By Adam Greenwood Byrne, VP of Strategic Alliances at technology startup RealVNC.

I recently found myself, unwittingly, at the centre of a debate about what companies should be regarded as a startup. The term startup is used a lot as an overarching description for a whole number of organisations. It seems that for some, a ping pong table, a bit of soft furnishing and a beer fridge are the defining factors. But what actually makes a startup, and can a 13 year old company be one?

It’s very easy to play the ethos card - arguing that a culture of ‘work-hard, play-hard’ and feeling like a big family through promoting the ideas of meritocracy makes you innovative and new. Such clichés don’t scratch the surface, I’m afraid, and fail to really explain what being a startup is all about.

For me, it’s 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. It actually doesn’t matter how big or small, old or new, your company is, in my mind if you’re following these three principles, you can claim startup status.


The ability to capture the minds of today’s greatest talent and build a desire within them to work with you is a key differentiator for startups. These individuals recognise that there are many openings available to them but choose to work for startups who aren’t complacent. Critically, once they are working with you, get them working together! Big talent needs a big voice, so building a team with a good mix is important. Unlike in the corporate world, where often the best are thrown in a room and expected to work together, building a team with different personalities that gel and complement each other will maximise output.


Reacting to change dynamically and positively is something I also see a lot of in the startup community. Being agile is about 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!


Agility and humility are intrinsically linked. One big component of startup culture, particularly in the Bay Area is being able to admit that you were wrong. Crashing and burning at the helm of a startup seems to be a badge of honour in the US. We’re terrible at it here in Britain; there’s far too much pride flying around, however humility is absolutely key to agility.

If business leaders can stand in front of their teams and clearly explain that they 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, only then are they true leaders. Not only that, but sometimes it will be a more junior member of a team who is best-positioned to say when something is going wrong. Being able to listen, objectively understand and, critically, have the confidence to act on the recommendations of any member of staff is what makes a startup.

From my perspective if a business is able, agile and humble, then they can legitimately call themselves a startup. The best thing is that ability, agility and humility really work well to create a positive environment and a fast-growing business.

Behind every product launch a startup will have about forty crackpot ideas that got thrown out early, twenty technology prototypes that didn't make the cut, ten very different possible realisations of the product that did make it, five very different brand and messaging concepts but, most importantly, hundreds of people's thoughts and opinions in varying measures.

Organisations of all sizes can learn a lot from the group of companies that I believe can call themselves startups. If business leaders take on these three principles and instil them throughout their company, they will see growth – it doesn’t matter how big or old your business is. I’m at a 13 year old startup. With ability, agility and humility at the core and a leadership who are instilling their values into tomorrow’s managers, growth will be supported and most importantly feel sustainable.

You might even save some sleepless nights!