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All about unicorn companies

The tremendous success of startups

If there's something that represents unicorns – apart from the horn on their foreheads, white color, and distinguished demeanor – it's their mythological nature, which is just as fantastic as it's unattainable. This is what inspired Aileen Lee, founder of Cowboy Ventures, when she wrote her 2013 article, "Welcome to the Unicorn Club: Learning from Billion-Dollar Startups," given the fact that not all startups reach that mythical status.

What are unicorn companies?

Unicorn companies are defined as startups that reach a valuation of $1 billion and are not listed on the stock market.

The number of "unicorns" has increased considerably from the 39 identified in 2013 to the 959 the consulting firm CB Insights included in its ranking at the end of 2021. Reaching such an astronomical valuation is the dream of any entrepreneur, but what are the keys for a startup to achieve such tremendous success?

Characteristics of a unicorn company

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In 2013, Aileen Lee pointed out that one of the common aspects shared by unicorn companies was their strong technological component. However, this doesn’t imply that unicorn companies are 100% technological. It means that they rely on technology for a large part of their business processes. This also applies to social networks since the investment made in this type of platforms is usually more affordable than traditional advertising, and it allows them to reach their target audience easily and within a short period of time.

Something they also share with more modest startups is their global and agile strategy: Scalability and internationalization starting from their early stages are fundamental in their growth and development.

Types of unicorns

Lee distinguished between two types of unicorns: Business to Business (B2B) and Business to Customer (B2C). B2Bs increased their average valuation individually and their return on investment was higher, while in the case of B2C unicorns, they were larger in number and the value they created was greater overall. Even though these statements still stand, some other nuances must be added. Therefore, in addition to their value and inclination towards technology, today business unicorns share a number of other characteristics:

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  • Not listed on the stock exchange
  • Intensive use of social media
  • Maximum customer orientation
  • Began operations less than 10 years ago
  • Considered a high-risk business venture exposed to great uncertainty
  • Comprises a prominently young and modern team in which creativity is highly valued

It’s also a myth that all founders of unicorn startups are under 30. For instance, the founders of LinkedIn were over 35 on average, and in the case of other similar companies, it’s normal to be over 40 years old. What their founders usually have in common is previous academic or work experience, as well as "entrepreneurial DNA," meaning the unicorn company is not usually their first business venture.

Examples of successful unicorn companies

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One of the first examples that usually comes to mind when talking about unicorn companies is Facebook (now Meta). However, this social media giant has long ceased to be "just" a unicorn and now belongs to the super unicorn category. In other words, a company with a valuation of more than $100 billion.

Nevertheless, the number of companies whose disruptive and innovative nature has upgraded them to unicorn status keeps growing every year. Most of them are concentrated in the US, mainly around the San Francisco area and Silicon Valley, although China is close behind in terms of the number of companies in this category.

Unicorns in Spain

In Spain, the number of unicorn startups is also on the rise. At the end of 2021, there were already 9 companies that could be considered as such. These are some of examples:

  • Cabify: It was the first Spanish startup to surpass a $1 billion valuation. Founded in 2011, it’s a ride-hailing app that takes passengers wherever they request. By pre-calculating the time and price of the trip, passengers get a fixed price, avoiding any surprises.
  • Glovo: With this Barcelona-based startup, you can purchase products and have them delivered to your home in a matter of minutes. It’s not limited to food delivery as it’s also possible to order clothing or books.
  • Idealista: Today, it’s the leading portal for house or office hunting. It was founded in 2002 and acquired in 2020 by the Swedish fund EQT.
  • AlienVault: A cybersecurity company that was founded in 2007 in Madrid under its final name (previously known as OSSIM Project) and acquired in 2018 by AT&T Communications.
  • Wallbox: The company designs, develops, and manufactures chargers for electric vehicles. This commitment to electrifying transportation, founded in 2015 by Enric Asunción, is already based in nine countries.
  • Capital Energy: A company founded in 2002 by Jesús Martín Buezas in the renewable energy field that specializes in the purchase and sale of renewable project rights.
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At Repsol, we back innovative startups in the energy sector through our Repsol Deep Tech strategic investment fund. We focus on three technological areas:

  • Decarbonization and circular economy
  • Advanced mobility and renewables
  • Digital technology and asset optimization

The companies we support have enormous potential. In fact, Ample, one of the startups in Repsol's portfolio, is now managed by the Net Zero Ventures fund and has been considered a unicorn since November 2021, when it topped a $1 billion valuation.