Clay Allsopp

Don't Say Startup

Oct 9, 2012

The word "startup" gets thrown around a lot. Mainstream media calls Twitter and any other pre-IPO company a startup, PG says startups are businesses that grow fast, and Peter Thiel says startups are all about unique business models. That all sounds pretty reasonable, right?

But at any given Silicon Valley event, you have some folks referring to all variety of what they're working on as "startups". It could be their one-man iPhone app, a newborn hackathon project, or even the legendary stealth-mode project. I know I'm guilty of it too.

So I've made a new rule: unless you've raised money, are bringing in substantial revenue, or have a sizable active user base, don't call whatever you're building a startup. I'm not trying to belittle or be a jerk; I'm hoping to cut everyone some slack.

Every time you introduce your product to someone as a startup, you set an expectation for where the conversation is going next: your funding, revenue, user base, that sort of talk. That might be appropriate, but if you're not at that stage where it's a proper startup then you'll inevitably fail to meet those expectations. And that sucks, because you lose a little social capital each time that happens.

You've probably been on the other side of this conversation: someone tells you they're doing a startup, you ask for details, and it turns out to be pretty nascent. Kind of a let down, right? It probably would have ended better if they had avoided the word "startup".

Instead, focus on what you're building and resist putting a label on it. Say something like, "We're building x" or "We just launched our product, y." This should make sense: your product is what people care about, whether or not your venture really is a startup. Or if you're not quite ready to reveal what you're doing, then a simple "I'm working on my own thing right now," is satisfactory.

The more we throw around the word "startup", the less of an impact it has when we actually want it to matter. So do yourself and the community a favor: drop it only once you mean it.