A Decade of Unicorns: Aileen Lee’s Term for $1 Billion Startups

The term “unicorn” was coined by Aileen Lee, founder of Cowboy Ventures, in reference to startups that achieved a valuation of $1 billion without being publicly traded. Initially, there were only 39 startups on this prestigious list, but over the past decade, the number has surged to more than 500, highlighting the growing prominence of highly valued private companies in the tech sector.

Achieving unicorn status is a coveted goal for many tech entrepreneurs, and while there is no one-size-fits-all formula for success, certain common factors contribute to the ascent of these companies. Leveraging social media has proven to be a crucial strategy for unicorns, enabling them to amplify their message and connect with their target audience cost-effectively.

Furthermore, adopting a consumer-centric business strategy is a key hallmark of unicorn companies. This approach prioritizes the customer at every stage, from ideation and manufacturing to after-sales support. Emphasizing user experience has become just as important, if not more so, than the quality of the product itself.

Unicorn startups often embrace a global and rapid expansion strategy, aiming to become significant players on the international stage quickly. This global mindset, coupled with a scalable business model, contributes to their rapid growth. Diverse teams with multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural backgrounds are also a common characteristic, fostering innovation and creativity.

Another distinguishing feature of unicorn companies is their ability to navigate uncertainty and adversity. The thin line between success and failure necessitates a special resilience, and these startups learn to adapt and thrive in dynamic environments.

While unicorns are relatively rare and challenging to find, they represent a diverse array of industries. As of January 2019, some of the most valuable unicorn businesses included Toutiao – Bytedance (China), Uber (U.S.), Didi Chuxing (China), WeWork (U.S.), Airbnb (U.S.), SpaceX (U.S.), Palantir Technologies (U.S.), Stripe (U.S.), JUUL Labs (U.S.), and Epic Games (U.S.). These companies span sectors such as news, transportation, shared workspace, accommodation, aerospace, data analysis, fintech, e-cigarettes, and video games, showcasing the breadth of innovation in the unicorn landscape.