If you’re selling mattresses online, are you a startup?

We idealize startups as fast young (start-) fast-growing companies (-up) that innovate with new technology.

In real life, most of the startup you meet don’t grow fast. Fast could mean for any professional investor (not your garden variety of business angels) reaching for a first million euro in sales within two to three years. Such speed would require a team with startup experience entering the market in different cities in Europe, with a plan.

Mature teams. A plan. Aggressive soft landing strategies. Well, I’ve already wiped off the broad 90% of the startups you meet in incubators, acceleration programs, corporate incubators, technology transfer platforms, etc.

Then there is the technology part. Technology for politicians, business schools and stock markets means patents. No patent, no technology. So that’s actually easy to check and yes, you will now find a large number of startups aiming for patentable tech in Europe. How does that comply with what we said just before?

Glad you ask. It doesn’t:

are you a startup

The fact that fantasy startup successes such as Amazon or Facebook, or more recently AirBnB or Uber, didn’t rely on strong patents to disrupt the market doesn’t really come up in the usual startup discussion right?

More importantly, we witnessed the uprising of a slew of new successful startups these last few years. Startups selling boring consumer products online, such as prescription glasses, razors, or even (oh, the horror) mattresses. Casper is one of these stupidly aggressive company. Deciding that most of the mattress technology was pretty much snake oil, they selected a good model, delivered it for cheap and offered a 100 days send-it-back-period-no-questions-asked. They went from zero to $1 million the first month, and accumulated $100 million in sales after 2 years.

So is Casper a startup?

Well, we know that 1) they are in the left part of our Venn diagram for sure, and that 2) not a single university tech transfer program would touch them with a stick. But still, are we authorized to qualify them as a startup? Would this kind of project be deemed a success and promoted as a victory of the tech industry? You know they wouldn’t.

Whoever we are, playing this startup game on one side of the table or the other, are we in to create new businesses or are we in to brag on how smart we are?

The reason I’m asking this is that you won’t find in a single hard tech startup that brought this kind of revenue increases after 10 years of European startup policies. Give me any day a mattress startup to work with instead of flocks of highly educated, incredibly smart people spending years in their lab working on AI with a few days of design thinking workshops sprinkled in between. These glorified tech startups eventually amount to nothing.

I always wonder why doing this post-mortem of all of our noble and high-level views of what a startup should be, still can’t be done by the European Commission?

Can we deal with real life and start to be in a much more pragmatic approach to these new businesses? Because in the end, they are just that. Businesses. They are not shiny trophies to be displayed by universities or territories. They are not a new generation that will save us from climate change or being mean  to one another. They are not even competing with Google or Amazon to save us from US supremacy! Best case scenario they are just people entering business at a different angle.

So, let’s focus on that and help them at scale without our usual intellectual prejudices.

In the meantime, those in charge of making Europe a better place should maybe just go back to working on that too, they are not startuppers.

Published by

Philippe Méda

Philippe has been training about 200 startups a year since 2007, consulted for dozens of multinationals on rupture innovation or corporate incubation. He also teaches innovation in key MBA programs in Paris and Shanghai.