Silicon Valley has a unicorn problem.
While no one is calling for startups with high valuations to go extinct, there ought to be a lot fewer of them. At least that’s what many young founders have concluded after looking at the trials and travails of billion-plus-dollar private companies.
A unicorn is a mythical animal, so investors expect magical results: Lightning growth, near-monopolies and a record-setter IPO yielding 100x or 1,000x returns. A “zebra” company is different. Zebras are real animals that have evolved to fill and thrive in a particular niche. Unlike unicorn companies, zebras are lean, efficient and consistent.
Exponential growth is neither the best nor the only way for businesses to operate.
Too often, a company’s name or perceived cachet — rather than its actual product or realistic business prospects — becomes the thing it is selling. For the most recent, and maybe most damning, example of this trend, look at WeWork .
The company’s 2019 failed IPO was the corporate debacle of the decade; few businesses since Enron have fallen so far so quickly. When the market got a chance to examine the unicorn, they discovered it was really a one-trick pony with a cardboard horn. Adam Neumann built his company for net worth, not actual value, and his employees and supporters paid the price. Then again, imagine if the IPO had been a success: How much of the company’s worth would have evaporated when COVID-19 rolled around in March?
Although most tech innovation requires venture capital in today’s economy, unicorns sometimes become case studies in taking too much of a good thing. Round after round of funding can, as in the case of WeWork, disguise rickety foundations and unsound business plans.
Earlier this month, the mobile video unicorn Quibi folded less than a year after its launch. Film and TV critics weren’t surprised, and neither were those few consumers who’d heard of the company.
Well before its ill-timed launch in early April, most observers knew it was a bad idea. So why did Quibi receive so much funding? The big names attached to the company, including Dreamworks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and one-time HP CEO Meg Whitman, attracted investors who somehow didn’t realize that everything about the product, from its name to its pricing, was wrong.
What a unicorn offers isn’t as important as the fact that it’s a unicorn. The opposite of a unicorn company, to my mind, is a zebra company. They may be a little odd, they may not get the front-page headlines or breathless news coverage, but they’re built to last and built to do something.
Unicorns thrive so long as they remain in the enchanted forest of endless venture rounds; zebras tough it out in the savannas of the free market. A zebra company won’t become the next behemoth like Facebook or Amazon, but neither will it become the next Quibi or WeWork.
The emergence of zebra companies like Handshake and Turo, and to some extent corporations like Ben and Jerry’s and Patagonia, speaks to a broader change in our business and economic understanding. Even before the coronavirus shut down much of the world, endless growth was looking less and less attractive.
Instead of extracting ever more value from the economy, companies like Patreon realize that the same dollar can be earned multiple times as it circulates through the economy. One-way extraction of value is replaced with a circular flow of value. Exponential growth is neither the best nor the only way for businesses to operate.
For most of us, the new year will be a relief: 2020, over at last. But we shouldn’t neglect the opportunity to reflect on the past and plan for the future that a new year offers. The mistakes of WeWork and Quibi are all too easy to repeat; chances are that somewhere in Silicon Valley, a venture capitalist is giving too much money to a doomed business. We’ve been too focused on the unicorns. It’s time to give the zebras the attention they deserve.