Start-ups are one of the hot topics at the moment. Barely a day goes by without national newspapers writing articles about them while dozens of websites encourage and document their every move. Companies including Virigin, Shell, Dell and Regus are all handing out money and resources to start-ups. The government is also getting in on the act with its new start-up loans for young people.
Whilst people have always started businesses the term start-ups is relatively new. According to the Oxford English Dictionary the first recorded usage was in Forbes magazine in the mid 1970s. At this point it was ‘startups’ not start-ups. Which is the correct spelling seems debatable. The spell-check on my computer definitely prefers start-ups but dictionaries seem to think either is acceptable. A quick play with some keyword tools reveal that ‘startup’ is the more widely used search term. This usage is confirmed by a search on Google’s Ngram tool which looks at the use of words and phrases in books. On this measure ‘start-up business’ does not show up at all while ‘startup business’ shows a steady climb from the 1970s with a minor dip after the dot-com bubble.
The first usage of startups cited by Forbes was in the context of new technology companies. The term really started to come into the popular consciousness in during the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s. Originally the term startup referred to a specific business model. That was to create a company which could serve as a test bed for a particular business idea, to see whether it was viable and scalable. The idea of a startup was not to build a stable long term business but to test out an idea and see how it could be adapted until it reached profitability.
Today the terms startup is used more generally to mean any new business. There are still associations with high tech companies but these aren’t as strong as they used to be. As for the spelling, start-up and startup both seem acceptable. Although I notice that a lot of the government websites are now favouring ‘StartUp’ with a capital U. Given the relative newness of the term and its evolving usage it is perhaps not surprising that the spelling is continuing to evolve as well.