What Is A Tech Startup?

It all started with a reader’s interesting suggestion that we interview Linda Ikeji for a startup founders’ series. The request seemed absurd because the intent was for the startups in question to be technology companies…obviously. This got us thinking about how loosely we use the term ‘tech startup’.

Most of the businesses that we’ve come to refer to as tech startups don’t have any real technology at the core of their operations; technology (or more specifically, the internet) is merely an operations component of said businesses.

Take Konga for instance, a retail logistics business with a delivery fleet as large as Tranex and about one third the size of DHL. If online payments become a hassle, you can pay on delivery. Then there is Taxi Park, a fantastic service – not only because you can book a cab on the internet, but also because of the follow up phone calls; some to you, some to the Taxi company, all to coordinate the transaction.

And those are even complex examples that have significant technology elements. As you come down the startup evolution pyramid, the examples evoke some head scratching. For instance, is a website that sells drinks or one that sells t-shirts a technology company?

Since we’re talking about what isn’t a tech startup, it is worth mentioning that we did an impromptu vox pop and asked some of our people at the hub to give us any examples of actual Nigerian tech companies that they know. A lot more head scratching threw up names like Prowork and Interswitch. We were more confused than we were convinced.

It seems the lines between a tech company and a tech enabled company have grayed significantly. Is that why such titles like ‘internet entrepreneur’ have been coined to cater for the gray areas? At what point do you draw the line and say, here’s a tech startup and here’s a non-tech startup? Let’s draw the line at calling Linda a tech startup, shall we?

While the semantics of it might not be important to everyone, the distinction matters to us from a blogging standpoint. The thing is, there are so many startups in Nigeria/Africa, and there are only so many bloggers who are willing and able to tell their stories. Perhaps a distinction might help us know where exactly to begin our task?

Lordbanks contributed to this post.

Tolu Agunbiade writes at OTEKBITS…sometimes. Follow her on Twitter here.


  • Being that I asked this question a lot last week with no responses on Twitter I am moved to ask: is it that you techies do not know exactly what a tech start up is? I am sorry but I am left with a feeling that you are afraid to define clearly what a tech start up is because you don’t want to bruise egos and step on toes…of course I stand to be corrected. As always, I am a learner

    • ayo Dawodu ♛ says:

      maybe we are mixing up “startup” and “business”
      startup != business for the record.
      Technology is an enabler.

      This is how I see it.

      • Abigail Anaba says:

        That’s all I’m saying: a tech start up has to create technology to solve a problem and not just use it. that my business uses emails to reach out to customers doesn’t make me a tech start up, I am just a start up using technology. I just want to believe claiming tech start up is a great ego booster.

  • sorry…Linda Ikeji is a tech start up? okay.

  • olusegun gbelee says:

    I Think Linda’s Blog can definitely be categorised as a tech startup. Huffington post had venture backing and a successful exit when AOL(A tech company) scooped them up. If TechCabal can be considered a startup then Linda is a startup

    • Startup != Tech startup.

    • Er…TC is a startup, not a “tech” startup. An internet media startup maybe.

      • olusegun gbelee says:

        We are getting hung up on semantics. Internet media = Tech. Ask print media.

        • samson Aligba says:

          not just semantics, but process. Is linda ikeji solving any problem with existing technology (infrastructure/code base) ?, is tech cabal developing a new technology (infrastructure/code base) to solve existing problems?

          What differentiates techcabal from lindaikeji, it’s use of technology or content?

          “Startups usually involve technology, so much so that the phrase ‘high-tech startup’ is almost redundant. A startup is a small company that takes on a hard technical problem.”
          “The word ‘startup’ dates from the 1960s, but what happens in one is very similar to the venture-backed trading voyages of the Middle Ages.” http://www.paulgraham.com/wealth.html

        • I would say you need to know what you are before you know what or where you are going. Nit hung up…actually

  • Is tech the core of the startup? If the powering tech is removed, what else do you have? If tech (for simplicity, let’s assume this to be the “online presence”) is removed from Prowork, what do we have? Nothing. If removed from Paga, what else is left? How will the payment transactions be carried out? Konga? Well, they can open a real (physical) store.

  • Iyinoluwa Aboyeji says:

    I don’t think there is such a thing as a tech startup as you have defined it. Can’t think of a single significant online business that isn’t disrupting traditional alternatives using tech. Facebook, twitter etc disrupt slow mail. Tumblr/Blogging software disrupts newspapers and newsletters, the companies you have mentioned above will not exist if the tech was not available. So I don’t know what kind of ‘tech startup’ you are looking for.

  • Prince Oluwasegun Abisagbo says:

    Paul Graham defines a start up as one focused on exponential growth. Growth is the primary focus.

    Linda Ikeji is not concerned about growth, do you see her ads? as compared to naij.com,konga or jumia?

    She is comfortable where she is, so she is not a startup.

    A startup also solves a hard problem or innovates or solves problems better.

    Tech Startups are those whose innovation is mainly around tech.

    eg google,amazon,swift,mtn, et al

  • Why are we tearing our pant over semantics? Linda Ikeji’s blog is a technology powered start-up period. She is running an online content aggregation business disrupting the likes of City People etc who are in the print business and she is doing it purely on the Internet powered by Google’s Blogspot and paid for by advertisers.

    By the way… a pure Internet play company can also disrupt anything including existing Internet businesses and other brick and mortar models. Before Linda, I think there was and still is Bella Naija.

    Nobody gets any extra points for doing it themselves or getting others to do it. In the end the size of the bank account and number of users or subscribers determine if there is traction and growth.

    • samson Aligba says:

      well said, but I doubt if she defines it as “an online content aggregation business”.

      • Finally all definitions are semantics or as Jason Njoku calls it – “prose”

        • We are well aware of that, for practical purposes no doubt. But that doesn’t help our “blogging” enterprise. Glad we got the question out there anyway, we’ll continue to play it by ear as we always have, I guess.

    • pystar says:

      Next up: is linda Ikeji’s blog a lifestyle business or a startup? (sink your teeth into this)

  • Donfelix Odoh says:

    The Tech has to be the center of all operations and monetization.65 – 90 – 100% centralization on Tech (Internet or other types of valuable technologies). This differentiates between tech startups, other startups and internet powered startup.

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