a number of ways. Some entrepreneurs simply come up with a marketable solution to a problem, some see an opportunity to take advantage of an untapped market. If your idea isn’t coming to you as seamlessly, try using this business idea generator to inspire innovation or read our step-by-step guide on how to come up with startup ideas.

How do you value a startup company?

By their nature, startups are difficult to value accurately, especially during early stages. For newer, less established companies, startup valuation is typically determined by its future potential rather than its current earnings. Since, at this stage, these business ventures aren’t usually bringing in steady revenue or earnings. 

Alternatively, established companies and enterprises are valued through a combination of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA). For newer startups that don’t have steady revenue, however, these metrics aren’t necessarily applicable.

How do you invest in startups?

There are several ways to invest in startups, from providing a friends and family loan to becoming an angel investor. However, unless you are an accredited investor, the easiest way to get financially involved in the startup ecosystem is to participate in a crowdfunding campaign on a platform such as IndieGoGo or SeedInvest. Visit our startup series to find startups looking for investors and ways to get involved in the startup ecosystem!

What are the benefits of working at a startup?

Working at a startup offers advantages that some traditional company structures don’t have, such as unique learning experiences, connections, and more.

How do you start a startup?

To start a startup, there are a few steps you need to take. Naming your startup, choosing a registered agentincorporating your startup, fulfilling any legal requirements at the state and federal level, and getting a business bank account are a few of the most important steps to get started.

You can also choose your state from the list below to read our state-specific startup guides: