Unicorns, undercorns and horses: A guide to the nonsense

It’s been more than a half-decade since Aileen Lee of Cowboy Ventures kicked off the unicorn craze. Noting in a well-read post for TechCrunch that an interesting cohort of private companies worth a billion dollars or more was worth examining, the post brought the “unicorn” into its current usage inside of tech.

And then tech itself did the term a favor, building and financing hundreds more. Now unicorns swarm like fleas, and simply snagging a $1 billion valuation these days is something that has been done in mere months and is a well-known vanity tactic used to juice hiring.

Anyway.

This has now gone on so long that many of us in the tech-focused journalism space are sick of saying the word. Kate Clark, Equity co-host and cool person, literally has “I am so sick of the buzz word [sic] ‘unicorn’ ” on her Twitter page. I agree with the sentiment.

But the phrase unicorn is back in the mix, so let’s examine the hubbub.

Booms and busts

The term unicorn quickly became overused as startups stayed private longer by pushing IPOs off as long as they could, and the capital world decided it was fine. Bored capital was pooling in venture coffers where it was itching to be disbursed by the wealthy into the holsters of the privileged. And thus the companies that in other cycles might have gone public simply didn’t, and the ranks of unicorns multiplied.

The joke’s on us, however, as we have used the term on the order of six billion times.

Soon the overused “unicorn” moniker was also too small. Decacorns took their own spot in the pantheon of silly names. A decacorn, in case you’ve led a more exciting life than me and are thus otherwise unfamiliar, is a private tech company that has racked up a $10 billion valuation. (A centacorn, I suppose, would be worth $100 billion?)

What a unicorn is has stretched and bent over time. But regardless of how the phrase has come to be defined in recent quarters, most people are talking about tech shops when they use it. And that’s pretty reasonable.

But what tech companies do very well is go up, and go down. And that’s when we wind up on the other side (tail-end?) of the unicorn debate: All are agreed that the phrase unicorn is useful. Not all, however, agree on what we call a unicorn that has …read more