Stop calling businesses unicorns

Me, on Twitter early this morning from bed:

Startup culture is such that the word unicorn is used to describe a successful business. Imagine if the culture fostered success more often.

Then, Fred Wilson on his blog this morning:

I hate the word unicorn. It’s using fantasy to describe something very much reality. But I don’t want to digress from the larger point I’m making to go down the unicorn rat hole. Just please don’t use that word around me. I will likely throw up and that won’t be pleasant.

We’re on the same page today Fred. Likely because during AOL TechCrunch Disrupt the word unicorn is being thrown around like crazy.

The conversation around tech startups has been that “90% of companies started fail”. Hence, 10% may have some success and perhaps 1% or 2% will be incredibly successful. That is why the tech press and others call them unicorns — they are incredibly rare.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. More businesses can succeed if we:

  • Change our mindset for what success is
  • Create a culture of helping small businesses succeed
  • Don’t make the bar for failure so low

Let’s take these one a time.

What is success to you? For a business to be successful depends very much on what it set out to do from the beginning. Some businesses are built purely for fun … so the metric for success here is; are you having fun? Some businesses are started with dreams of changing how the world works in some way like mass communication networks or solving issues like access to clean water. So the measure of success for these companies should be; are people all over the world communicating using your product and do more people have access to clean drinking water than before you started, respectively.

Success in startup land is typically about, as Fred Wilson pointed out in his post this morning, valuation. Why did Slack take tens of millions of dollars that its founder explicitly said it didn’t need? Because in the current environment you take money when you can and get the best valuation possible. Stewart Butterfield is simply playing the hand he has been dealt. 

How we do change the culture to help more companies succeed? If we change the mindset from; how many unicorns will we start/find/invest in to, how many businesses can we start and keep in business for as long as possible — everything changes. Incredibly successful rocket-ship-like growth companies will still exist and will still earn their investors a lot of money and will still be rare… but everyone below that tier may have a better chance at success.

What is failure? And how can we make it harder for businesses to fail? Some ideas die because they are bad ideas. And that is OK. Sometimes you don’t know a bad idea until you try it. However, so many really great ideas die because the business dies. And a lot of times the business dies because it was ran poorly or didn’t reach its target market. Believe me, I know.

Remember my post Applaud when people make things? This is how you, whether you’re an investor or “just a consumer” can help businesses thrive. The next time you see a good idea try to support it. With your money, with a tweet, a blog post, tell your friends, anything. Every little bit helps that business stay alive. And, if you’re an investor or board member of a company that has a great product or idea, try to support them with more than just your money. Push customers and partners and talent to them. If you see them heading for a brick wall speak up!

Let’s help more companies succeed and stop using the word unicorn. I suggest; Rapid Growth Business.