Hunting for unicorns
Mankind has always had a fascination for mythical beasts, and none more so than the unicorn. Despite allegedly dying out in the flood after failing to board Noah’s Ark in time, they are still all around us in popular culture, from Harry Potter to children’s toys. I even found an exhibit in a Vienna museum labelled matter of factly as a “unicorn horn” – it was actually from a narwhal.
The horned horses are back in the news, in the world of tech at least, with any startup valued at over $1 billion by venture capitalists now dubbed a unicorn. However with more than 100 companies now achieving unicorn status there’s a growing worry that startups are trading short term valuations for longer term success. True, unicorn status helps attract skilled staff, but down the line it requires either a trade buyer that is willing to pay big money or an IPO to translate mythical (paper) valuations into hard cash. There have also been a raft of stories on how investors have structured their unicorn funding in ways that protect their cash (rather than the shares of others, such as founding teams) if the company should lose its value.
A focus on unicorns also favours certain sectors and types of company. A browse through Fortune’s latest unicorn list reveals a large number of consumer electronics (Xiaomi, Jawbone), retail (FlipKart, Snapdeal) and sharing economy (Uber, Airbnb) companies. In many ways this is what you expect – company valuations are based on what the addressable market is, so the biggest investment goes into those startups that can make most money.
However, it does potentially limit where investors put their money. There are lots of startups that will never be a Facebook or an Uber, but have the potential to be extremely successful niche players that could well grow into billion dollar valued companies. Look at ARM – when it began as a spin-off from Acorn Computers with a completely new business model, very few would have predicted its current success.
There’s also a definite geographic bias where unicorn investors are putting their money – Silicon Valley, China and India. Out of the latest Fortune list just three are in Europe, one in Australia and one in Israel. This doesn’t reflect the energy, ideas and potential in any of these places, particularly in emerging sectors. The danger is that if investors spend their time chasing unicorns they’ll miss out on the startups that could do with their help to build long term businesses that can make a difference to many markets.
So I think we need to add another category alongside unicorns. Keeping the mythical theme I’d go for centaurs. Sturdier than a unicorn, probably better in a fight and with a bit more intelligence (and opposable thumbs). They may not have the beauty or the (frankly over the top) horn of their flashier cousins but they are built for the long term, rather than mythical valuations that don’t necessarily deliver. Given the potential returns they can produce, it is time for investors to move away from the fascination with unicorns to more realistic startups that may be uglier, but have just as much potential.
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