The Life of a Unicorn: How a Startup Becomes Worth $1+ Billion
We examined the top 100 highest valued unicorn companies across the world to understand the funding patterns they share and what exactly makes them so special.9 min read
Startup companies these days may seem like a dime a dozen – until you consider the million and billion dollar valuations that some eventually become. There’s a particular word for this kind of growth: a unicorn. While reaching this apex status is certainly difficult and rare, many of these unicorns have evolved from elusive mythological creatures to household names.
We examined the top 100 highest valued unicorn companies across the world to understand the funding patterns they share, what exactly makes them so special, and how their investment rounds impact their online search rankings. Curious to see what we uncovered? Keep reading to find out.
A Time-Lapse of Funding
Here you can explore information about the top 100 unicorns on our list. The line represents the amount of funding, on average, between rounds of funding. Each individual dot represents a company. You can hover over these points to view the specific funding amount in each round and how long it has been since the last time that company received funding. In addition, we break out the Top 100 Unicorns by industry, which can be explored by clicking on the corresponding tabs.
Funding private companies considered to be unicorns requires more math and analysis than mystics or fairy dust to jettison a business to the top. Allowing other companies or venture capitalist firms to invest in a startup – or even an established business – happens in rounds. While it may seem elementary, these rounds are denoted as A, B, and C series. As one might expect, these codes have meaning beyond their alphabetic nomenclature. Each series refers to the developmental stage and maturity of the company raising the capital – optimizing (series A), building (series B), and scaling (series C). Each round is preceded by a valuation of the company that helps investors understand what percentage of the company their investment is worth.
As can be seen above, the time between funding rounds can vary significantly based on the industry of the company in question. Some companies may go years between rounds of funding, while others wait only a few months.
The top 100 unicorn companies represent a diverse global list. While slightly more than half are located in North America, 40 are located in Asia, and eight are in Europe. Moreover, the valuation of these companies and their rankings indicate more isn’t always necessarily better.
While North America represents the most common location for the top 100 unicorns, the average investment size received by companies in Asia more than doubled that of North America. In fact, where the technology sector is concerned, Asia represents 1 in 5 unicorns around the globe. In part, the success of Asian unicorns is due to the consumers, like those in China, whose middle class continues to grow in both size and wealth. Southeast Asia, specifically, has become a mecca for tech industry startups – many of which have evolved into unicorns themselves.
European companies that ranked among the world’s top 100 unicorns also wielded the power of investment size. While only eight of the 100 brands recognized on this list were located in Europe, their investment amount was nearly 65 percent of North America’s amount (shared by 52 companies). Unicorns from Asia had the highest average rank on the top 100 list, followed by those in North America and Europe.
A Rise to the Top
Having raised over $12 billion since its inception in 2009, Uber hasn’t just revolutionized the concept of transportation or taxi services; they’ve become the No. 1 highest valued unicorn in the world. With a market valuation of more than $68 billion, Uber (as suggested by analysts) uses its acquired funds for two purposes: to help fund their transition into China and India while simultaneously ensuring other financial institutions don’t see any of Uber’s rivals as lucrative investments. While mainstream competitors like Lyft continue to vie for funding opportunities, many of Uber’s small competitors seem to run out of cash fast.
While funding for Uber was lighter between 2009 and 2011, the company received its first investment worth hundreds of millions of dollars from Google Ventures in August 2013 and its first billion dollar investment from Fidelity Investments in June 2014.
Further, 2014 marked a rise in internet searches looking to know more about Uber and its services. Just after its first billion dollar funding round, Uber’s interest score peaked. In 2015, after it was reported Uber took over as the most popular taxi service in key markets, online interest in the unicorn rose dramatically over the course of the year. In early 2017, amid a series of high-profile controversies, Uber’s online search interest remained high throughout – proving once again no press is ever really bad press.
Investments in China
Ant Financial Services Group is considered a form of financial technology and is one of the world’s biggest online financial service companies. Ant Financial may not have as many investments as Uber, but it had a $4.5 billion dollar investment in 2016 in an investment round led by China Construction Bank. It’s also owned by China’s largest online commerce company, Alibaba. Ant Financial is valued at around $60 billion, and money invested into the company is being used to help grow its presence in rural parts of China and promote future globalization efforts.
Following its first fully public investment in April 2016, Ant Financial saw a record high in its online interest score fueled by Google searches that same month. It saw another record spike in its interest score before seeking another $3 billion in debt financing for its international acquisitions and investments. It received another undisclosed investment amount in February 2017.
Ride-Hailing in China
Didi Chuxing, a transportation company based in Beijing, provides ride-hailing services in 400 cities across China. Since its undisclosed funding investment in June 2012, the company has reached a $34 billion valuation. These investments over time have made Didi Chuxing bigger than Uber China and similar competitors like UCAR and Yiado. While several of Didi Chuxing’s investments haven’t identified the amounts or backers, one of the company's biggest investments was led by Apple in June 2016 for $4.5 billion.
This investment from Apple, the first of its kind from the Silicon Valley giant, resulted in a spike in online search interest for Didi Chuxing. In April 2017, Apple CEO Tim Cook described the investment as an opportunity to not only help analyze traffic patterns better but also to better understand the Chinese markets, which Apple has been actively pursuing for years.
More Unicorns in the East
Xiaomi Technology, one of China’s biggest smartphone manufacturers, was considered the world’s most valuable startup in 2014 and has since received a $46 billion valuation. Identified by the company’s global vice president as self-funded, Xiaomi has gone through over six rounds of funding, allocating much of it to other company investments. From the undisclosed amounts it received in 2013 and 2015 to the $1.1 billion invested by a private investor in 2014, Xiaomi Technology has raised at least $1.45 billion since 2010. Early investments into the company came from lead investors Morningside Group and Qiming Venture Partners, while 2015 investments came from Ratan Tata.
Beyond spikes in interest following Xiaomi’s large funding rounds, a giant boost in online searches happened in late 2016 when the company announced efforts to bring its online crowdfunding platform to India; this enabled startups there to raise funds for the consumer electronics they planned to create. In May, the company announced its smartphone, the Redmi 3S, which went on to become the highest selling smartphone on the online market.
Like Uber, Airbnb has had a profound impact on the travel industry and the way people think about renting hotel rooms. It’s considered by some to be a form of disruptive innovation for the impact it has had on established elements of the tourism industry and the introduction of a consumer-to-consumer business that has hindered the performance of the hotel industry. Since its founding in 2008 with an undisclosed investment, Airbnb has received at least $4.4 billion in investments from various contributors, including JPMorgan Chase and CapitalG. In June 2015, Airbnb received its largest round of funding, amounting to $1.5 billion from lead investors General Atlantic, Hillhouse Capital Group, and Tiger Global Management.
Spikes in Google search interest occurred around the same time as Airbnb’s investment rounds but peaked when Airbnb was involved in news stories featuring the company’s battles with city and state regulators looking to limit the availability or presence of Airbnb in their districts. In key markets, Airbnb said the company saved travelers an estimated $12 million during Memorial Day weekend in 2016.
A Data Unicorn
As another California-based technology company, Palantir Technologies specializes in data information software. Founded in 2004 by previous PayPal employees and computer scientists from Stanford, Palantir ranks as our No. 6 unicorn company. The company – having raised more than $2 billion over the course of 18 funding rounds – was valued at $20 billion at the end of 2015. Many of Palantir’s investors were undisclosed, but Akkadian Ventures was a main contributor to the nearly $6 million Palantir received over two funding rounds.
Key jumps in Palantir’s Google search trends included the months following big investments. The company saw an interest spike in March 2014 after a $111 million investment from a private equity firm. Called the most “secretive” unicorn in Silicon Valley, the technology Palantir creates is used to detect patterns in large sums of data and is used by law enforcement and spy agencies. Palantir’s technology is even used to help detect terrorist plots and to spot fraud.
A P2P Unicorn
Over just two rounds of funding, Lufax generated $1.7 billion in investments from six investors. Lufax, which is based in Shanghai, is an online marketplace for establishing and trading financial assets. Although founded in 2011, Lufax’s first round of funding was led by BlackPine Private Equity Partners in April 2015 for $485 million. The financial technology company – valued at $19 billion during its last round of funding in 2016 – has been growing faster than anticipated.
This popular banking method, which is focused on peer-to-peer (P2P) lending, has been called a “quiet revolution” by some. Lufax’s valuation nearly doubled between 2015 and 2016, rising from nearly $10 billion to the current valuation of $19 billion. In early 2015, Lufax saw its largest Google search score increase when it was listed as one of the world’s fastest growing P2P lending firms.
A Unicorn of All Trades
Meituan-Dianping, a mobile internet company based out of Shanghai, is another top 10 global unicorn in China. Meituan-Dianping, which was founded in 2003, was the very first website to allow consumers to leave reviews on local services. Considered an O2O (online-to-offline) platform, Meituan-Dianping is the leading O2O site in China. Having received more than $4 billion over eight rounds of funding since 2006, Meituan-Dianping is valued at $18 billion today.
Meituan-Dianping’s services evolved into a Groupon competitor, and as of 2016, it was China’s largest group deals website. While still hugely popular, Meituan-Dianping’s search interest scores peaked between 2009 and 2012. Today, Meituan-Dianping is expanding its products to include travel and ride-hailing services.
A Unicorn in the Big Apple
WeWork, which was founded in 2010, is a New York-based company that provides communal office spaces for professionals looking to escape the traditional office environment. Having scored $4.69 billion over 11 rounds of funding, SoftBank invested more than $3 billion in February 2017 alone. WeWork is currently valued at $15 billion.
Google search interest on WeWork has increased significantly since 2014 and peaked in the months following large investments like those in February 2017. As WeWork potential IPO continues to grow, so does its online search capacity. With a new CTO in May 2017 and critical response that they may be the most overvalued company in the world, WeWork’s online search presence was at its peak as of May 2017.
The Final Frontier for Unicorns
SpaceX, or the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, was founded in 2002 and is led by Tesla’s Elon Musk. The company is working on developing reusable spacecraft vehicles out of Hawthorne, California. While it may seem like a very niche business model, the company has managed to raise $1.5 billion over seven rounds of funding from 11 investors.
While it probably isn’t looking to take over NASA, SpaceX’s search trends have only been increasing since founding in June of 2002. In February 2017, it announced plans to send two customers (costing upward of $300 million) on a space trip to the moon in 2018. Perhaps to create competition with Mr. Musk’s venture, Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin Group seems to have promised the same thing with a very similar timeline.
Change the Way You Do Legal
Our study of the top 100 global unicorns revealed patterns in how their funding, average months elapsed between fundings, and some of their Google search trends all intertwined, contributing to their legendary status. While some of these businesses may seem unfamiliar, others have revolutionized the industries they call their own.
Industry averages regarding timelines, the amount of funding, and rounds of funding were all compiled using aggregate data from Craft.co. Only the top 100 highest valued unicorns as of May 2017 were considered, and only publicly disclosed funding amounts and dates were analyzed.