Valley Voice
Invasion of the unicorns

The term “unicorn” used to describe magical animals. Lately these rare beasts have become synonymous with successful Silicon Valley startups. What’s the point?
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Silicon Valley loves animals. Around the corner where I live a shop sells t-shirts with the label “dogs are the new kids”. Yes, people in San Francisco are lonely. Look at all the cats on the internet. Lately unicorns are becoming increasingly popularity. The name of these mythical animals became the shorthand for startups that show up out of the blue and turn everything upside down.

For a long time these rare beasts were never spotted, although signs of their existence can be found in the legends of ancient Greece, in the paintings of the Renaissance or in pop-culture. From the movies (“The last unicorn”) we also know that these creatures are permanently on the brink of extinction.

Kurz und schmerzhaft: alle Kolumnen

Kolumnenkabinet

Surprisingly enough, unicorns seem to be everywhere today. There is a unicorn invasion in the Valley, with roughly 150 startups having with a valuation of 1 billion dollar or more, including Airbnb ($25 billion), Snapchat ($16 billion) or Uber. It looks as if right now investors will push CEO Travis Kalanick to a valuation between 60 billion and 70 billion dollar. Maybe he will start selling t-shirts.

Imagination fuels the investments as gasoline the truck of Imperator Furiosa. And where else but in the Valley do people actually take the risk to go and see what is out there? But talking about unicorns can be misleading. Investors have to make sure that a startup does not run out of steam, it needs a sustainable business-model. Look what’s happening to Twitter, an ex-unicorn that is about to fall apart because of a management that had too much vision and not enough sense of reality.

Jessica Semaan, entrepreneur and co-founder of a startup, worked with a unicorn. She was an early employee of Airbnb and helped scaling the company’s operations worldwide for four years. Later she decided to co-found her own company Passion Co. that helps entrepreneurs with finding their passion and started an own conference last weekend.

“People in Silicon Valley put too much pressure on their business ideas”, she told me. “It won’t work if you stress out and put all your expectations and all your money just on growth and scaling. Start with a side-project. It’s like dating. If the guy tells you that he wants to marry you on the first date, you’ll just freak out.”

Silicon Valley’s tunnel vision is historic. The first people already started criticizing overrated valuations and talk about the burst of the bubble. So it might be better to not look for unicorns. Don’t save the world, save yourself. Incidentally, that’s a great slogan for a t-shirt.

Es gibt auch eine deutsche Version dieser Kolumne.

Britta Weddeling is a technology journalist with Handelsblatt, Germany's #1 business daily, and Wired, based in San Francisco. She is author of a weekly English tech column called "Valley Voice" and contributes every week to a podcast at a major German radio station (Deutschlandradio,"Was mit Medien").

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