The Growing Blessing of Unicorns: The Changing Nature of the Market for Privately Funded Companies

The past 15 years have seen the emergence of large infusions of private capital at levels previously accessible only in public markets. One direct effect of these non-public fundraisings is the spawning of private entities with market valuations reaching $1 billion, thereby achieving the status of unicorns. As the authors reported in an earlier study, by the end of 2015, there were 142 unicorns with an aggregate value exceeding $500 billion. The conviction of many investors and managers at that time was that these companies could best create value by staying private, often by adopting governance structures focused on creating superior operating performance. It was also widely believed that unicorns would remain outside the public markets longer and succeed in attracting even more private capital, thereby enabling their investors to capture a greater share of the increase in company value.

In this study, the authors examine how the characteristics and dynamics of “the blessing” have changed in the past five years. Despite the widespread view that the valuations and private financing trend fueling this market were not sustainable, the authors report that by March 2020, the “net” number of unicorns had grown from 142 to 464, a number that doesn’t reflect the transformation of over half of the 2015 sample through acquisition or public offering and their replacement by new unicorns. Further, the cumulative market valuation of unicorns more than doubled from $500 billion to $1.37 trillion, representing growth far greater than that in the public equity markets (some 26% per annum, as compared to 9% for the S&P 500) over the same period—and the blessing has become more diversified, both in terms of industry and geographical location.

The authors also consider what happens when unicorns “graduate” to a different organizational form by means of an IPO, private buyout, or business failure. Analyzing the 107 firms that departed the sample between 2015 and 2020, the authors report that the average lifespan of a unicorn from its founding date to its exit date has been 9.5 years, indicating that such firms indeed remain privately owned for a longer time than in the past. Additionally, the study finds that the founders and initial investors in unicorns have fared quite well, cashing out their initial investment at almost six times invested capital, on average. These private investment performance metrics have been significantly higher than the returns to public shareholders in the same firms during the post-IPO period, signifying that unicorn investors have captured much more of the value created in the company’s growth phase than public stockholders.