But really — how do you define the word startup?

by Sam Dewey
June 9, 2016
start·up: noun. a fledgling business enterprise.
That’s the definition of the word “startup” according to Merriam Webster, but seriously — what does that actually mean? 
Sure, you could set up revenue thresholds, team size ceilings, age limits or other thresholds to help you sort out what counts as a startup and what doesn’t. But the word itself encapsulates more than what can be captured with numbers and figures. 
We spoke with a couple larger tech companies in town to get their input — and see whether or not they still identify with the term. As it turns out, being a startup is as much about mentality as anything else. 
Inventables has had an incredibly unique startup journey, given the massive success they found on Kickstarter in 2014. The company, which is paving the way for innovation in the 3D carving and software space, was founded in 2002. CEO Zach Kaplan said disruption is an important element of being a startup — something his company knows all too well.
How do you define the word startup? 
I think the word startup has deviated over time from its original definition. In the beginning the definition of a startup was more literal. A company starting up from scratch. Steve Blank talks about this as "organization formed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model." However in our community it has come to mean a business that is typically technology oriented and has high growth potential. Often these businesses have equity investors and are on the venture path. They also tend to be trying to disrupt much larger incumbent companies.
How does Inventables either embody or distance itself from those characteristics?
I think Inventables embodies many of the characteristics. We have a casual but serious culture. We have disruptive technology that is causing massive change in the industry. We have very low overhead and and a highly transparent culture. We are growing fast, and we've raised $10 million in venture capital.
What makes your company unique among startups? 
Our company is unique because we are building a new category called 3D carving. We have a full stack solution meaning our product includes a mix of hardware and software technology but also the tools and materials needed for customers to be successful. We have created a very collaborative environment that has attracted some of the most talented professionals in the world. As we grow our team is getting better and producing better work. 

Founded in 2011, DevMynd Software is one of Chicago’s leading tech consulting firms, with teams specializing in product management, design and software engineering. According to DevMynd CEO JC Grubbs, producing a product is key to being labeled a startup. Though DevMynd itself doesn’t exactly helm any flagship products, Grubbs’ work helping other companies build and grow grants him a certain authority on the subject. 
How do you define the word startup? 
For me, a startup is an organization that is still in the innovation stage with their product or service offering. Startups are still exploring the ideal way to add value to their customers and how to deliver that value to the market. It has a lot less to do with funding rounds or even growth in my opinion. With that definition in mind, I tend to take companies out of the startup category earlier than a lot of other investors tend to do.
How does DevMynd either embody or distance itself from those characteristics?
I almost never categorize DevMynd as a startup, not because I don't want the label, but because I don't think it really fits. As an innovation consulting firm we don't produce a product per se, we provide access to high-end talent that can think deeply about our customer's challenges. And, our value proposition has already been established by a lengthy history of other players in the market.
What makes your company unique among startups?
Among our competitors I think we are a bit unique. We don't see ourselves as a software driven organization but rather a design and strategy led organization. This means we always start with the business and market case for any work we do and then spend a lot of time designing a solution that perfectly fits user needs. In many cases, we end up saving customers a lot of time and money because we get to know their business so well that we can improve it without much software at all. In this way we avoid the number one mistake that a lot of other development shops make: building the wrong thing.
SIM Partners' innovative suite of digital marketing technology helps brands hone in on location-specific marketing, helping to optimize local, mobile and social search results. In CEO Jon Schepke's purview, the ability to grow and adapt is a key facet of the word startup — something his company has thrived at as digital marketing has continued to evolve. 
How do you define the word startup? 
The key attribute of a startup is its ability to grow. Startups are designed to scale by solving problems for key markets and responding quickly. What makes a company a startup lives at its core — it’s about having an entrepreneurial culture.
How does SIM Partners either embody or distance itself from those characteristics?
SIM Partners adapts our business and product to a constantly evolving industry. Within a period of months, we’ve adapted our mission and products from a narrow focus on search engine optimization to a broader focus on location marketing. With more consumers using mobile devices to make instant decisions about what to do, where to go and what to buy, we’ve adapted our Velocity platform to help businesses figure out how to convert "near me" searches into business. And we have done so quickly.
What makes your company unique among startups/tech companies? 
We bootstrapped the business for eight years before seeking funding — we were patient and waited until the timing was right. With mobile overtaking desktop search, we are now well positioned to deliver on the promise of location marketing by turning “near me” moments of search into “next” moments of conversion. Now, it’s our moment.
Braintree is one of Chicago’s most preeminent tech stories. A trailblazer in mobile and web payment technology, Braintree was a part of one of the city’s largest acquisitions in recent memory. Despite that high caliber of success, tech recruiter Ryan Thorpe says the company maintains a sense of startup culture — rooted, he said, in the most essential tenet of what being a startup is all about: having an innovative idea and a passionate group of people to help build it. 
How do you define the word startup? 
Being a startup to us means taking an idea and building a team around that idea to make something awesome. You could be disrupting an entire industry or simply tweaking a product or service to make it better. At the end of the day it's getting a group of people together who are jazzed about their idea and what it could become.
How does Braintree either embody or distance itself from those characteristics?
Braintree started in 2007 and was acquired in 2013. That doesn't mean we shed our startup-like characteristics. Referencing how we define the word startup, we are still to this day building a team of folks who are excited and motivated by ideas. We now have hundreds of employees in offices around the globe, but on a daily basis there are opportunities for new ideas and rallying folks together to build something awesome.
What makes your company unique among startups/other tech companies? 
Scale. Braintree powers the payments for consumer and merchant experiences on some of the most innovative platforms in the space. Think: Uber, Airbnb, Dropbox, Pinterest, HotelTonight, GitHub and more. It's unique to work at a place where your work integrates with such cool companies and impacts millions of consumers on a daily basis.
Culture. We strike the right balance between a company with the autonomy and challenges of a growing startup, and one that has the resources to provide the perks of a well established organization. The work we provide is complex and the perks highlight our commitment to employee success: providing tuition reimbursement for continued education, daily catered lunches, PTO for volunteer opportunities, generous parental leave policies, conference budgets and the list goes on. 
Long story short: it's fun to work here and your work is rewarded.

Images via featured companies. Some responses were edited for length or clarity. 

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