I’m working with a client that has a beautiful and spacious office overlooking Lake Ontario. The company is growing like a weed and currently employs about 60 people. It’s now a small business.

When I worked for the company two years ago, there were 11 people sitting around a large table within a co-working space. It was a startup.

So what is the difference between a startup and a small business?

startupNot that it really matters but “startup” can’t stick to a company forever. At some point, it’s no longer a startup because it’s well past starting up.

Case in point is a recent blog post by the DMZ about four Toronto “startups” to watch in 2018. To me, three of them are definitely not startups:

Top Hat is nine years old, it has raised nearly US$50-million and has more than 250 employees.

Ritual: four years old, raised more than US$50-million

Stack Adapt: five years old, 50+ employees.

So, what is a startup?

Is a state of mind?

Is it a “company working to solve a problem where the solution is not obvious and success is not guaranteed” as suggested by Neil Blumenthal, co-founder, and co-CEO of Warby Parker.

Or as Steve Blank suggests, a startup is a “temporary organization designed to search for a repeatable and scalable business model.”

When Mike Fox and I created “Ontario’s Hottest Startup” list a few years ago, we considered a few definitions before settling on “less than five years old, revenue under $5 million and between five and 50 employees”.  It was an arbitrary definition but it captured the idea startups are small and relatively new.

Today, “startups” can raise $50-million in venture capital and have hundreds of employees and large offices. These companies aren’t startups; they’re a small to medium-sized businesses.

So why the nit-picking? What does it really matter?

Maybe it’s about fairness.

Why is a company such as Top Hat labeled the same as a company with less than 10 employees still trying to find product-market fit? It doesn’t seem right that Top Hat still gets to bask in the glory and aura of being a “startup” when it’s clearly outgrown its britches. Putting the spotlight on Top Hat as a “startup to watch” takes the spotlight away from companies that really need the attention.

It is important to celebrate the success and growth of companies such as Top Hat but let’s leave “startup” to companies still battling to make it.

So, what do you think? How would you define a “startup”?


I make marketing work for fast-growing companies and companies looking to grow faster.

Through strategic and tactical services, I create marketing that drives brand awareness, customer engagement and sales growth. My approach to marketing is underpinned by storytelling, creativity, and proven frameworks. I also offer coaching services for entrepreneurs looking for strategy and tactical guidance.

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