What is a Startup?

Last year I began a  new series for Christian Computing (now called MinistryTech) magazine on Startups.  Here I’ll share those articles for your benefit.  The series is continuing, so as new articles are published, I’ll post them here as well.

Over the past several months I’ve introduced the Intelligence Revolution.  This month, I’m moving on to a new series titled “Startup.”  My plan is to spend this month defining what I mean by “a startup;” next month I’ll discuss why Christian Computing readers should really care about startups; then I’ll take a couple of months to discuss the latest thinking on how to successfully launch a startup; and then we’ll consider specific Christian startups (within the church and outside the church), hopefully with meaningful application to your work.

What is a Startup?

There are many definitions of what a startup is.  Merriam-Webster.com has two definitions for the word “start-up” – “the act or an instance of setting in operation or motion” and “a fledgling business enterprise.”  Investopedia.com’s entry for Startup begins with a very pragmatic definition: “A company that is in the first stage of its operations.”  Personally, I like the definition that Warby Parker cofounder, Neil Blumenthal, provided to Forbes magazineA startup is a company working to solve a problem where the solution is not obvious and success is not guaranteed.”  That definition is also similar to the one provided by Steve Blank, one of the architects of the Lean Startup methodology we’ll discuss in this series, when he said that a startup is a temporary organization in search of a repeatable and scalable business model.

All of these definitions imply two things:

  1. A startup is a for-profit business.
  2. At some point in time, a startup stops being a startup.

For purposes of this series, I’d like to broaden the definition a bit.  

First, I’d like to think beyond for-profit businesses.  Going back to Neil Blumenthal’s definition, I think there are many times when we find ourselves “working to solve a problem where the solution is not obvious and success is not guaranteed.”  Often this isn’t in a business context.  In fact, I would guess that many of us could use those words as a “job description” of sorts for the work we do with technology in ministry.

That being said, I don’t think we can completely ignore the economics that drive business decisions.  For most of us (if not all), we are always operating with limited budgets.  When we solve problems for our ministry, it is expected that the solution creates value.  That may or may not mean that more money comes into the ministry, but hopefully it means that the outcome of the solution is worth the resources we are investing in it.  If those resources would have been better spent doing something else, then our startup has not achieved success.

Second, I’d like to broaden the definition of startup to include new ventures by existing, well-established entities.  Admittedly, “well-established” often implies tradition-bound, slow-moving, and risk-averse.  I don’t intend to include all new ventures by existing organizations in the startup definition, but only those that are pursuing unknown solutions in an environment where uncertainty of success is embraced.  

When a church tries something they’ve never tried before, such as a cross-generational evangelistic outreach, we can approach it like a startup.  We don’t know all the answers.  We haven’t done this before so we don’t know exactly how to make it work.  In fact, we may even be confused about what will define success.

The definition of success is especially important to consider.  Too often, I fear, even in our churches we define success the way that corporate America does – how many people, how much income, how many programs.  As God told Samuel in 1 Samuel 16:7 “the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”  Pray for wisdom, to understand how God is defining success in your startup.  Be strong to avoid the temptation to act like the world acts and to seek what the world seeks.  Trust in the Lord and rejoice in the work He is doing in and through you.

Why I Care About Startups

I mentioned above that next month we’ll discuss why you should really care about startups.  But before we get too far, I thought it made sense to explain why I’m even starting this new series.  

From what God has shown me in my own life, I believe that, whether the business succeeds or fails (in the world’s business terms), startup experiences can help shape young men and women to be leaders in their churches, their families, and their careers. Tina Seelig, executive director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program identifies the need for universities to produce what she calls “T-shaped people.”  “This means people with a great depth of knowledge in at least one discipline, like chemical engineering or biology, and a breadth of knowledge across many skills. Across the top of the T are knowledge of leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship.  It’s no longer good enough to be an individual contributor where you have a clearly defined role. You need to be able to work across disciplines.”  

Launching a startup stretches us beyond our comfort zone.  It forces us to consider all aspects of the venture, not just the parts where we are the expert.  Often, it forces us to recognize our complete reliance on God for everything.  When we combine the “T-shaped” model with a primary focus on glorifying God, maybe what we’re talking about are “cross-shaped” people.  

Titus 3:14 tells us “And let our people also learn to maintain good works, to meet urgent needs, that they may not be unfruitful.”  It is my hope and prayer that these articles will help you be fruitful to the glory of God.

 

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