Unicorns, undercorns and horses: A guide to the nonsense


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It’s been greater than a half-decade since Aileen Lee of Cowboy Ventures kicked off the unicorn craze. Noting in a well-read post for TechCrunch that an fascinating cohort of private corporations value a billion dollars or more was value analyzing, the publish introduced the “unicorn” into its present utilization inside tech.

And then tech itself did the time period a favor, building and financing tons of extra. Now unicorns swarm like fleas, and simply snagging a $1 billion valuation nowadays is one thing that has been done in mere months and is a well known vainness tactic used to juice hiring.


This has now gone on so long that many people in the tech-focused journalism area are sick of claiming the phrase. Kate Clark, Equity co-host and cool person, actually has “I am so sick of the excitement word [sic] ‘unicorn’ ” on her Twitter page. I agree with the sentiment.

However the phrase unicorn is back within the mix, so let’s look at the hubbub.

Booms and busts

The term unicorn shortly turned overused as startups stayed personal longer by pushing IPOs off so long as they might, and the capital world determined it was high quality. Bored capital was pooling in venture coffers where it was itching to be disbursed by the wealthy into the holsters of the privileged. And thus the businesses that in other cycles may need gone public simply didn’t, and the ranks of unicorns multiplied.

The joke’s on us, nevertheless, as we now have used the term on the order of six billion occasions.

Soon the overused “unicorn” moniker was also too small. Decacorns took their very own spot in the pantheon of silly names. A decacorn, in case you’ve led a more exciting life than me and are thus otherwise unfamiliar, is a personal tech company that has racked up a $10 billion valuation. (A centacorn, I suppose, can be value $100 billion?)

What a unicorn is has stretched and bent over time. However regardless of how the phrase has come to be defined in current quarters, most individuals are speaking about tech outlets once they use it. And that’s fairly affordable.

However what tech corporations do very nicely is go up, and go down. And that’s once we wind up on the opposite aspect (tail-end?) of the unicorn debate: All are agreed that the phrase unicorn is beneficial. Not all, nevertheless, agree on what we call a unicorn that has fallen.


We now have two questions: What do you call a unicorn that falls beneath the $1 billion valuation mark. And, relatedly, what do you call a unicorn that ultimately goes public or otherwise exits at a discount to its remaining personal market valuation?

Relating to the main question, there are two definitions that I am aware of.

First, as has come back into the dialogue this week, there’s the concept of an “undercorn.” As Business Insider noted through a blog citationAxios’ Dan Primack might have coined the term. Here, per Ian Sigalow’s post, which quotes the original Dan, is what Primack stated:

When a venture-backed firm breaks via the $1BN valuation mark, we call it a Unicorn. When the same firm falls again under the $1BN threshold, it becomes an Undercorn.

That’s easy sufficient. Nevertheless, Erin Griffith of The New York Times used the phrase just lately in a slightly totally different manner. Here’s her riff:

Unicorns that sell or go public under their final personal valuation are generally known as undercorns.

That’s totally different, because it’s defining undercorns as exited unicorns that lose altitude; that’s totally different than unicorns dropping their unicornyness altogether. Nevertheless, as we’re engaged on defining made-up phrases to describe an financial anomaly brought on by government-determined free cash, we will loosen up slightly and understand that each uses of the phrase undercorn are equally differentiated from zero.

Now I get to speak about myself. I had my own thoughts on what a unicorn that had lost the requisite billion-dollar valuation ought to be referred to as back in 2016. Relating to what a unicorn that had fallen beneath the needed value:

If a unicorn is a horse with a spike, whenever you take the spike off you simply have a horse.

I assumed it was pretty sensible. Nobody else agreed, and thus I have to admit that Primack and Griffith have made fairly a lot more noise with the undercorn phrase, even when they don’t fairly agree on what it means. (Be happy to develop into a partisan of both aspect, as we're lengthy overdue for one thing ineffective and entertaining on the internet.)

Sadly, there are even more unicorn-related terms and phrases in and amidst the tech dialog that we shouldn’t miss.

Exotica and other notes

Returning to Axios, it has a brand new phrase out this yr that’s value holding in our hat. From its February coverage of the venture landscape, I give you the phrase “minotaur:”

The Massive Picture: Meet the minotaurs — our time period for the companies that may be value greater than $1 billion even when the one factor they did was to take the money that they've raised and put it in a checking account.

I needed to hate this, but wound up deciding there are a number of worse phrases that would have been chosen. And as it wasn’t a unicorn-variant, how might I complain?

The only other thing I can recall that fits our activity immediately is something that Jason and I wrote four years in the past in TechCrunch. As a follow-up to our “How To Speak Startup” publish, we wrote the brilliantly titled “How To Speak Startup, Part Deux,” which contained the following definition:

Unicorn — As if metaphors in Silicon Valley couldn’t get more childish.

The joke’s on us, nevertheless, as we have now used the time period on the order of six billion occasions since then. And that’s that, I feel. Now you recognize!