Variously mythical or hard to obtain, a unicorn is often used as a byword to describe something so rare that it has incredible value.
That’s why, back in 2013, American venture capitalist Aileen Lee first used the term “unicorn” in a now-famous blog post, to describe a start-up tech company with a value of $1bn or over.
Lee was right about the exceptionalism of these companies ten years ago. As 2013 closed out, there were 43 unicorns. At the end of 2014 there were 80, and at year-end in 2015 there were 141 unicorns.
These days? A unicorn tech company isn’t quite so rare a beast. In fact, their numbers now add up to quite a herd. As 2021 ended, CB Insights reported that there were 1,191 companies globally with a validation of over $1bn. 767 companies alone have joined the unicorn club since the start of 2021.
And that doesn’t take into account the unicorns that no longer qualify for the moniker, due to going public – or ceasing to exist. Crunchbase estimates that approximately another 400 unicorn startups have exited including Airbnb, Peloton and Uber.
The US leads the unicorn pack, with 703, also according to Crunchbase. There are a number of reasons why, which include the dominance and importance of Silicon Valley on global tech, the fact that so many venture capital funds are located here, plus access to specialised education – the universities of MIT, Harvard, Berkeley, Stanford and Columbia are the top schools for funded founders.
The UK is the world’s fourth-largest unicorn stable, after the US, India and China. Racking up an impressive 58 at the last quarter of this year, Beauhurst data indicates that 25 UK companies became unicorns in 2021 – the largest concentration of new unicorns to date. Fintech is the sector where the UK dominates too, with 21 unicorns in the industry.
Three quarters of the nation’s unicorn companies are based in London, including all 21 fintech unicorns. In terms of how long it takes for a company to achieve unicorn status, the average unicorn is seven years old when it reaches its billion-dollar valuation.
It’s not all positive news. Unicorns, and tech in general, have a diversity problem. Only 6 per cent of the UK’s unicorns were founded by women, just 7 per cent of founders at Europe’s future unicorns are women, and in the US the picture isn’t too different either: start-ups that were founded by black, latinx or female founders include Calendly, HoneyBook, and Away.
There is evidence that the growth rate of unicorns is falling. CB Insights also reports that as of October, the unicorn club had only grown in size by 1.8 per cent, significantly down from the 9.8 per cent increase seen between the six months between March and July of this year.
Who will be the next unicorns?
The 2022 European Unicorn & Soonicorn Report contains a list of 253 names its authors think have the potential to reach a $1bn valuation within the next 24 months. This includes 73 potential unicorns in the UK and Ireland.
Companies including 10x Banking, Freetrade, Yapily, Flipdish, Railsbank, Plentific, Cloudpay, Butternut Box, Beamery and Monese have all been tipped for future greatness.
Unicorn companies hiring now
If you’d like to work at a unicorn, there is great potential in the space, despite some high-profile wobbles of late. Klarna wiped 85 per cent off its valuation in July in its latest round of fundraising, and there was a similar story at Stripe, where the payments start-up lowered its internal valuation by 28 per cent.
Bytedance is currently the world’s biggest unicorn – in truth it is a decacorn company, with a value of over $10bn. Parent to TikTok, the app now officially has over one billion monthly active users. ByteDance has locations globally and is hiring in London for a variety of business development, payroll, operations and software engineering. Discover all global roles here.
In the fintech space, Checkout.com is a payment gateway, an acquirer and processor which offers a full stack of payments solutions that are built for speed and scale around customers’ unique business needs. Founded as Opus Payments in 2009, it is headquartered in London and is currently seeking candidates for software roles. Discover those here.
Klarna competitor Zilch was founded in 2018 and it fully launched its product out of beta by the end of 2020. Now, it has closed an $160m Series C funding round and is the fastest company in Europe to reach unicorn status, with a valuation of more than $2bn. The company is currently hiring for some IT and software development roles in London.
For more career opportunities across public and private companies, visit the Growth Business job board.