Fastest Unicorn Companies

Which Current Unicorn Companies Reached $1 Billion the Fastest?

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the unicorn club

“A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”

When the movie version of Mark Zuckerberg considers monetizing an early iteration of ‘theFacebook’ in The Social Network, a (fictional) Sean Parker replies with a credo that would dominate real-life business over the next decade.

Blitzscaling became the name of the game. This method of “high-impact entrepreneurship” involves growing as big as possible as fast as possible to squash out the competition. With low overheads and a get-big-fast strategy, digital start-ups began hitting billion-dollar valuations long before it made sense to cash in. And, in 2013, investor Aileen Lee christened these ever more common billion-dollar companies: unicorns.

Like any designer animal, the unicorn comes with troubling genetic tendencies. Aggressive growth does indeed stunt the competition – warping the market and the culture as ideas and opportunities crumble in the unicorn’s wake. The “reality distortion field” through which the unicorn convinces investors of their vision is prone to fade, revealing insurmountable obstacles. And for the unicorn itself, growing so big so fast is a strain that causes many to collapse.

Only the tiniest fraction of start-ups will become unicorns. But today’s unicorns have a lot to teach about “efficiently building a viable company that is designed to attract investors and position you for a solid exit on a timetable that works for you” (according to BOSS Capital CEO Greg Shepard). So, ZenBusiness has identified the 959 companies classified as unicorns at the start of 2022 and analyzed their growth according to speed, industry, and the gender of the founding team. We present our findings in an interactive database and a series of graphs and charts below.

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Key Findings

  • The fastest unicorn in our study is AI firm Avant, which was founded in November 2012 and got a billion-dollar valuation in just one month and 16 days.
  • French e-commerce start-up Veepee is the eldest continuing unicorn, reaching a billion-dollar valuation in July 2007.
  • Germany is the country with the quickest average period from foundation to billion-dollar valuation (6 years, 0 months, 9 days; not including countries with <2 unicorns).
  • Auto & Transportation is the sector with the fastest unicorn births: 5.25 years.
  • In the US, the average time from founding to becoming a unicorn is 7 years, 3 months, and 13 days.

The Unicorn That’s Resisted Buyers Since 2007… and the 900 That Came Since

Today’s unicorns have held onto their independence for up to 15 years since hitting 1 billion dollars. The eldest unicorn is Veepee, founded in 2001 and ‘born’ as a unicorn in 2007. Veepee specializes in flash sales of excess clothing supplies and experienced a short-term boom during the abandonment of IRL shops that accompanied the start of the pandemic. 

The company has soared by differentiating itself from sites like Amazon: “Customers surf to those sites because they need something specific,” says founder Jacques-Antoine Granjon. “They come to us to be surprised.”

Several unicorns were founded as companies before Veepee but took a lot longer to achieve unicorn status. Promasidor Holdings was founded in 1979, just four years after Microsoft. But the South African food and drink ‘start-up’ didn’t achieve its billion-dollar valuation until 2016 – just when Microsoft was buying up LinkedIn for $26.2bn, ending the latter’s unicorn status on a high.

Female Founders Lead 66 New Unicorns into 2022

Filter out the men, and our timeline of current unicorns is shocking and encouraging in equal measures. There are no current unicorns from earlier than 2014 that were founded by women (although several earlier unicorns, such as Cloudflare and 23andMe, have since gone public). The number and percentage of female-founded unicorns have risen unevenly since 2014. But it is rising. 

And that number is likely to continue rising. Not just because companies with a female founder perform 63% better than all-male teams but because the ‘male gaze’ on business has been so prevalent for so long that female founders may be better positioned to identify new billion-dollar markets.

Today’s new wave of female unicorn founders (accounting for 66 out of 510 unicorn births in 2021) is predominantly in the fintech or health sector. But the earliest continuing female unicorn founder is Adi Tatarko, CEO of home renovation hub Houzz. By 2020, Houzz was a $4bn global concern, although that didn’t prevent them from laying off 155 people when their core business was affected by the Covid-related renovation slump.

Auto & Transportation Sector Wins Race for Fastest Unicorns

No two industries are exactly alike, and your plan for world domination should be calibrated to the 

sector of your business. Auto/Transport and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are the two quickest routes to a unicorn, averaging between 5.25 and 5.92 years each. The fastest unicorn in our study is AI firm Avant, which was founded in November 2012 and got a billion-dollar valuation before Christmas of that year.

However, in an ever-faster world, Greg Shepard warns that you’ll want to hit the five-year sweet spot when looking to float or sell your tech start-up: “Aim for less than that, and you’ll run too hot and likely wind up selling before your company’s value has peaked; go longer, and you’ll wind up plateauing before you’re able to secure a suitable exit.”

Germany the Unicorn Hub with the Quickest Incubation Time

There is significant variation in the average time to ‘go unicorn’ from one country to another. However, it is worth noting that some of the outlying data is connected to countries with few unicorns from which to deduce an average. For example, Nigeria and Senegal have only one (very fast) unicorn each, and South Africa has two – one of which took nearly 28 years to hit a billion. Countries with more than 10 unicorns have a 6-11-year average incubation period.

Out of the countries that have more than a couple of unicorns, Germany has the fastest average unicorn birth at six years, nine days. We found 25 German unicorns, with the biggest being fintech start-up N26, currently valued at $9.23 billion. The mobile bank took five years and 11 months to emerge from the uni-womb.

“I think it’s a question of philosophy,” explains Valentin Stalf, CEO of N26. “Do you trust traditional players to be able to build the greatest digital products? I think what history tells you is that was never the case. No one who has disrupted any industry was a traditional player.”

What’s Cooler Than A Billion Dollars?

So, a billion dollars isn’t cool in itself (sorry, Kendall). In fact, since the profiteering of the pandemic, the unicorn club has become distinctly unfashionable.

Even Sean Parker is quick to distance himself from his fictionalized ‘billionaire’ quote. “It’s not cool,” he told the Financial Times. “I think being a wealthy member of the establishment is the antithesis of cool. Being a countercultural revolutionary is cool.” (At the point of saying this, in 2011, Parker’s Facebook shares alone were worth an uncool $2 billion.)

What is cool is stealing a lesson from entrepreneurs who’ve convinced the market their idea is worth a billion dollars. Building trust and a project you believe in. Disrupting not just the industry but outdated capitalist models and ideals themselves. And, if you’re hoping to make a buck by floating or selling up altogether, knowing when “to take your chips down.”

METHODOLOGY

We pulled a list of all current unicorn companies according to CB Insights on 1st January 2022.

All former unicorns that exited by way of acquisition or IPO are not included in the dataset. Similarly, all former unicorns that dropped below the $1 billion valuation threshold are not covered in this study.

Points to note:

  • A unicorn birth is when the company hits $1bn rather than when it was founded.
  • We defined women-founded unicorns as start-ups with at least one woman on the founder’s team. 
  • We’ve excluded unicorns that exited are no longer private companies because they were acquired or went to IPO.
  • We culled unicorns that have dropped below $1bn since first gaining unicorn status.
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