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Billion Dollar Unicorns: Reconsider Your Aspirations

Posted on Monday, Jan 11th 2016

In November last year, I read a brilliant piece titled Reconsider by David Heinemeier Hansson, creator of Ruby on Rails, and a partner at Basecamp, a small 50-people collaboration software company. David starts the piece by saying:

It [Basecamp] didn’t disrupt anything. It didn’t add any new members to the three-comma club. It was never a unicorn. Even worse: There are still, after all these years,less than fifty people working at Basecamp. We don’t even have a San Francisco satellite office!

I know what you’re thinking, right? BOOOORING.

After all, in these crazy days of Unicorn mania, what wisdom does a founder of a small, 50-people company full of remote workers serving about 6000 global customers offer you, really?

You are wrong.

Read the piece. It’s a gem.

Well, the reason I’m here is to remind you that maybe, just maybe, you too have a nagging, gagging sense that the current atmosphere of disrupt-o-mania isn’t the only air a startup can breathe. That perhaps this zeal for disruption is not only crowding out other motives for doing a startup, but also can be downright poisonous for everyone here and the rest of the world.

Part of the problem seems to be that nobody these days is content to merely put their dent in the universe. No, they have to fuckingown the universe. It’s not enough to be in the market, they have to dominate it. It’s not enough to serve customers, they have tocapture them.

I love working with customers, adding value, solving problems, learning. For me, this is not a means to an end. It IS why I work. It was refreshing to see David underscore a point of view that is so out of fashion these days, so mercilessly drowned out in the cacophony of Unicorn mania.

Who said that the ultimate success in life is to build a Unicorn company?

I KNOW who said it.

Do you?

VCs said it.

Yes.

Of course.

For the venture capital model, Unicorns are the way to make maximum money. And their job is to make maximum money for their limited partners and themselves.

It is an entirely self-serving point of view served up by a cottage industry of financial services professionals.

As an entrepreneur, why do you buy into it?

That’s the question I want you to reconsider.

That’s the question David is asking you to reconsider.

WHY?

So first you take a lot of money from angels desperate to not miss out on the next big unicorn. Then you take an obscene amount of money from VCs to inflate your top-line growth, to entice the investment bankers that you might be worthy of foisting upon the public markets, eventually, or a suitable tech behemoth.

And every step along this scripted way you will accumulate more bosses. More people with “guidance” for you, about how you can juice the numbers long enough to make it someone else’s problem to keep the air castle in the sky inflated and rising. But of course it isn’t just guidance, once you take the money. It’s a debt owed, with all the nagging reciprocity that comes with it.

Now, if you truly want to become the next fifty-billion dollar Uber in another five years, I guess this game somehow makes sense in its own twisted logic. But it’s more than worth a few moments of your time to reconsider whether that’s really what you want. Or, even more accurately, whether an incredibly unlikely shot at that is what you want.

I don’t like bosses. I enjoy doing exactly what I like with my life. My self-esteem is not tied to making money for a bunch of VCs. If my company makes $10 million a year serving appreciative customers and happy colleagues, it counts as success, not failure, as most VCs would deem such a business.

What is also getting drowned out in this chorus of Unicorn mania is quality of life. VCs deride entrepreneurs who run successful, highly profitable small companies as “lifestyle businesses” as if that’s something to look down on.

I know a lot of VERY rich people VERY well. Excess is not necessarily a source of happiness or fulfillment. Striving for excess at great costs is often a road that leads to unhappy, lonely, dysfunctional lives. Being an asshole in that process leads to even emptier outcomes.

So entrepreneurs, you are being idiots if you are letting a small cottage industry of self-serving financial services professionals define success for you.

Success is building a profitable, sustainable company.

Not a Unicorn.

Entrepreneurship = (Customers + Revenues + Profits); Financing and Exit are optional.

 

This segment is a part in the series : Billion Dollar Unicorns


. How Marketo Is Faring In The Public Market
. Workday's Ramp to Multi-Billion Valuation
. Gaurav Dhillon, Founder of Informatica and SnapLogic (Part 1)
. ServiceNow's Expanding Market Opportunity
. Gaurav Dhillon, Founder of Informatica and SnapLogic (Part 2)
. Gaurav Dhillon, Founder of Informatica and SnapLogic (Part 3)
. Gaurav Dhillon, Founder of Informatica and SnapLogic (Part 4)
. Tableau's Valuation Increases to $6 Billion
. A Rare Media Venture Called Vice
. Gaurav Dhillon, Founder of Informatica and SnapLogic (Part 5)
. Gaurav Dhillon, Founder of Informatica and SnapLogic (Part 6)
. Gaurav Dhillon, Founder of Informatica and SnapLogic (Part 7)
. Will Box Implode Post IPO?
. Net-a-Porter Cracks The Luxury Fashion Market
. Outbrain Prepares for an IPO
. Palantir's Skyrocketing Valuation May Be Justified
. Online Education Player Lynda.com
. Pluralsight's Impressive Rise
. Snapchat Explores Revenue Generating Options
. Analysts Project Revenue for Pinterest
. The Market Awaits Etsy's IPO
. Taboola's Content Marketing Growth
. Egnyte Eyes IPO in 18 Months
. Web 3.0 and E-Commerce Investment Thesis of 3 VCs
. Cleversafe's Unique IP Strategy
. Cloud Investment Thesis of 5 VCs
. GoDaddy Shying Away from IPO, Yet Again
. Can Square Sustain Its Valuation?
. Zulily Tumbles
. MuleSoft Will Be Joining Soon
. Bootstrap First, Raise Money Later
. ShopClues in India Shows Unicorn Characteristics
. What Have You Learned?
. ASOS Shines From London
. Xiaomi Overtakes Samsung in China
. eClinicalWorks Bootstraps With A Paycheck
. Strategies From 5 Entrepreneurs
. Lending Club Focuses on Growth Post IPO
. Slack Speeds Its Way To The Mark
. Eventbrite Shies Away from an IPO
. Meituan Leads China's Group Buying Market
. Gilt Groupe Delays IPO
. Veeam Wants To Stay Private
. Nextdoor's Valuation Skyrocketing With No Sign of Revenues
. Stripe Exploring Tie-Ups for Growth
. HubSpot Sustains Solid Growth Post IPO
. Shazam Makes it to the Club
. OnDeck Scoring in Small Businesses Instant Loans
. Fat Startup Adaptive Insights Leading in Cloud CPM
. Cloudera Leverages Open-Source Hadoop to Create a Multi-Billion Dollar Business
. Evernote Cracks the Freemium Model
. Rocket Fuel Crashes on Results
. MongoDB Rises High on NoSQL Databases
. Shopify Preparing for an IPO
. JustFab Getting Ready for an IPO
. Kabam to Stay Private?
. Adyen Bootstraps to Multi-Billion Valuations
. RetailMeNot Worries About Mobile Monetization
. Elance-oDesk Taking on the Freelance World
. Farfetch Connecting Designers with Consumers
. The Impressive Story of Airpush
. athenahealth Enters the EHR Market
. Privalia Dominates the Latin America Markets
. Niche E-Commerce Works for Fanatics
. Powa Puts London on the Map
. RealReal Shows How to Consign Luxury Products
. Vancl On A Roller Coaster Ride
. Didi Dache is China's Uber
. Dafiti Leading E-Commerce in Latin America
. ServiceNow Expands Addressable Market
. Flipboard Focuses on Monetization
. Hootsuite Eyes an IPO
. GoodData Riding High on Big Data Analytics Market Growth
. Cheetah Mobile Part Of Chinese Contingent
. Hortonworks Needs To Deliver Results
. Clarabridge Wins by Analyzing Customer Sentiment
. Tableau Continues its Precise Execution
. Will Cloudera Sustain $5 Billion Valuation Post IPO?
. Freshdesk is a Prospect
. InMobi Wants to IPO in India
. Zendesk Targets the Live Chat Market
. New Relic Getting Ready to Battle with Microsoft
. Twilio is Revolutionizing Telecommunications
. Funding Circle is UK's Latest Entry to the Club
. Luxury Retailer Moda Operandi on the Club's Runway
. Splunk is Now Targeting the SMB Segment
. Capital-Efficient StartApp Is A Prospect
. AppNexus In The IPO 2015 Pipeline
. Druva Poised to Produce an Indian Unicorn
. MapR Readies IPO
. Lookout Getting Ready for an IPO
. Anaplan Gets Ready to Enter the Club
. Blue Apron Simplifies DIY Gourmet Cooking
. GoFundMe Bootstraps till the Half-Way Point
. Containers Gives Docker Entry into the Club
. Can Kaltura Be A Public Unicorn?
. The Ride-Sharing Industry Continues to Deliver Unjustifiable Valuations
. MarkLogic Making Waves in Enterprise NoSQL
. CloudFlare Offers Website Security over the Cloud
. Mixpanel Provides Advanced Analytics for SMBs
. Spotify Gearing up to Face Apple Music
. Auction.com in Expansion Mode
. Nutanix Gives VMWare Tough Competition
. Houzz Bootstraps in a Niche Space to Join the Club
. Rapid7 Delivers a Successful IPO
. Coinbase Tries To Capitalize on BitCoins
. Expect Acquisitions From ServiceNow
. Zendesk and Freshdesk in Expansion Mode
. Zulily Attempts to Make a Turnaround
. Etsy Continues to Fumble
. Lufax May be Risky, But Valuations Remain Lofty
. Will IBM Acquire FireEye?
. Mode Media Takes on Video Streaming
. New Relic Moves Deeper into Enterprise
. Delivery Hero Gets Multi-Billion Dollar Valuation for Food Delivery
. Splunk Beefs Up Cyber Security
. Garena Secures Singapore's Entry to the Club
. Dianping is Thriving in China with its Local Reviews Business
. Box Struggles in its Public Avatar
. Coupang Raises the Banner for South Korea
. InsideSales.com Bootstraps First, Raises Money Later
. Pinterest Eyes E-Commerce
. Klarna Takes the Risk out of E-Commerce
. VNG Grows While Remaining Focused on Vietnam
. Good, Bad and Ugly
. Sprinklr Rolls up Social Media Management Software Before IPO
. ContextLogic Marries Wish Lists to Vendors
. Beepi Disintermediates Used Car Dealerships
. Snapchat Experiments With Revenues
. Tanium Simplifies Cyber Security
. Avant is Revolutionizing Consumer Credit
. Adyen is on a Roll
. Apttus Ready for IPO
. ZScaler Takes Security to the Cloud
. Bullhorn is in the Making
. Sogou a Unicorn, But Yet to Find its Mojo
. Evernote Trying to Recover Lost Ground
. Modernizing Medicine Is A Prospect
. Instacart Looks Shaky
. Mogujie's E-Commerce Pivot Pays Off
. Zalando Takes the Lead in European Etail
. BlaBlaCar Expands Internationally with Acquisitions
. Square Files for IPO Below Last Round of Financing
. Secretive Infinidat Makes its Way to the Club
. FanDuel Creates a Billion Dollar Company out of Fantasy Sports
. Kabbage Latest Unicorn in Slowing Online Lending Sector
. Atlassian Now Prepping for a US Listing
. Match.com Looking to Court the Stock Market Now
. Ele.Me Shows Online-2-Offline Works
. Alteryx is a Prospect
. Machine Zone Translates Multi-Player Games to Multi-Billion Valuation
. ZocDoc Should Be Able To Withstand Public Market Scrutiny
. Thumbtack Joins the Ranks
. Beibei the Baby of the Club
. Online Lender SoFi Puts Off IPO Plans
. Warby Parker Joins the Club
. DraftKings Looks Worried as Fantasy Sports Come Under Scrutiny
. Tujia Offers Vacation Rentals in China
. Hortonworks Struggles to Stay in the Club
. Atlassian, A Legitimate One, Delivers A Great IPO
. Reconsider Your Aspirations
. Will Docker Sustain?
. Veeva Delivers Strong Fundamentals
. OfferUp Still Needs to Figure out Revenue Model
. Mozido Delivers Mobile Payment to Non-Banking Customers
. SimpliVity a Prospect
. WePiao Succeeds in Online Ticketing in China
. Uptake Joins the Club
. For Magic Leap, Unicorn Status No Longer Virtual
. Udacity Leans on Industry Giants for Monetization
. ForeScout Does Not Want To Go Public Yet
. ShopClues Joins the Club
. Age of Learning Monetizing in Educational Apps
. Square Post Its IPO
. Decolar is the Latin American Entry to the Club
. Japan's Mercari Joins the Club
. Yello Mobile Acquires its Way into the Club
. TutorGroup Enters the Club
. Souq.com the Middle East Entry to the Club
. WeWork Riding the Sharing Economy Wave
. Moderna Therapeutics A Promising, Unproven Bet
. GitHub Faces Growing Pains
. Africa Internet Group the First African Entry to the Club
. Paytm Plans Rapid Expansion
. Oscar Plans to Expand Its Network
. Razer Leads the Gaming Accessory Market
. GuaHao Targets China's Healthcare
. AUTO1 Group Plans International Expansion
. TransferWise Makes Money Transfer Simpler and Cheaper
. Ping An Good Doctor Is Largest Chinese Healthcare Unicorn
. MindMaze Channels Virtual Reality into Healing
. Driverless Car Startup Zoox Joins The Club
. Cylance Uses Machine Learning as Cyber Security Tool
. SMS Assist Brings a Lackluster Industry to the Club
. Unity Technologies a Strong VR Gaming Bet
. Square Eyeing Large Sellers
. Airbnb Continues to Soar
. Xiaohongshu Leverages Social Commerce to Join the Club
. iCarbonX Wants to Create a Digital You
. Liepin, China's Homegrown Recruitment Platform
. Hike is the Latest Entrant from India
. Go-Jek Hails its Way into the Club
. Quanergy Rides Into the Club
. Aiwujiwu Rides High on Chinese Real Estate Sector
. Zeta Interactive Counts on Inorganic Growth
. Line Delivers a Successful IPO
. Grab from Singapore is the Next Big One
. Didi Chuxing Monopolizing Chinese Ride-Sharing Market?
. Blippar Bets on Its Visual Browser
. Two Years Post the IPO, Globant Continues to Soar
. Nutanix Delivers a Strong Performance in the First Week of Listing
. Coupa Has a Successful IPO
. Online-to-Offline Focus Helps Huimin Enter the Club
. Real Estate Platform Compass Joins the Club
. LeSports Cashes in on Niche Video Streaming
. Flipkart's Valuation Bodes Unsteady Future
. Russian Avito Gearing up to go Public
. Guazi Leading the Chinese Online Used Car Market
. Slack Delays IPO to Next Year
. Sprinklr Acquiring to take on Big Brands
. Infor Accumulates ERP Providers to Build an Empire
. Royole Corporation Flexes its Way into the Club
. Rong360.com Joins the Club
. Stripe’s Skyrocketing Valuation
. Hulu Gears up to Stream Cable
. Nutanix Delivers Upbeat Performance, Stock Still Down
. Procore Joins the Club
. JetSmarter Flies Into the Club
. Opendoor Labs Opens the Door to the Club
. Neo Technology Takes Databases to the Next Level
. Kabam Struggles to Stay Alive
. Careem is the Latest Middle East Unicorn
. Huochebang is the Uber of Trucks in China
. SimpliVity Exits in HPE's Arms
. Kendra Scott Shows that Women CAN Build Unicorns
. Zhihu Imitates Quora to Build a Valuation Without Revenue Company
. Putting Flipkart's Struggles in Perspective
. BlackLine Continues to Grow Post IPO
. Global Switch Wants to be Leader in Data Centers
. AppDynamics Sold Before IPO
. MuleSoft Delivers Successful IPO
. Alteryx has a Successful IPO
. Airbnb is in no Rush to IPO
. Actifio Focuses on Profitability, not IPO
. In Uptake, Groupon Founder Shows He Has Learnt His Lesson
. Will Cisco buy Nutanix?
. Zoom Video Communications Enters the Club
. C3 IoT Joins the Club
. Robinhood Joins the Club
. Veeva Systems Executes Systematically
. Modernizing Medicine Crosses $100 Million Revenue Threshold
. Stripe is in no Rush to List
. Cloudera Fails to Keep the Market Happy
. Stitch Fix Delivers a Surprisingly Fresh Take on Shopping for Fashion
. Bill.com Has Scaled Quietly
. Toutiao Snags a Big Round, But Growth and Revenues Remain Tricky
. Taboola and Outbrain Exploring a Merger
. Looker Counts on Big Data Analytics
. Katerra Tackles the Construction Industry with Technology
. Peloton Cycles Into the Club
. Yello Mobile Delays IPO
. Kuaishou to Focus on AI
. Garena Files Privately in New Avatar
. Clover Health Reaches Milestone Valuation
. Careem Focused on MENA
. DraftKings Faces Hurdles
. Sales AI Startup Afiniti Considering IPO
. Ticket Monster To Invest In Groceries
. Yext Makes it to the Club and on the Exchange

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