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The Swift Pace of The Newest Unicorns

June 1, 2015

BILLION-DOLLAR VALUATIONS? Yawn. In 2014, 23 U.S. companies became unicorns, those billion-dollar startups that until a few years ago were mostly myth. By comparison, from 2003 to 2013, four unicorns were born per year on average, according to Palo Alto, California–based venture capital firm Cowboy Ventures. “We saw an explosion of them last year, and we’ll see more this year,” says Matthew Wong, an analyst at CB Insights, which tracks startup data. The rapid expansion of mobile and cloud technology, which lets startups scale quicker and at lower cost, combined with a flood of funding has made it easier to stay private longer and thus achieve higher valuations. Back during those turn-of-the-century bubble days, companies “were getting huge valuations on the promise that if you build it, they will come,” says Aileen Lee, found- ing partner at Cowboy Ventures.

As for startups from 2003 to 2013, Lee says the founders tended to be in their 30s, had previous tech company experience, and were graduates of top colleges. Founding teams often had a brilliant technologist among them. Know, too, that most unicorns aren’t overnight wonders. The unicorns of 2014 were about seven years old, on average—about a third were older. “They often had plenty of ups and downs along the way,” says Lee (though two of them were two-year-olds). And now rising: the age of the decacorn, with valuations at $10 billion to $50 billion

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