Starting a business is hard work, so hard, in fact, that most people will never venture to do it. There’s the personal responsibility aspect, the financial aspect, the marketing aspect, etc. Beyond the actual business, there are rather daunting odds: depending on whose statistics you read, 33% of businesses fail in the first year, 50-80% fail in the first 5 years, and a whopping 96% fail in the first decade. Considering this, a successful business venture is rare; then again, there is über rare, to the point of almost being mythical, but, beyond myth and legend, there is today’s word, the unicorn startup.
The phrase itself is the combining of the words unicorn and startup. Coming from the Old French unicorne which itself came from the Late Latin combination of the prefix uni-, meaning ‘one’, and the word cornus, meaning ‘horn’, the creature with the body of a horse and a single horn on its head was first mentioned in English in the early 13th century monastic manual written for female anchoresses, the Ancrene Riwle (Ancerene Wisse); in the figurative sense of being like a unicorn, which in our case, translates to rarity, the first usage can be traced back to 1509, where Alexander Barclay writes in The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde (The Ship of Fools) that: “[Let] James of Scotland..have the forward, have ye no disdain Nor indignation, for never king was born That of ought of war can show the unicorn.” Startup, being the addition of the verb start, coming from the Proto-Germanic stert-, meaning originally ‘to rush or leap’, and the adverb up, also from the Proto-Germanic *upp, was first mentioned in the late 12th century poem The Brut (or The Chronicle of Britain) compiled and remade by Layamon, an English priest; however, aside from the personal activities implied in the original meaning, for the purpose of business activities, our usage of the term originated in the 26 April, 1970 edition of the New York Times, where an advertisement mentions: “If you know what start-up companies are all about and understand the long-term financial rewards, then [etc.].”
Far from being the business idea forwarded by 6-year-old girls who believe themselves to be fairy princesses, the phrase was first coined by venture capitalist Aileen Lee, founder of CowboyVC, a seed stage venture capital fund, in a 2013 TechCrunch article entitled: “Welcome to the Unicorn Club: Learning from Billion-Dollar Startups.” According to her definition, which has since been somewhat altered, depending on who adapts it to meet their needs, a unicorn startup is a new, privately-owned startup company which has a valuation of over USD 1 billion. Based on software companies founded in the 2000s, Lee estimates that approximately 0.07% will ever reach a billion-dollar valuation, noting that finding one is as difficult as finding the legendary horned horse.
All told, there are estimated to be (again, depending on the definition of the term used by the compiler) up to 300 unicorn startups worldwide. As could’ve been expected, the most valuable unicorns on the list are companies that most of us already know and may deal with on a frequent basis, companies like WeWork, Airbnb, Stripe, Paytm, Grab, and SpaceX; moreover, this list of former unicorns reads like a who’s who list of the last 5 years, including Uber, Facebook, Xiaomi, Alibaba, Flipkart, and Spotify.
On the other hand, unicorns can involve far more than social media, products, logistics, or the sharing economy: there are a number of noteworthy unicorns (and former unicorns) in the translation industry as well. First and foremost is Scale AI, which, through partially automating the data-labelling process, has found a way to efficiently provide natural language processing services as well as computer vision services while recycling that newly acquired data through customer systems, thus improving the functionality of customer AI systems overall. Another example is the recently former unicorn (as of July 17, 2019) South Korean language data company, Flitto, which takes data generated from crowdsourced and professional translation services and offers the acquired machine learning experience to tech companies such as Microsoft and Baidu.
Tomorrow, the upcoming San Francisco SlatorCon will unite language industry execs, investors, and service/technology buyers from around the world as well as maybe give us a glimpse of the unicorn startups of tomorrow.