The Techworld editorial team found themselves in a debate this morning over a particular headline that made it onto the website recently. The headline in question I hear you ask? 

Cambridge startup RealVNC promotes remote access with new developer programme"

Startups business idea unique

The issue was the use of the word startup. 

One Techworld journalist said: “RealVNC a startup?! They were founded in 2002.” 

What followed was an interesting discussion around what constitutes a startup these days. 

Another Techworld employee said: "We do need to use startup properly not as a euphemism for a small IT company that hasn't got very far yet..."

Some metrics that I’ve had in the back of my mind while I’ve been writing about tech startups over the last few years include: age, number of employees, size of revenues, amount of investment and level of innovation. Hate to say it, but owning a fussball table or a ping pong table probably comes into it somewhere as well. 

Type startup into Google and the definition you get is: “A newly established business.” 

But what do we class as “new”? Is a company founded two years ago still new? When does that company then become “old”?

I pointed out to my colleagues that Google likes to refer to itself as a startup even though it was founded in 1998 and is today one of the world’s largest technology companies. The Silicon Valley giant claims that being a startup is more a state of mentality and relates to the ethos of a company and the manner in which that company tackles challenges. Uber also maintains that it's still a startup, even though it employs tens of thousands of people around the world. 

But my fellow editors responded saying that big firms love to blather on about being startups, highlighting that it’s just marketing at the end of the day. 

One said: "If it’s using investor’s money it’s definitely a startup. If it’s using its own revenue it’s probably mature enough to be close to exiting that definition." 

To make matters slightly more complicated, there are some tech companies that don’t like being called startups as they’re keen to leave their young image behind so they're thought of as more serious and mature. 

Dozens of publications write about startups week in, week out, but has anyone got a firm grasp on what one is? We’ve deliberately kept our definition at Techworld fairly loose but this morning’s discussion got us thinking that maybe we ought to work on a definition of our own. 

At the end of the day, Techworld thinks that if you're going to label yourself a startup then you need to be innovating and developing something new that has the potential to disrupt the way businesses and consumers do things.

We’d like to hear your opinions on what a startup is so please comment below or email [email protected].


The VP of the company that got us into the debate in the first place has responded saying RealVNC is a startup.  

Writing on the Pulse section of LinkedIn, Adam Byrne, said RealVNC is a startup because it has ability, humility and agility. See the full post below. 

"The journalist Antony Savvas wrote an article for TechWorld which sparked some debate about which companies should be regarded as startups. Sam Shead followed up with a piece characterising the problem and asked me to clarify whether our company, RealVNC, is indeed still a startup.

I say "yes" and for a whole host of reasons. It is too easy to play the ethos card - talk about how we work hard and play hard, feel like a big family, promote the ideals of a meritocracy - and such clichés don't scratch the surface. For me, being a startup is about three things: ability, humility and agility. And no, I definitely don't mean Agile with a big A - the choice software development methodology de nos jours.

Ability is about capturing the minds of today's greatest talent and building a desire in them to work for and with you, always recognising that there are many openings available for them, and so avoiding complacency. But not just that. Once they are working with you, get them working together! Big talent needs a big voice and so building your team mix carefully is going to be important.

Agility is about being able to react to change dynamically, not getting tied up in red tape but instead adapting quickly in ways that enhance the business. That's not to say that being without process is virtuous. It's about knowing when to subvert the process to make something essential happen right now!

Humility is intrinsically linked to this. One huge component of startup culture, particularly in the Bay Area, is being able to admit that you were wrong. We are terrible at it here in Britain - far too much pride flying around. But it is absolutely key to agility. If as a business leader you can stand in front of your team and explain that you made a wrong decision for what felt like the right reasons at the time, and yet still motivate and inspire them to follow in a new direction, then and only then are you a true leader. Not only that, but sometimes it will be a more junior member of a team who is best-positioned to tell you where you are going wrong. Have the humility to listen, the objectivity to understand and the confidence to act.

As for me, as long as RealVNC continues to tick all these boxes then I'm going to continue calling us a startup! And the best part is that it works. I don't care how big your business is... with these things at the core and a leadership who are instilling these values into tomorrow's managers, growth will be supported and feel sustainable. You might even save some sleepless nights!