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No-nonsense perspectives on startup growth

This article was published on May 1, 2020

It’s time we outgrew our fairytale fascination with tech unicorns

We have to change our focus

It’s time we outgrew our fairytale fascination with tech unicorns
John Gallagher
Story by

John Gallagher

CEO, Element SaaS Finance

John trained with Mazars Ireland, thereafter moving to Irelandia Investments, the investment vehicle for the Ryan Family where he was the He John trained with Mazars Ireland, thereafter moving to Irelandia Investments, the investment vehicle for the Ryan Family where he was the Head of Finance and Investments. He has undertaken consulting projects for companies involved in a broad range of industries, including a stint as CFO at a B2B SaaS company in Dublin. He is married to Nikki (a yoga teacher) and has two Children. John is interested in all sports, playing golf and rugby himself.

My 8-year-old daughter is certainly a lover of unicorns but even she questions their existence.

In a business sense, a “unicorn” is a privately held startup company valued at over $1 billion which has experienced hyper-growth in a new or evolving market.

Venture capitalists coined the phrase to express the rarity of these companies.

The venture capital investment model is built around the premise of investing in a bunch of companies, one of which they hope will be a unicorn and will go on to reap a large return for investors, making up for the vast majority of their investments which are not successful.

Becoming a unicorn has been seen as a status of success for the last several years. Should this be a goal for every company? If less than 1% achieve this status, what happens to the other 99%? The answer usually isn’t pretty.

What really makes a unicorn

Unicorns have often redefined a market through the use of technology. This gets to the core of what drives the growth of unicorn, they create a new market/segment for themselves.

Unicorns are able to achieve this status by the super growth which follows characteristics such as:

  • Technology-driven market disruptors
  • Huge growth or potential of
  • Aggressive cash burn for the first decade or so,
  • Funded by large investment rounds every 18 months or so,
  • A relentless focus of founders and staff on growth,
  • Amarket space which is so large that the opportunity for investors seems endless — this is why a fair portion are consumer-centric businesses

But… for every unicorn there are hundreds if not thousands of companies that don’t succeed in achieving its goal. This can be particularly detrimental for founders.

Let me give you an example:

Company A raises $20m at a valuation of $100m. To keep growth going, the company needs to spend the $20m pretty fast, so it expands and spends like they haven’t done before, they double staff in the first six months and start doing things that they may not be comfortable doing so in the past. Move on three years, Company A has gone through the $20m in cash and growth has slowed. Investors want an exit and because growth is on a decline they get a valuation at $50m — Uh Oh — investors preference (first right to money back) now kicks in and founders see very little of the value.

The outcome? The company gets sold, founders are now out of a job, and haven’t made enough money to start another business. They are now applying for jobs!

Success comes in many forms

What does success look like for founders: Is it building a unicorn? Maybe for some. Others might have a goal to achieve an IPO, some have a goal of building a business which is the number one in their category, their country, or something else. For some, it is to provide jobs, earn money, and give back to society.

Aligning goals and success metrics is critical for companies. Success can be achieved in different ways:

  • 1) Consistent, long-term growth which takes years to build and is less risky
  • 2) Fast-paced, high-pressured growth, including investment which dilutes control and has a low chance to succeed (think one in a thousand unicorns)
  • 3) Or; take a sustainable growth approach which has an exponentially higher chance of getting there, take some strategic investment funds and have a well-thought plan to deliver the results

Which one of these is the most likely to yield positive results for the stakeholders?

Could Company A have had a better exit for founders than the example given above?

If they had taken a different approach, they may have ended up keeping more equity in their company and control of their direction.

They may have ended up with a similar-sized company but they still own and control the company.

If they decide to sell, they become wealthy individuals.

In my opinion, number 3 is fundamentally the best-proven way to grow any business in any sector in any decade over the last 100 years, if you fancy your chances of succeeding and returning money to founders and investors.

If it is a land grab and you need first-mover advantage then number 2 could be a good option to get to scale quickly.

Looks may be deceiving

Unicorns are very eye-catching and we all love to read about them.

I followed the drama surrounding WeWork with fascination, with the founder walking off with several hundred million dollars, an extremely rare outcome for a founder whose investors are in the red.

Was there a different way to build the company which would have seen real value built for all involved?

I certainly think so. Sustainable growth and keeping control of your company has a much higher likelihood of success for founders.

Dreaming big is certainly a powerful mindset for entrepreneurs, but keeping your feet on the ground is also important for those who want to build businesses that will have a high chance of lasting more than a few funding rounds.

Maybe learn to ride a horse like my daughter, instead of dreaming of unicorns.

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