Do all companies start as a startup?

October 16, 2023

Is every business that we see today initially a startup? Is the concept of ‘startup’ rooted in every successful company’s journey? Do companies like Google, Apple, and Amazon share a common initial state of ‘startup’? These thought-provoking questions lead us to consider the early days of a company and how it evolves.

There’s a common understanding that all companies commence as startups. However, according to the Harvard Business Review, this is a misconception. Some companies do indeed begin as startups, but others may emerge from a variety of other paths, including spin-offs, diversifications, or joint ventures. The main problem lies in the generalization of the term ‘startup,’ which simplifies the diversity and uniqueness of companies’ evolutionary processes. A study from Stanford Graduate School of Business supports this point, stating that a generalized approach to understanding business initiation lacks detail and inhibits entrepreneurial opportunity. Hence, the proposal herein suggests a tailored approach that appreciates and recognizes the different paths that lead to the establishment of a company.

In this article, you will learn about the intriguing journey of a company’s life, the different routes to becoming a business entity, and the varying challenges each path might entail. It will challenge the preconceived notion that every company begins its journey as a startup.

Furthermore, this article will explore in-depth how each pathway shapes the business model, strategy, and culture of a company, providing insights from reputable business scholars and successful entrepreneurs. You will be given a chance to delve into some high-profile real-life case studies, such as Google, Apple, and Amazon, to understand how they have carved their own path to success.

Do all companies start as a startup?

Understanding Definitions: Startup Companies Vs Established businesses

Starting with the basics, a startup is a young company founded by entrepreneurs aiming to develop a unique product or service and bring it to market. By its nature, a startup is a spectacle of innovation, but it’s also highly uncertain, often changing its goals and structure throughout initial years.

In contrast, an established company is a large-scale, corporate entity with a steady revenue stream. These companies have a clear objective, a defined customer base, and a successful line of products or services.

Not all companies begin as a startup. Some are established as small businesses aiming for steady growth rather than disruptive innovation. They might begin as family businesses or franchises, for instance. Understanding these differences clarifies the journey of companies and their initial steps towards becoming part of the business landscape.

Unraveling the Myth: Not Every Company Has Its Roots in a Startup

The notion of a startup is common in the business world today, but it’s important to delve deeper into its nuances to decipher the truth. Contrary to popular belief, not all successful companies have their inception as a startup. Understanding this fact is crucial to breaking free from the captivity of the startup myth.

Origins of Businesses: Beyond the Startup Narrative

Numerous businesses came into existence without winding through the startup path. Many of them began as family businesses or small local stores that gradually evolved into massive corporations. Companies like Ford Motor Company and Wal-Mart didn’t start with a revolutionary idea or an aggressive growth strategy, but instead, with a small, simple business concept that metamorphosed over time.

Another popular business origin story is the spin-off, where a new company is created from an existing one. This phenomenon has led to the inception of many successful companies. For example, PayPal, which started as a software security company called Confinity, pivoted its business model, and eventually saw astounding success. This is in quite stark contrast to the garage-startup narrative, demonstrating the diversity of corporate genesis.

Core Ingredients to Success: Not Just Innovation and Disruption

Those who believe all companies start as startups often also believe that the key to success is a disruptive, innovative idea. However, successful businesses aren’t solely reliant on groundbreaking ideas.

  • Sustainability: Many companies gain success through the long run via reliable, sustainable businesses that fill a continuing need. This includes enterprises like utilities, construction, and food companies.
  • Customer Loyalty: Companies often find success by providing excellent customer service and maintaining customer loyalty over time. This dedication maintains a steady stream of revenue and helps businesses tackle any storms.
  • Traditional Business Methods: Employing traditional practices like keeping low debt and high profit margins may not sound innovative, but they have stood the test of time in creating successful businesses.

This doesn’t mean that innovation and disruption aren’t valuable, but it is to say that they’re a part of the equation, not the entire equation.

Undeniably, startups have played a significant role in the business world in the 21st century. However, to assume all successful businesses begin as startups would not only be limiting but also incorrect. It boils down to the fact that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all formula for creating and running a successful business. It’s crucial to challenge and reconsider the startup myth for a more accurate understanding of business success.

Diving Deeper into Corporate Origins: Beyond the Typical Start-up narrative

Challenging Conventional Thought

Is it accurate to say that all businesses begin their journey as a startup? This is a widely held belief, but upon closer scrutiny, it does not entirely hold water. The term ‘startup’ is often used interchangeably with any new business, though the two aren’t strictly synonymous. Startups are primarily characterized by high growth potential and an innovative product or service idea, usually in a tech-centric field.

However, not all businesses are founded on these principles. Many companies have more humble, conventional beginnings. These businesses, often devoid of significant innovation, are established in a saturated market with the simple intention of offering a product or service. For example, a traditional local bakery or a retail shop, though technically new businesses, don’t fit within the typical ‘startup’ definition due to their conventional business model and limited growth potential.

Going Beyond the Startup Model

Given this understanding, one might wonder if the startup model truly is the best path for newly established companies. This question grows more complex when considering the many challenges inherent to the startup model. For example, the drive for rapid growth often necessitates significant initial investment, and the pressure for high returns may dissuade certain potential investors.

The expectation for innovation can lead to an unstable business environment, as startups work under the pressure of developing novelty or perishing into oblivion. Furthermore, in the tech-driven realm of startups, the success rate is limited, with only a minority managing to pass the critical five-year mark. Even among those that do survive, the pressure to constantly innovate and keep up with rapidly evolving trends can take a severe toll on company stability and employee well-being.

Exploring Alternate Paths to Success

Glancing beyond the glossy startup world, many corporations have been successful without starting as a startup. Corporations like Wal-Mart, Berkshire Hathaway, and ExxonMobil, for instance, began as small traditional businesses. Walton’s five and dime store evolved into Wal-Mart while Warren Buffett started with textile mill investments long before Berkshire Hathaway came into existence.

Brick-and-mortar giants like IKEA and Costco also began as simple retail stores, gradually expanding their scope and redefining their strategies to become globally recognized companies. Similarly, technology behemoth IBM began as a merger of several small-scale companies, long before the concept of a startup was defined.

These cases offer a powerful reminder that there is no one-size-fits-all approach in the realm of business. Instead, companies may change their trajectory based on the market, resources, vision, and goals, all while promoting growth and innovation at their own pace. Keywords for success aren’t strictly limited to ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’; they can also be ‘sustainability’, ‘stability’, and ‘gradual growth’.

When Giants were Puppies: Investigating Companies That Emerged Outside the Startup Sphere

Challenging Convention

Is it accurate to state that all dominant organizations originate from humble startup origins? The widespread narrative might lead us to believe so, but reality presents a more nuanced picture. Throughout history, there have been several instances of corporate giants who did not conform to this Silicon Valley-style blueprint. These are entities that have leveraged their financial muscle, strategic acumen, inherent strengths, or existing structures to launch new, groundbreaking initiatives or product lines. The result: disruptive change, substantial scale, and enormous value generation that parallel, or even surpass, the impact created by startups. This approach presents an exciting alternative, redefining the links between entrepreneurship, innovation, and existing conglomerates.

Addressing the Underlying Issue

The single course narrative of startups turning into giants has one main problem: it frames entrepreneurship and innovation as the preserve of new, standalone entities. This perspective unwittingly downplays the ability of established firms to be entrepreneurial and innovative. The startup origin story fails to capture the full spectrum of paths to success. It implicitly assumes that innovation can only come from fresh, small firms and that, once a company grows too large, they lose their ability to innovate and disrupt. This assumption is not only wrong, but it can also breed complacency in established firms and bottleneck innovation.

Lessons from the Road Less Travelled

There are numerous examples of legacy organizations that have taken successful entrepreneurial actions. IBM, otherwise traditional and bureaucratic, spawned a revolutionary approach with IBM Watson. Seen as the epitome of innovation, Watson has placed IBM firmly in the artificial intelligence space, challenging ‘born-digital’ firms like Google and Amazon. Or consider the Tata Group in India, an age-old conglomerate that has constantly reinvented itself – from developing the world’s cheapest commercially produced car, the Nano, to pioneering a new frontier of hospitality with the Ginger budget hotel chain.

Likewise, Disney’s launch of Disney+ is a classic example of a heritage company entering a new domain in a startup-esque manner. A formidable competitor to Netflix, Disney+ amassed over 28.6 million subscribers within 3 months of launch. Such examples serve to both challenge the stereotype around innovation and provide a roadmap for existing firms aspiring to enter new terrains. They reinforce that innovation isn’t the sole domain of startups, but a playground where anyone – regardless of size or lineage – can create enormous value. With the right strategy and resources, today’s corporates can become the disruptors of tomorrow.


Could each successful corporation that we see today have begun its journey as a small startup? It’s quite fascinating to reflect upon the vast potential that a humble startup holds within itself, perhaps even as a seed does for growing into a mammoth tree. Distinctive from established businesses, startups bring into the fold an idea, innovation, and a novel approach. Yet, they perform within an environment of uncertainty and limited resources. Not every startup grows into a thriving corporation, but every corporation has indeed initiated its journey from a startup. The conclusion is that every startup carries within it the flame of possibility, and those who expertly fan this flame have converted their startups into giant corporations.

The universality of this startup-to-corporation journey is a concept that warrants deeper exploration and continued discussion. We thank you for partaking in this intellectual journey thus far and urge you to stay tuned for further revelations within this realm. Your consistent readership and acceptable feedback have proven to be crucial elements of our endeavor to demystify the business world. As we continue to delve deeper into various topics, we will unearth more enlightening insights that illuminate the path of entrepreneurial growth and corporate metamorphosis.

Rest assured, as we dissect and analyze countless case studies, correlating data, and draw insights from industry stalwarts, every piece of content that we release will hold a promise. A promise of equipping you with updated, factual, and valuable information that paints a clearer picture of the business world’s diverse landscape. With the dynamism and rapid pace of the business world, there is always something new just around the corner. While we gear up for our next set of releases, we encourage you to stay connected with us, keep the feedback coming, and together, let’s learn, grow, and make sense of the buzzing world of business!


1. What is a startup?
A startup is a brand-new business in its initial stages of development, often based around a unique or innovative product or service. These companies usually aim to meet a marketplace need by developing a viable business model around that product or service.

2. Do all companies start as startups?
Not necessarily, while many companies do start as startups, existing companies may also start new businesses. For instance, a corporation might launch a new product line or enter a new industry, which wouldn’t be categorized as a startup.

3. How does a startup become a company?
A startup becomes a company when it begins to mature and establish a stable, scalable, and sustainable business. This generally includes establishing consistent revenue streams, expanding the customer base, and hiring a full-fledged team.

4. What distinguishes a startup from a traditional company?
Startups are generally characterized by their experimental nature and high uncertainty, frequently adjusting their business model based on market feedback. Meanwhile, traditional companies operate under a validated and stable business model and have a predictable source of revenue.

5. Are startups always tied to technology?
While the term “startup” is often associated with tech companies, especially in today’s digital era, startups can exist in any industry. The defining course of a startup is its innovative approach and its goal to fulfill a gap in the marketplace utilizing a unique business model.

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