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A term that describes a privately-owned startup with a valuation of over $1 billion

What is a Unicorn?

In finance, a unicorn is a term that describes a privately-owned startup with a valuation of over $1 billion. The term was introduced by venture capital investor Aileen Lee in 2013 to describe rare tech startups that were valued at more than $1 billion.




The phenomenon of unicorns is quite controversial. Although some professionals believe that such companies are just a result of technological progress and innovation, others believe that the increasing number of unicorns is a sign of a bubble in the industry.


Valuation of Unicorns

The valuation of unicorns is derived from the valuations developed by venture capitalists and investors who participated in the financing rounds of the companies. Since all unicorns are startups, their value is primarily based on its growth potential and expected development. The unicorns’ valuation is not strongly related to their actual financial performance and other fundamental data. Note that despite their abnormal valuations, many of the companies do not generate any profits yet.

Valuing unicorns is a sophisticated process that involves the consideration of different factors and the development of long-term forecasts. Additional complications arise due to the business model of the companies. Some companies become the first in their industry that makes the valuation process even more complicated.

Listed below are the top ten unicorns in the world according to total valuation, as of November 2018 (source):


Top 10 Unicorns
Figures in US$ billion


Reasons for the Abnormal Valuation of Unicorns

The unicorns’ abnormal valuations are generally justified by the following reasons:


1. Fast-growing strategy

Nowadays, venture capitalists primarily rely on fast-growing strategies for the startup’s development. Such strategies encourage investing large amounts of money in every round of financing in order to capture the biggest possible market share as soon as possible, as well as to prevent the emergence of major rivals in the market. Therefore, the company’s valuation skyrockets every next round of financing.


2. Buyouts

Currently, many promising startups do not meet the requirements for an IPO. Instead, tech giants such as Facebook or Google acquire the startups to diversify their business. Large companies benefit from the deals because they are able to acquire developed technologies instead of building something similar from scratch. The intense competition among the tech giants causes them to offer a significant premium that boosts the valuation of the target companies.


3. Innovations

Innovations in technologies allow the faster growth of startups. By leveraging the new technologies, the startups manage to reach their customers faster and shorten the time to achieve the mass production.


Additional Resources

CFI offers the Financial Modeling & Valuation Analyst (FMVA)™ certification program for those looking to take their careers to the next level. To keep learning and advancing your career, the following resources will be helpful:

  • Angel Investor
  • Corporate Venturing
  • Equity Crowdfunding
  • Seed Financing

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