Chasing the Unicorn


Among the various images of venture capitalists, add one more: unicorn chasers. For it turns out that the billion dollar exit that most VCs obsessively stalk may not be mythical, but they are extremely rare.

Seed-stage fund Cowboy Ventures went through the math for the past decade, and found 39 companies valued at over the elusive $1 billion milestone.  These 39 companies equates to about 0.07 percent of venture-backed startups, or one in every 1,538 funded companies (and note that these the companies already successful enough to both raise venture money and avoid the Series A crunch). What are the odds of both raising venture capital and achieving a $1 billion valuation?  As the authors report, “somewhere between catching a foul ball at an MLB game and being struck by lighting.”

Interesting as well, the distributions of unicorn value vary. Facebook itself is worth over $100 billion, while the average in the Unicorn Club (excluding Facebook) is, by comparison, a paltry $3.6 billion.  Every decade has birthed a few Uber Unicorns: The 60’s gave us Intel; the 70’s provided Apple, Oracle and Microsoft, the 80’s begat Cisco, and the 90’s contributed Google and Amazon.  But as the authors note, to catch a Uber Unicorn, you need both a great company and a paradigm shift in industry. As their cogent Unicorn summary points out: 

“The 1960s marked the era of the semiconductor; the 1970s, the birth of the personal computer; the 1980s, a new networked world; the 1990s, the dawn of the modern Internet; and in the 2000s, new social networks were built.”

This chart of recent $1B+ valuations has many familiar names — and a few less well known.  Truth be told, lots of VC’s might be chasing unicorns, but more than a few just end up doing the pony.