Unicorn

Unicorn Definition

Investopedia / Paige McLaughlin

What Is a Unicorn?

The term unicorn refers to a privately held startup company with a value of over $1 billion. It is commonly used in the venture capital industry. The term was first popularized by venture capitalist Aileen Lee. Unicorns are very rare and require innovation. Because of their sheer size, unicorn investors tend to be private investors or venture capitalists, which means they are out of the reach of retail investors. Although it isn't necessary, many unicorns work their way to going public.

Key Takeaways

  • Unicorn is the term used in the venture capital industry to describe a startup company with a value of over $1 billion. 
  • The term was first coined by venture capitalist Aileen Lee in 2013.
  • Some popular unicorns include SpaceX, Robinhood, and Instacart.
  • There are more than 1,000 unicorn companies around the world, as of March 2022.
  • The term unicorn can also be used by human resources managers to describe their ideal candidates, who may be overqualified for a certain position.
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Investing In the Tech Industry

Understanding Unicorns

A unicorn is what most people in the financial world call a startup that is privately owned with a valuation that exceeds $1 billion. Reaching unicorn status is a rare feat. In order to become a unicorn, companies must have an innovative idea, a clear vision for growth, and a solid business plan, as well as a viable way to get their message to venture capitalists and private investors.

There are several options that unicorns have when it comes to their exit options, including:

  • Remaining private. Founders who want to retain control tend to keep their unicorns private. But this limits the potential for growth. And they often must find ways to provide funders with a return on their investments.
  • Going public. Companies get access to the capital they need to grow with an initial public offering (IPO). Some unicorn executives may be slow to take their companies public because it means diluting ownership.
  • Appealing to a buyer. Company owners and executives can achieve their goals quicker than if they remain private or by going public.

The term was coined by Aileen Lee, founder of Palo Alto-based Cowboy Ventures, a seed-stage venture capital fund. She first wrote about them in her article, "Welcome to the Unicorn Club: Learning from Billion-Dollar Startups," in which she looked at software startups founded in the 2000s and estimated that only 0.07% of them ever reach a $1 billion valuations. According to Lee, startups that reached this mark are so rare that finding one is as difficult as finding a mythical unicorn.

According to Lee, the first unicorns were founded in the 1990s. Alphabet (GOOG)—then Google—she noted, was the clear super-unicorn of the group with a valuation of more than $100 billion. Many unicorns were born in the 2000s, though Meta (META), formerly Facebook, is the decade's only super-unicorn. Some of the other more popular unicorns based in the U.S. include home-sharing giant Airbnb, video game company Epic Games, as well as fintech companies Robinhood and SoFi.

While unicorns are startups with valuations of over $1 billion, companies with valuations of over $10 billion are sometimes referred to as decacorns.

Special Considerations

The term isn't just exclusive to the world of startups. In fact, it is also a common word used to describe s recruitment phenomenon within the human resources (HR) sector.

HR managers may have high expectations to fill a position, leading them to look for candidates with higher qualifications required for a specific job. In essence, they seek unicorns, which creates a huge disconnect between their ideal candidate and those in the pool of people available.

For example, a medium-sized firm may want to recruit someone with marketing, social media, writing, sales, and management experience. And they may seek someone who speaks three different languages. While it may be cost-effective to hire one person with all those skills instead of multiple employees to handle separate tasks, it may be too much for the new hire to handle and can lead to disappointment.

Unicorn Valuations

The value of unicorns is generally based on how investors and venture capitalists feel they will grow and develop, so it all comes down to longer-term forecasting. This means their valuations have nothing to do with their financial performance. In fact, many of these companies rarely generate any profits when they first get running.

Investors and capitalists may come across some hurdles, though. If there are no other competitors in the industry—making the startup a first of its kind—there may be no other business model with which to compare, making it a somewhat complicated process.

Unicorns and Venture Investing

Since the publication of Lee's article, the word unicorn has become widely used to refer to startups in the technology, mobile technology, and information technology sectors—usually at the intersection of all three—with very high valuations questionably supported by their fundamental finances.

Benchmark Capital partner Bill Gurley wrote about the difference between late-stage private capital fundraising and an IPO in a blog post, saying that "an unprecedented 80 private companies have raised financings at valuations over $1B" since the 2010s, and that "late-stage investors, desperately afraid of missing out on acquiring shareholding positions in possible 'unicorn' companies, have essentially abandoned their traditional risk analysis."

The question of whether the technology sector's unicorns constitute a reinflation of the dotcom bubble of the late 1990s continues to stir debate:

  • People like John Mullins (who wrote the book The Customer-Funded Business) argue that the increase in the number of new companies valued above $1 billion is a clear sign of froth in markets.
  • Others argue that a large number of companies with high valuations is a reflection of a new wave of technologically-driven productivity, similar to the invention of the printing press nearly 600 years ago. For example, SV Angel made the most early-stage investments in companies valued at over $1 billion, according to 2019 data.
  • Still, others suggest that globalization and the monetary policy of central banks created great waves of capital sloshing around the globe on a hunt for unicorns since the Great Recession.

Research shows that at least one in three unicorns went public as of 2019.

Examples of Unicorns

Far from being merely mythological creatures, unicorns are a regular feature in business and finance. In fact, there are more than 1,000 unicorns around the world, as of March 2022. Collectively, they are valued at over $3,516 billion.

Some familiar U.S.-based unicorns include Uber, Airbnb, SpaceX, Palantir Technologies, WeWork, and Pinterest. China claims a number of unicorns as well, including Didi Chuxing, Xiaomi, China Internet Plus Holding (Meituan Dianping), and Lu.com.

The following are some examples of very popular unicorns.

Nuro

One hot unicorn startup is Nuro, an autonomous vehicle delivery company that was founded by two engineers from Waymo, which is Google's self-driving car project. Founded in 2016, Nuro became a unicorn startup after receiving a $940 million investment from SoftBank Group, which put the company's valuation at $2.7 billion.

Nuro found a unique space in the autonomous vehicle industry, focusing on zero-emissions local delivery vehicles. Since then, Nuro has grown and acquired other startups including Ike Robotics. The company now has a few pilots, including its R1 and R2 generation of cars that is prototyping deliveries of medical supplies in California, as well as groceries in Fry's Food and Drug and Kroger stores. In March 2022, Nuro hit a valuation of $8.6 billion.

Instacart

Grocery delivery app Instacart is also another unicorn with over $2.7 billion in funding. The company was founded in San Francisco in 2012 and boasts over 500,000 items from local stores including Whole Foods, Safeway, Jewel-Osco, Costco, and Harris Teeter.

As of March 2022, the company slashed its $39 billion valuation by nearly 40% to about $24 billion. The move was motivated by market conditions and the need to appeal to a better labor pool.

What Is a Unicorn in Business?

The term unicorn is used in the corporate world to describe a startup company with a valuation of over $1 billion.

How Many Unicorn Companies Are There?

There are more than 1,000 unicorns around the world, as of March 2022. Collectively, they are valued at $3,516 billion.

Is Amazon a Unicorn Company?

Unicorns are typically used to describe privately-held startup companies with market caps of over $1 billion, so Amazon is not considered a unicorn company, as it is public. When Amazon went public on May 15, 1997, it raised $54 million, which gave it a market cap of $438 million, which was still well below the key $1 billion mark.

Why Are Startups Called Unicorns?

Startups worth over $1 billion are called unicorns because they are so rare. These companies often have skyrocketing success or market traction, which launches them into almost a mythical category, since they are so rare.

How Can I Invest in a Unicorn?

Unicorns are startup companies. So unless you are a private investor or venture capitalist, they don't really accept a lot of moderately-sized investments. However, interested investors should track the growth of these unicorns if they ever decide to become public companies and IPO.

Article Sources
Investopedia requires writers to use primary sources to support their work. These include white papers, government data, original reporting, and interviews with industry experts. We also reference original research from other reputable publishers where appropriate. You can learn more about the standards we follow in producing accurate, unbiased content in our editorial policy.
  1. CB Insights. "The Complete List of Unicorn Companies."

  2. TechCrunch. "Welcome to the Unicorn Club: Learning From Billion-Dollar Startups."

  3. Benchmark Consulting. "5 Signs You're a 'Unicorn' Employee."

  4. Above the crowd. "Investors Beware: Today's $100M+ Late-Stage Private Rounds are Very Different from an IPO."

  5. London Business School. "Too Many Unicorns?"

  6. CB Insights. "Unicorn Hunters: These Investors Have Backed The Most Billion-Dollar Companies."

  7. Ernst & Young. "In the world of unicorns, when is the right time to take the leap from private to public?," Page 3.

  8. TechCrunch. "Learn How Nuro Co-Founder Jiajun Zhu Drove the AV Startup to an $8.6 B Valuation at TC Sessions: Mobility 2022."

  9. Bloomberg. "Instacart Slashes Its Valuation by Almost 40% to 24 Billion."

  10. CB Insights. "The Complete List Of Unicorn Companies."

  11. CNET. "Amazon IPO Skyrockets."

  12. Amazon. "About Amazon."

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