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Are you working for the next Uber?
Unicorn companies, named for the mythical, magical one-horned beast, were once exceedingly rare. Now these billion-dollar babies are springing up all over, with names like Zenefits, Oscar Health, and Blue Apron.
Is your company the next unicorn (private companies valued at $1 billion and above)? Here’s how to tell, based on real numbers and trends.
1. Your CEO founded the company at precisely age 29
Just kidding. Sorta. According to one study, that’s the median age of company founders whose babies grow up to be unicorns.
A typical successful unicorn founder had six years of previous experience in the IT or software space.
2. Your founder knows what this is
While massively successful founders attended a wide variety of colleges, the one that popped up as most frequently attended was Stanford. Go Cardinal.
3. You're not necessarily in the Valley
Unicorn ranching is a global phenomenon, so even though tech is king, Silicon Valley is only part of the kingdom. In fact, a study from Atomico found that 63% of the unicorns birthed since 2003 exist outside of Northern California’s technology Valhalla.
But not to worry, Silicon Valley people: We did the math, and 37% is still the biggest slice of the pie by far.
4. Your aren't necessarily turning a profit
As privately held companies, unicorns don’t have to make a profit — and most probably don’t; they merely have to map out a plausible path to profitability while they’re burning through massive wads of investor cash.
Yes, it sounds magical. If you think your company can make a case for itself earning a heap of cash someday, you may indeed ride the wild unicorn.
5. You feel like you've been waiting for Santa FOREVER
Even after becoming a unicorn, it takes companies an average of seven years until a “liquidity event,” according to a TechCrunch report.
They also remind us that you’ve got to spend millions to make those possible billions. Consumer-oriented unicorns were worth on average 11 times what they raised in actual funding (though some like YouTube, FitBit, and WhatsApp were worth 100 times the private capital they raised).
The moral of the story: Take a breath, and take your time. Becoming a unicorn superfast may have worked for Zenefits, but it’s not the norm.
6. This guy's been hanging around at your company
One of the best ways to get your unicorn on is to get bought by Facebook. Just ask Instagram, WhatsApp, and Oculus VR, which were all validated by Mark Zuckerberg’s multi-billion-dollar checkbook. It’s not surprising that Zuckerberg knows a thing or three about unicorning — Facebook is a whale and a former unicorn, which would make it a narwhal. Nice.
7. Or maybe it's this guy
Similarly to Mr. Z’s wild buying ride above, getting bought out by big tech firms — as happened for Nest, Beats, and Tumblr — is one way to cement your unicorn bona fides. So if you start hearing about big companies sniffing around your company, you could be joining the club.
In the end, the math is simple: If someone pays more than a billion for your company, you’re worth more than a billion. Then you’ve earned your horn, no doubt about it.
8. Your founder hasn't fled
If your company has kept its founder as CEO (e.g., Facebook and Zuckerberg) that’s a good sign for your unicorn possibilities. Because, as Fortune notes, “The overwhelming majority of billion-dollar tech companies are still run by their founders.”
9. Your founders are still speaking to each other
Even better than having a company founder as your CEO is having two or three founding members (like the guys here from Google) sticking around in an executive capacity. That’s because stability means a lot to investors, and keeping investors happy is job number one in how to unicorn. Speaking of money…
10. Bunches of folks are visiting from this street
Once upon a time, up-and-coming companies could rely on one or two deep-pocketed angel investors to shepherd them to the promised land of profitability and a massive IPO. But times have changed, and so have investing habits, fueled in part by lax financial regulations that make it easier for small businesses to take on more investors.
Companies are wise to diversify, and the hedge fund fat cats and other venture capitalists are doing likewise — often spreading their rapidly accruing wealth to many companies simultaneously. So if you see a large parade of smiling investors traipsing in and out of your company, you could soon be riding the unicorn.
11. Your boss is on a first-name basis with one of 35 specific VCs
Clearly the folks you need to know to breed unicorns are tech sector venture capitalists. It’s a big, big business with a fairly small universe of players. According to CB Insights, Sequoia Capital has invested in the most US unicorns: 13. But several other firms have done nearly as well, including Accel Partners, Kleiner Perkins, SV Angel, T. Rowe Price and Goldman Sachs. In fact, 35 companies have each financed at least three unicorns.
12. Your company is scaring people
Disruption is the buzzword that just won’t stop buzzing. And why should it, after Uber disrupted the taxi business on the way to a $51 billion valuation, and Airbnb disrupted the hotel business to the tune of $25 billion?
Needless to say, if your company is disrupting a profitable industry or niche, or may do so, you have the potential to become one of the children of the ‘corn.
13. Your friends all want what your company makes
Raising a unicorn isn’t just smoke and mirrors. All the hype in the world can’t turn nothing into something. Whether you’re a long-established business like individual coffee maker Keurig or a relative newbie like fantasy sports upstarts DraftKings and FanDuel, having a unique and desirable product or service is one of the boxes that simply must be checked to join the billion-dollar club.
14. Your company has some sweet perks
Companies that go the distance value their employees’ quality of life, even if startups sometimes demand long hours building sweat equity. VCs know all this, and value that kind of dynamic.
Google is famous for its free food and bowling alley, while Cisco’s employee gym offers physical therapy and acupuncture. If your company only favors those pay-by-the-minute massages once a week and Hawaiian shirt Fridays, it might be time to upgrade your job in search of some unicorn-worthy perks.
15. You work at a tech startup
While less than one-tenth of 1% of startups become unicorns (private companies valued at $1 billion and above), almost all of them are tech companies. So, if you work for a newish tech firm, you may be holding the golden ticket.
Still, startups become unicorns much more often than established firms because of how the venture capitalists who invest in them determine their value (while simultaneously locking in their own profits).