The term “start-up” derives from the English “to start up,” meaning to ignite, switch on, or activate. It is first attested in its original signification around 1200, meaning to “rise up,” and in the 1590s it took on the meaning of “to suddenly come into being.” While the verb “to start up” has seen steady usage rates from 1800 to the present, its hyphenated form, “start-up,” and compound form, “startup,” witnessed steadily increasing usage only from 1980 onwards, implying a meaning distinct from the simply verb “to start up”. The use of these forms is distinct from the verb “start up” in that the former designates a specific noun, a phenomenon rather than an action, which nonetheless inscribes the act of “starting up” into itself. This connotation, in turn, ascribes a spontaneous and lively quality to start-ups. In keeping with its verbal signification, a start-up is a young business enterprise that seeks to fill a niche market around a specific product and typically partakes in the so-called “gig” or “sharing economy.”
Start-ups are known for their casual work environment, which contrasts with the formalized and rigid environment of older and larger corporations. They typically do not require a strict dress code, typical of corporate office life, and their offices or headquarters, such as AirBnB’s, often contain “social” or “community” spaces. Such is typical of the aforementioned “gig” economy, in which freelance employees work irregular hours with few benefit guarantees in their contracts. According to Trebor Scholz, such workers are titled “‘independent contractors'” by these companies (Scholz, 10). The ride-sharing platform Lyft, for instance does not consider its drivers to be standard employees and offers them little to no benefits, while still touting their employees as hardworking, enthusiastic, and personable (Tolentino). The precarity inherent in these contracts is thereby obfuscated by the “chipper narratives surrounding labor and success” that these companies propagate (Tolentino). Moreover, start-ups like food delivery service Foodora “initially offer high wages to build a sizeable pool of workers,” but quickly “change the terms once the workforce is large enough to provide a sufficient reserve army.” Hence, start-ups like Lyft and Foodora rely on an increasingly exploitative business model as they expand. In response to this, so-called “platform cooperativism” has emerged, with the aim of developing internet “sharing” platforms that are democratically governed and provide opportunities for precarious employees, such as the “independent contractors,” to organize for better working conditions (Scholz, 10-12).
The aforementioned “chipper narrative” that start-ups propagate is also part and parcel of the so-called “innovation economy,” which emphasizes dynamism and innovation as the new driver of economic growth. One writer for the online business publication Fast Company writes of start-up entrepreneurs that
“[p]eople who start their own business have a different mental and professional makeup than those who have never gone off to create something of their own. Entrepreneurs are defined by seeing a problem and thinking of an innovative way and original way of addressing it.”
The “innovative” entrepreneur is here posited as essentially suited to the world of start-ups. Moreover, the entrepreneur’s inventiveness distinguishes the start-up from more established corporations in that start-ups are posited as more innovative and creative than their corporate counterparts. Thus, the value ascribed to the start-up is based in its alleged innovation, which, furthermore, draws attention away from the working conditions of the not “innovative” workers, such as drivers, and directs it towards the intellectual labor of start-up’s founders, its entrepreneurs.
In addition to their exploitative treatment of workers, start-ups such as AirBnB often ignore or actively oppose the interests of the cities in which they operate. AirBnB partakes in the so-called “sharing economy,” which emphasizes “informal” modes of exchange that are often “person-to-person” (Slee, 1). The informality of AirBnB’s approach makes it difficult for local city governments to control the start-up’s commercial activities. Thus, though AirBnB, like other start-ups, claims to value “community,” it often ignores local city laws or refuses to comply with local regulators, even when explosive AirBnB usage drives up rental prices and worsens local residents’ quality of life (ibid, 2). Start-ups, therefore, do not merely affect labor and employment, but also can affect the areas in which they operate. Thus, the external friendliness and relaxed appearance of start-ups actually masquerade the precariousness and unbridled expansionism that are embedded in their economic model.