Unicorn companies

Do startups dream of unicorns?

Employment Business

Unicorn companies are those that reach a valuation of $1 billion without being listed on the stock market and are the dream of any tech startup. What factors play a role in the success of these companies? Which are the most valuable in the world? We answer these and other questions below.

The concept of the unicorn startup was created by Aileen Lee, founder of Cowboy Ventures, in 2013.
The concept of the unicorn startup was created by Aileen Lee, founder of Cowboy Ventures, in 2013.

Rick Deckard, central character of the film Blade Runner (1982), daydreamed about a unicorn galloping through the forest. This dream released — and still does — rivers of ink amongst cinema buffs about the multiple interpretations of the true nature of Deckard: human or replicant? Unicorns also feature today in the dreams of millions of entrepreneurs the world over. Why? The answer is in a term coined by Aileen Lee in 2013: unicorn startup. This is the expression the founder of Cowboy Ventures used to refer to those technology businesses that achieve a worth of 1 billion dollars without being quoted on the Stock Exchange.

The classic unicorn company in the business world was born almost a decade before Lee's idea and is non other than Facebook. In fact, the US company outstripped the unicorn concept and was labelled a super-unicorn — a term reserved for those worth in excess of 100 billion dollars. When Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook together with Eduardo Saverin, Andrew McCollum, Dustin Moskovitz and Chris Hughes, he was only 20 and that — the insulting youth of its founders — is one of the defining characteristics for most of these unicorn companies. What's more, 90% of the founders of these companies share a common past, either academic or professional.


Unicorn startups, like Deckard's unicorn, also release rivers of ink. Entrepreneurs wonder about the keys to achieving success on such a grand scale, but drawing up a street map for creating unicorn companies is quite a challenge. Many factors are involved in the success or failure of a startup, but, in the absence of miracle formulae, it is nevertheless possible to provide a series of common pointers:

 Social media are a great ally: they use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. to help get their message across. This is how they succeed in amplifying their message and impacting on their target audience — for a much lower investment than, say, through television, thanks to segmentation.

 The customer always at the fore: they employ a consumer centric business strategy. In other words, they have the customer in mind before (ideation), during (manufacture), and after (after-sales). User experience is the key. At one time only the product used to matter. Now the buying experience is equally or more important.

 Global and rapid expansion: good startups begin life with a global mentality and follow a get big fast strategy in order to, as the name suggests, get big as quickly as possible. Going all out for internationalisation and having a scalable model are fundamental to achieving both these objectives.

 Wide-ranging team: they are multi-discipline and multi-cultural organisations. Consequently, they benefit from very mixed professional profiles and this diversity is one of their strengths when it comes to producing disruptive ideas. Moreover, they are young companies that value talent and creativity.

 Uncertainty as part of the daily routine: the line between success and failure is a very thin one. These types of businesses are well aware of that fact, so they learn to take the rough with the smooth and develop a special resilience.


Unicorns are scarce and difficult to find. Something similar happens with these kinds of startups. In January 2019, according to data from CB Insights, there were only 310 in the entire world. Below, we list the 10 most highly valued:

  • Toutiao - Bytedance (China): news platform with customised content.
  • Uber (U.S.): mobile taxi app.
  • Didi Chuxing (China): vehicle hire company.
  • WeWork (U.S.): job sharing company.
  • Airbnb (U.S.): holiday and tourist accommodation platform.
  • SpaceX (U.S.): aerospace transportation company.
  • Palantir Technologies (U.S.): big data analysis specialists.
  • Stripe (U.S.): company that allows individuals and businesses to receive payments via the Internet.
  • JUUL Labs (U.S.): electronic cigarette company.
  • Epic Games (U.S.): video games company. E.g. Fortnite.

Unicorn businesses in detail

There are


in the world

Their total value comes to


billion dollars

‘Startups’ the world's most valuable

(China) 75B

(US) 72B

Didi Chuxing
(China) 56B

(US) 47B

(US) 29.3B

Unicorn markets

Internet software




Financial Tech


Health Care


On-demand services


Countries with most unicorns



South Korea




Great Britain






Source: CB Insights (figures updated January 2019).


​​​​​​​  SEE INFOGRAPHIC: Unicorn businesses in detail [PDF] External link, opens in new window.

The 19 businesses that top this list are valued at over 10 billion dollars, so they are known as decacorn startups. Toutiao (China), Uber (U.S) and Didi Chuxing (China), the first three, are valued at 75, 72 and 56 billion dollars respectively. As for the markets they operate in, we find companies dedicated to 3D printing, big data, biotechnology, cybersecurity, e-commerce, fintech, hardware, software, robotics, etc. All these technology startups prove that dreams come true.

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