Thursday, 01 August 2013 14:21

What Makes a Great Start-Up?

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A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting up with a life-long friend and fellow entrepreneur at one of Chicago’s brightest start-up/technology communities 1871.  My friend had recently been accepted into one of the city’s small business accelerators aimed at clean technology companies.  When I left Chicago in 2000, the city was and still is a diverse, international community known for its awesome eats and world class architecture.  However, outside of a handful of recognizable corporate names, Chicago lacked what areas in Northern California’s Silicon Valley and New York’s Silicon Alley have had for years . . . a unique start-up culture and identity.  Watching my friend and some half dozen other entrepreneurs live out their dreams on stage let me know that the past decade has been kind to area start-ups.  With names like Groupon, Open Table, 37 Signals, and a host of other up and coming companies leading the way, Chicago is definitely on the map.  However, not sure of what to expect that evening I found myself wondering as I watched these innovators take the stage, ‘What makes a great start-up?’

Solve A Real Problem

In 1948, after hearing the challenges faced by the president of a food sales company who wished he could automate the food sales process, Drexel graduate students Norman Woodland and Bernard Silver came up with the idea for the barcode.  It wasn’t until 1973 that their bar code was accepted as the standard Universal Product Code (UPC) for products.  Today the bar code is used wherever physical objects need to be tagged with information and processed by a computer.  Try and imagine a world without barcodes.  Great start-ups solve real problems.

Ideas Are Unique  

During a recent move I came across a box labeled electronics and found my old Sony Walkman.  In my opinion that product was so cutting-edge that I have been unable to let go of my own after all of these years.  In 1979, Sony founder Masaru Ibuka introduced the world’s first portable cassette player, propelling the company into the forefront of electronics and as a result portable music hasn’t been the same since.  Like the Sony Walkman, what makes a great start-up is that their ideas are unique.

There’s Great Potential

In 1913 Henry Ford installed the world’s first moving assembly line, in an effort to control manufacturing costs and deliver a cheaper product to the masses.  In doing so I think that Ford understood that we were becoming a nation of explorers branching out to the far reaches of the country.  His mission was to provide every explorer with the one tool they needed to venture out, just as long as they didn’t mind the color black.  Great start-ups recognize the enormous potential in what they are doing and look for ways to capitalize on it.

A Founder’s Passion

As I listened to my friend and the other entrepreneurs pitch their ideas to a room of hundreds, one thing was very clear.  Regardless of the industry (education, energy, fashion, water) successful start-ups have passionate founders.  It’s not only that the founders are passionate about what they do but they also understand that small business success doesn’t happen overnight.  Over the years these owners have stayed committed to their dreams despite the many challenges and realize that their time is now.

There are other factors that I believe contribute to making a great start-up.  Great start-ups know their target markets well.  Taking a look at well established organizations, you could make the case that great start-ups have strong management teams.  Lastly, great start-ups have the ability to scale their business quickly.  If you can master these start-up tips at the beginning, it just might increase the chances of taking your company from just plain good to great. 

Cavanaugh L. Gray

Cavanaugh L. Gray ( is the Director of Business Development for The Entrepreneur Café, L.L.C (877) 511-4820.  For more information on what makes a great start-up or to read a chapter from his new book The Entrepreneurial Spirit Lives: 25 Tales to Help Entrepreneurs Start, Grow, and Succeed in Small Business log on to  For more information on how to start, grow and succeed in small business, ‘Like’ on Facebook, ‘Follow’ on Twitter @TheECafe or ‘Connect’ on LinkedIn.