Unicorns: Perhaps Not As Rare As We Thought

August 7, 2015

TechCrunch with Aileen Lee of Cowboy Ventures recently released their most recent “Unicorn” study, an analysis of the last decade’s most successful U.S.-based, venture-backed tech companies.

So what’s a Unicorn? Here’s the study’s definition: “Many entrepreneurs, and the venture investors who back them, seek to build big, impactful companies valued at a billion dollars or more. We called these companies ‘unicorns’ because what they had achieved seemed very difficult, rare, and relatively unstudied.”

The latest study, the second by the venerable tech startup news site, has some surprises, as well as corroborates what has become conventional wisdom in Silicon Valley.

There’s a lot of data to chew on in the study and you can read the full post here. But parsing through it, there is a lot to learn, whether you’re a start-up, an investor, or just curious about markets.

Here are some of the interesting takeaways that I gleaned.

First, the surprising:


Unicorns are not as rare as we thought

The latest study revels that there are more Unicorns than one might think. There were 84 companies profiled in this year’s study—more than a 100% increase from last year. Granted, a lot of the companies were “paper” Unicorns (companies valued on paper that have not had liquidity events.) But the total value of the companies was $327 Billion and 2.4x the last analysis (“excluding Facebook, which was almost half the value of our last list.”)


Old is the “New” New

As the study maintains, for every wunderkind out there, a seasoned leader or founder (and, perhaps more importantly, a co-founder) may be your best shot at becoming, or finding, a Unicorn.

The study found that companies with educated, tech-experienced, older co-founding teams with a history together have built the most successes in this rarified club. And the co-founding aspect was interesting as well. As the study noted, 86% of the companies had co-founders, or a “super-majority” according to its lingo.

While some of this may be counter-intuitive to the traditional Silicon Valley narrative, it makes sense to me on several levels. An experienced leader can gauge a market, and having a co-founder gives you a chance to bounce ideas off one another, whether it’s reigning in your partner or just having “green-light” time. (I’ve had co-founders in all three of my entrepreneurial ventures.)


In the not so surprising camp:


IoT is gaining impact

This year, the Unicorn study recognized the Consumer Electronics/Internet of Things as its own category. According to the study, five companies, which make up 6% of the list, have raised a combined $266 million on average and are valued at 18x the private capital raised. While it is the smallest of the categories (after E-Commerce, SaaS, Enterprise and “Audience” or ad-driven businesses– ranked by order of value from first to last), to me, this is just another sign that the Internet of Things is ripe for takeoff.


Diversity: Still too Little

This last survey statistic from the study that I’ll share is in diversity, where the numbers fall into the not-so-surprising camp.

While the study determined that 50% of founders or co-founders of Unicorns came from outside the U.S. (from India to Canada) it shows diversity among Unicorns diversity is trending up, but is still low. TechCrunch reports this year the list welcomed two companies with female leaders, compared to no female CEOs on its last list. As well 10% of the co-founders on this year’s list were female, double last year’s survey. Like its average startups counterparts in the valley, 70% of the companies surveyed had no gender diversity at the board level… Please note: the study was unable to track racial or ethnic diversity.

So in terms of diversity, this “rarest of the rare” breed of venture backed tech companies are doing about the same as run of the mill startups and tech companies in Silicon Valley.

Ultimately, when I look at this study, however, I am an encouraged to see that attributes like experience, collaboration, and inclusion, as well as innovation, are being called out as measures of success. These are all values worthy of attention, whether you aspire to be a Unicorn or not.


Title image courtesy of TechCrunch

August 7, 2015