Photo credit: yosuke muroya

Unicorns: From Imaginary Horses To Tech Startups

While scrolling through my Twitter feed this morning, I saw an interesting trending hashtag: #NationalUnicornDay. I did what everyone trying to find excuses to not work would do, I clicked on the hashtag. There, I saw what you would expect: pictures of unicorns (Lady Gaga deserves a special round of applause for the effort she put in to celebrate this special day — see picture bellow).

Yet, it got me thinking, How this cute imaginary horse — according to the myth it would actually be a “ wild ass” with a single horn — has become a popular term used to describe certain tech startups?

What Is A Unicorn

Let’s start with some etymology. The term unicorn comes form uni, which means single, and cornu, which means horn.

This imaginary animal first appeared in Western literature in 400 B.C. It is described by Ctesias as “a horse, with a white body, purple head, and blue eyes, and on its forehead was a cubit-long horn coloured red at the pointed tip, black in the middle, and white at the base”. Still according to the myth, it was believed that “those who drank from its horn were thought to be protected from stomach trouble, epilepsy, and poison”.

In our modern culture, unicorns look way nicer — no purple head, and no scary red, black, and white horn. These white stuff animals and cartoon characters now leave shining rainbows behind them.

Yet, after more than 2,000 years of evolution, the term unicorn has faced its biggest change in 2013. Popularized by aileenlee in her article “Welcome To The Unicorn Club: Learning From Billion-Dollar Startups”, it is now used to describe a Tech Startup valued by public or private investors at $1 billion or more.

How Did We Get From An Imaginary Horse To A Tech Startup?

While developing her article for Tech Crunch (“Welcome To The Unicorn Club: Learning From Billion-Dollar Startups”), aileenlee decided she had to come up with a name that would best describe tech startups valued at $1 billion or more. After coming up with few terms “home run” or “megahits” she settled with “unicorn”. But why did she chose this mythologic term?

One of the reasons she chose this term is because of its mythologic conotation. In one of her interview, aileenlee says how startups have a mythical and playful feeling. She also mention the notion of rarety. Unicorns are rare, as startups valued at more than $1 billion — at the time of her article, only 0.07% of the tech startups had made the cut. Another reason, she mentioned, is the impact of the term. Unicorns have been in the imaginary of people for centuries. It’s instantaneously associated with magical thoughts, and it’s a well-known term.

This term is nothing but the imaginary of one person. Even though certain persons in the industry criticize it, it only makes tech startups look cuter. What’s funnier than thinking about Marc Zuckerberg riding a My Little Pony unicorn — with all the respect I have for what he accomplished.

Photo credit: Charles Rodstrom

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