Is it Time to Lose the Term “Startup”?

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Language is a powerful shaper of attitudes and ideas. One founder questions whether the term “startup” is actually doing entrepreneurs a disservice and whether it’s time for a rewrite.

By Brandy Alexander-Wimberly (Founder & CMO, Buyvite)

I read a post on LinkedIn recently from a connection who claimed “I can’t wait to start my next startup.”

As both a startup founder and digital strategist, it hit me as I read this that the term “startup” is a huge misnomer.

You don’t start a startup. You start an early-stage company or product. If you’re really calling it anything else, it would seem doomed to failure by your sheer misunderstanding of the challenging path you’re choosing – if you actually want to succeed.

This comment carried more weight than it would have even two years ago. We’re living in a time when HBO has a tech startup parody, “Silicon Valley”, and Banana Republic has a “startup guy” as part of a recent ad campaign.

It seems to signal a bellwether moment in time when the term “startup” has jumped the shark.

Has “Startup” Jumped the Shark?

According to a Wikipedia entry, the term “jump the shark” is used to describe “...the moment when a brand, design or creative effort's evolution declines.”

I don’t think the movement for entrepreneurs to leverage the power of digital media to build disruptive businesses has at all waned, nor should it. What I do think is that the terminology has lost it’s significance and gravitas, cheapening the passion, hard work and intelligence that need to coalesce to create a successful product or company.

It’s distilled to the point of irrelevancy, making it seem like a recent college graduate’s options are to either “start a startup,” get a job or backpack through Europe.

So has the term jumped the shark? Will the tech “startup founder” go the way of other fads like the “indie filmmaker” of the 1990s, the “hair band singer” of the 1980s? Disco as a whole?

Here’s 5 reasons why there should be a movement to dump the term “startup” in favor of “early stage company.” And what you may want to consider before aligning the term to your own initiatives.

1. The Word “Startup” Does Not Imply an End Game

When I began the journey of launching a social payment platform one of the first warnings from my eventual investors was “get ready to get poked and prodded in every nook and cranny.” But the late nights, endless meetings, remote teams, pitching investors, pitching prospective clients, keeping in touch with an advisory board, the investment team and three sets of attorneys was a lot of work and logistics that I didn’t initially expect. It was unexpected for several reasons; especially because, at the time, I was working full time and doing it on my own.

Starting a startup is one thing. Selling a successful business or product is the end game. And if you’re not looking at what you’re doing as running a company than investors, customers and the media may see right through you.

2. Are You in it to Win it or For Your Customers?

On-boarding clients while your product is still in beta will be a huge push by your investors. But from the client side of the table, I’ve been through so many platforms that have pivoted, been acquired and dumped or just disappeared that it can be painful.

I was recently on a call with a very prominent digital advertising platform startup that I was considering using for a client project. I asked the sales rep point blank, “So if I get all of my customer’s data in your system and you’re acquired by Google, what then?”

His response? “No one has ever asked me that.”

If you’re not prepared from an infrastructure and bandwidth standpoint to fully support major clients then your “startup” is not a business grade solution, yet.

3. You Don’t Need to Learn Code to Launch a Business

Becoming a software developer is a fabulous career choice. It offers opportunities for a great salary and the chance to work for an innovative company. But have we been sold a bill of goods by major tech players that we all need to write code in order to launch a “startup”?

Most of this movement is coming from a good place, but a lot of the Fortune 1000 companies leading this effort also need to fill their cubicles with software developers. It’s simply not true that you need to write code to launch your own tech company.

And I’ve found some of the best early stage company founders know how to build good teams that build good products. Equally important, if not more important, is expertise in marketing, branding and sales. Anyone can learn Python, but you can’t learn to be a visionary thinker.

4. It’s Uber for…

Enough already. If the entire concept of your business is to riff off of the success of another platform, but replace their core process with another product, go back to the drawing board.

Don’t start a company that doesn’t fill a gap in the marketplace. Don’t fulfill an unwanted need. It’s a waste of everyone’s time and you’ll regret doing it. And if you don’t understand your market deeply, you can’t find a gap and fulfill that need.

We don’t need an Uber or Tinder for sharing pricey handbags for example. Keep your purses to yourselves ladies.

5. Silicon Valley Was Lame in 1998

We need a correction factor in the tech startup scene. It’s not a fast track to wealth and success. For every Snapchat there are 10,000 failures by struggling young people that would be better off getting a job and getting some experience before launching their own companies.

So what is the end game? Why are you starting your startup? If it seems like the thing that everyone’s doing, take a step back and get some experience before diving in. It may just help you move away from “startup” mode into true business mode.

I moved to the Marina District in San Francisco in the mid 90s and had a good friend working for an ISP in San Jose. The company called itself the world's largest ISP, with some 500,000 subscribers. My friend approached me about working there, but back then the thought of schlepping to some soulless San Jose office park sounded like a death sentence.

But that lack of overexposure in the early days of web 1.0 ultimately fostered the digital age as we know it. More credit should be given to the innovative Gen. Xers who actually helped shape web 1.0 and web 2.0 as a business model, when it wasn’t necessarily the cool or trendy thing to do. There was not a Banana Republic “startup guy” in 1998. There were, however, a few young guys that launched companies called Google, Paypal and Amazon.

TechCrunch: Disrupt SF 2013 by TechCrunch via Flickr.

Do you agree that people should stop using the term "startup"?


About the guest blogger: Brandy Alexander-Wimberly is an independent writer, digital strategist and part of the Interrupt team, a channel marketing agency for the building products and home automation space. She is also the founder of Silicon Rustbelt, a news source covering the startup scene in the upper Midwest. Follow her at @siliconrustbelt.