What Is a Scaleup Company and How It’s Different from a Startup

Table with a list of Start-up vs Scale-up differences.

  1. What Is a Scaleup Company?
  2. Characteristics of a Scaleup Business
  3. Scaleup vs. Startup: What’s the Difference?
  4. Main Differences Between a Tech Scaleup and a Startup
  5. When Does a Startup Become a Scaleup?
  6. Real-Time Examples of Scaleup Companies

As technological innovation and global connectivity are pushing the boundaries of traditional business, the distinction between startups and scaleups has become a focal point of discussion within the entrepreneurial community. These terms, often used interchangeably, represent vastly different stages in a company’s lifecycle. 

Understanding what a scaleup is and recognizing the transformation it signifies is crucial for any startup looking to navigate the complexities of rapid growth in a competitive market.

What Is a Scaleup Company?

A scaleup is often seen as a graduated startup, one that has successfully passed through the tumultuous waters of market validation and found its rhythm in sustained growth and profitability.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) quantifies a scaleup as a business that has seen an average annualized growth rate greater than 20% over a three-year period, with at least ten employees at the beginning of the measurement period. However, this numerical definition only scratches the surface of what truly embodies a scaleup.

Characteristics of a Scaleup Business

While the definition of a scaleup may vary slightly among economic circles, several core characteristics are widely recognized as indicative of a company transitioning from startup to scaleup status:

  • Sustained High Growth: Scaleups are distinguished by their ability to not only reach but also maintain an impressive level of growth over a substantial period. This growth is typically measured in terms of revenue and employee count, expanding at a rate that outpaces the average within their industry.

  • Market Influence and Disruptive Potential: These businesses make their mark by significantly influencing existing market norms, often bringing disruptive innovation that challenges and changes the status quo within their industry. They are pioneers in their space, steering market trends rather than just following them.

  • Brand Recognition and Establishment: Unlike startups that are still building their brand identity, scaleups have successfully established a recognizable brand. This maturity in brand perception translates to a stronger reputation and a more substantial market presence.

  • Creation of Employment Opportunities: As they grow, scaleups contribute significantly to job creation, not just in quantity but often in quality as well, offering new roles in emerging fields and thereby contributing to economic development.

  • Process Efficiency and Optimization: A focus on refining and optimizing processes is a hallmark of a scaleup. They strive for operational excellence, streamlining workflows and systems to enhance productivity and meet the scaling demands of the business.

  • Tested Business Model with Resilience: Scaleups have a proven, viable business model that has withstood the test of time and market fluctuations, demonstrating both profitability and resilience. This foundation allows them to plan for the long term with a degree of certainty and stability.

  • Leadership Development and Organizational Growth: A significant investment in leadership talent and organizational structure is key in scaleups. They recognize the importance of developing strong leaders and building a robust organizational framework to support continued growth and address the complexities that come with scaling.

Scaleup vs. Startup: What’s the Difference?

A startup is typically a newly created company in the technology domain or a similar innovative field, characterized by its nascent presence in the market and the potential for significant growth. It is an entrepreneurial venture that seeks to address a gap in the market by introducing a novel product or service. During this stage, the focus is on establishing a viable business model, attracting initial customers, and iterating the product based on feedback.

In contrast, a scaleup is a company that has already undergone the initial proving period and has demonstrated rapid growth and innovation. It is often defined by an exceptional expansion in its operations, workforce, and revenue, typically quantified by a substantial annual growth rate over a three-year period.

To transition into this phase, a company must not only showcase an increase in output but also sustain and manage the heightened demand for its high-value product or service. This stage of a business is marked by scaling operations to accommodate growth, streamlining processes, and often expanding into new markets.

Main Differences Between a Tech Scaleup and a Startup

Approach to the Business Model– Utilizes trial-and-error methods
Explores a variety of approaches
– Implements a tested, replicable model
– Focuses on stable growth
Market StrategyConducts market exploration
– Identifies the ideal customer
– Refines key channels for better performance 
– Expands market reach and visibility
Growth Dynamics– Exhibits significant growth potential
– Often faces unpredictability in business outcomes
– Maintains steady growth
– Experiences a high-paced, above-average growth rate
Primary Goal– Demonstrates idea viability
– Identifies a market niche for the product
– Expands proven model
– Achieves substantial growth
Workplace SetupHorizontal (flat) structure adoption 
– Overlapping roles and diverse skill integration
– Embraces structured approach
– Defines roles for organizational maturity
Workplace EnvironmentVibrant, adaptable workplace
– Emphasizes collaboration and collective effort
Establishes clear roles and processes
– Maintains core values amidst expansion
Degree of Risk Tolerance– Accepts significant risk
– Faces uncertainty due to unproven models
– Reduced risk level
– Balanced risk approach in established business model
Funding Strategy– Seeks initial funding
– Targets early-stage investments (Seed or Series A)
– Established secure financing 
– Stable revenue, plan to growth capital (Series C onwards)
Key Performance MetricsFocuses on validation and learning 
Engages with users and gathers feedback
– Focuses on efficiency and profitability
– Prioritizes growth with emphasis on KPIs

When Does a Startup Become a Scaleup?

The transformation from a startup to a scaleup is a significant milestone, signifying a period of robust growth and strategic scaling. Not every startup will experience this evolution; it is a path reserved for those who navigate the complex blend of market dynamics, internal capabilities, strategic direction, and sometimes, a stroke of fortune.

Recent research, including a study from 2021 by Wakefield Research, indicates resilience among scaleups, even in challenging economic climates. Notably, 80% of SaaS scaleups surveyed were actively increasing their investment in growth initiatives, with more than half expecting to meet their scaling objectives within three to five years.

For startups aiming to scale, certain indicators signal readiness for this pivotal shift:

  • Product-Market Fit: A critical sign is achieving product-market fit, where the product not only meets market needs but does so with such efficacy that it essentially ‘sells itself’ through a product-led growth strategy.

  • Stable Revenue: A startup may be on the brink of becoming a scaleup when it exhibits stable and predictable revenue streams, indicating a reliable and scalable business model.

  • Scalable Operations: Having systems in place that can efficiently manage growing demand—without sacrificing quality or customer satisfaction—suggests scaleup potential.

  • Adaptive Team: A team poised for scaling is one that is flexible, ready for change, and capable of tackling the complexities of expanded operations.

  • Funding for Growth: Access to adequate funding, whether through external financing, reinvested profits, or loans, is essential for fueling the scaleup process.

  • Market Opportunities: Identifying and being ready to capitalize on market opportunities, such as untapped geographical regions or underserved customer segments, is often a precursor to scaling up.

Real-Time Examples of Scaleup Companies

Real-time examples can vividly illustrate the journey of companies as they transition from startup to scaleup, shedding light on the essential elements that contribute to successful scaling. Here are a few examples:

  1. Nursa‘s scaleup journey has been marked by rapid growth and innovation in the US healthcare staffing sector. Embracing the mission to put a nurse at the bedside of every patient in need, Nursa has swiftly scaled up to become the leading mobile app for clinicians seeking per diem shifts. Their commitment to intelligent execution and building strong relationships with both clinicians and healthcare facilities has driven their spectacular success.

  2. Nøie, rooted in personalization for skincare, rapidly scaled by building a community around shared skin concerns. Originating in LEO Pharma’s Innovation Lab, Nøie harnessed user feedback to refine its products, leading to significant user-reported improvements. This customer-centric approach was pivotal in Nøie’s success.

  3. ZEVO‘s journey from a startup to a scaleup involved strategic acquisitions and partnerships, enabling it to fill a gap in the essential oils-based more eco-friendly insecticide market. Backed by P&G Ventures, ZEVO’s focus on safe and effective solutions facilitated its expansion into major retail outlets, setting the stage for rapid growth and wide consumers.

For more examples, check the list of the TOP 250 Dutch scale-ups in 2023 by the Erasmus Centre for Entrepreneurship.

Conclusion: Embracing the Scaleup Milestone

The shift from a startup to a scaleup signifies a pivotal moment in a company’s journey, highlighting not only an expansion in size but also a maturation process and a significant impact on the market.

Companies like Uber and HubSpot serve as benchmarks of successful scale-ups, illustrating the profound growth potential when a strong foundation is met with strategic scaling and robust leadership. 

For emerging startups, these examples offer a blueprint for navigating the scaleup phase—emphasize product-market fit, ensure operational scalability, secure strategic funding, and maintain a culture conducive to growth. As we witness these companies scale new heights, they remind us that with the right approach, startups can evolve into industry leaders, shaping the future of business innovation.