Can a Chinese Restaurant be a Start-Up?

Last evening I met some 40 members of AIESEC from Pune over at the Olive Beach restaurant at the Poona Club. I sat at a high table and talked about innovation, the adianta school, leadership, what they could do to contribute towards the sea-change in India’s institutional culture… They were really a bright set of young people, who will all go on to do great things.

One question that came up, almost by accident, was what really do we mean by a ‘start-up’ ? As this question was doing the rounds I asked them almost as an aside, would a Chinese restaurant constitute a start-up? The group was divided. Some said yes, well, it depended on whether they were really doing anything innovative. Others said no, because we already know what a Chinese restaurant is and what it does. It’s just a new business, not a start-up.

I found the conversation and the thoughts it threw up really interesting, because really the line between a start-up and a regular new business isn’t really all that clear, once you begin thinking about it. Start-ups may use web technologies, they may have untested business models, they may offer new and innovative products or solutions, they may be more likely to fail, they may leverage venture capital in the initial stages of their set up, they should have large ambitions to scale-up and serve many more people than they do now. Yes, each of these points may help us define what we think a start-up is, but many so-called start-ups may not conform exactly along these several parameters. All we can do, therefore, is use a fuzzy-set definition of the term and acknowledge that many things will skirt the line, falling just in or just out. And, to boot, over time and because of chance circumstances, I’ve seen would-be start-ups become conventional businesses and the reverse as well (but at least they were able to recognize it when it happened!)

What was really heartening was to see that these young people could see that start-ups were going to be a bigger and bigger part of their future, and that they wanted to be a part of that near future. Exciting times ahead!


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