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The three things UK unicorns have in common

The three things UK unicorns have in common

Table of Contents

Now, we're not talking about the sparkly My Little Pony variety! We're talking about unicorns in business: successful privately-held startups valued at over one billion dollars. And the 'magic' behind them.

What makes a company a unicorn?

Let’s be honest: if you’re a startup founder, you’d probably love for your company to be valued at £1b. After all, nobody starts a company thinking, ‘Gosh, I hope we never turn a profit!’

And that’s exactly what makes unicorn companies so intriguing: everyone wants their companies to succeed but few ever reach unicorn status. 

So, what makes a company a unicorn? And how can you achieve unicorn status? Let’s see what we can learn from some of the UK’s own most successful unicorns.

Fun facts about unicorns

  • At present, there are 44 unicorn companies headquarted in the UK.
  • That elite list includes giants such as JustEat, Monzo, Gymshark, and BrewDog.
  • Most of the UK’s unicorn companies are based in London.
  • 25 out of those 44 companies achieved unicorn status in 2021.
  • The term 'unicorn' was first coined by venture capitalist Aileen Lee in 2013.

What do unicorns have in common? 

So, how do you get into the unicorn club? Are certain startups more likely to be successful? Do unicorn companies share common traits? 

Research shows that they absolutely do, so let’s take a look.

Three out of every four unicorns - and all of the UK’s FinTech unicorns - are based in London, where they can benefit from easy access to 70% of the UK’s venture capitalists and private equity. 

That's one factor but certainly not the only for determining a unicorn company’s success. So, let’s take a look at three other common factors which may be early hallmarks of future unicorn status. 

For example, the average unicorn raises £96m over five rounds of funding. Likewise, 56% of all UK unicorns attended an accelerator programme prior to achieving their unicorn status. 

One in every three of the unicorn companies on this list had also made at least one acquisition earlier in their company’s history, usually before they reached the billion-dollar mark. And lastly, most of the companies on this list had been in business for seven years before reaching unicorn status. 

What sets unicorns apart? 

However, with that said, it’s also important that these factors do not define the success of unicorn companies.

Although highly successful companies may have a few core things in common, the UK’s unicorns are also characterised by a very diverse range of business models, growth strategies, and industries. 

For example, the four companies we’ve mentioned - GymShark, BrewDog, JustEat, and Monzo - are examples of very different industries: fitness, beverages, food and Fintech.

So, as you can see from these examples alone, there’s no singular type of company that’s most likely to succeed as a unicorn. 

So, if the key isn’t a certain industry and it’s not unique to one location, what makes a unicorn a unicorn? Regardless of their business model or area of expertise, most unicorn companies share three things that have made them uniquely successful

Their not-so-secret secrets to success

1. Unicorns are committed to growth and evolution 

This is a common trait for both progressive companies and unicorns. Startups that want to become wildly successful understand that growth is key and they develop a company culture which values growth as a top priority. 

Now, a word of warning.

That should never be at the expense of employees. Overworked and underappreciated colleagues will just walk away. Brewdog's culture came into question in 2021, when former staff accused the company of cultivating a culture of fear - seriously damaging their reputation.

Cultivating a positive company culture is so important. If you haven't already, start by outlining your company values. And look at ways to improve employee experience and align teams.

One way to motivate teams is to offer incentives like an employee share scheme. This will get everyone working towards the same goal - making your business a success because they'll get to share in that success. Download our guide to learn more or book a free consultation.

As well as prioritising growth, progressive companies that later become unicorns are committed to setting trends rather than following them. They do this by committing to innovation early on and experimenting with new ways to challenge the status quo and set themselves apart. 

2. Unicorns embrace technology 

It’s no surprise that many of the UK’s most successful unicorns are part of the Fintech sector. But you don’t have to be a tech company to embrace technology in a successful and innovative way. 

Often, unicorns are uniquely successful because they are early adopters of the next big thing in business - and that new thing is usually a form of technology which will enhance your company.

Hopping on new tech trends, using them to your company’s advantage, and growing in response to technological advances are all hallmarks of a company committed to evolution and innovation. It’s also something that all of the UK’s unicorns have in common. 

Adopting the latest tech to improve products is one thing, but using tools to improve internal processes and activities can save companies and teams time, money and stress too. Learn about digital equity management.

3. Unicorns are customer-obsessed

It can be difficult to stand out as a startup. The founders of the UK’s unicorns knew this and so each of them looked for their own unique way to cut through the noise. For most of them, the answer was found in their relationship with their customers. 

Truly successful companies invest a lot of time and effort in market research and consumer feedback. They find a gap and successfully fill it by offering something people need in a way that’s meaningful.

And also drive engagement on social media by encouraging, not just influencers, but customers to become brand advocates and generate their own content. That, in turn, helps to build an active community.

Often, that’s exactly what sets a unicorn apart, regardless of its industry. 

What we can learn from unicorns

Unicorns are pretty magical, whether you’re thinking of a startup or a sparkly flying horse. It’s difficult to succeed as a startup and even more challenging to reach that unicorn level of success. 

And that’s exactly why unicorns make a fascinating case study for any entrepreneur who’s interested in learning from successful companies and identifying characteristics to emulate in your own startup. 

The UK’s unicorns are different from each other in many different ways but they also have a lot of vital things in common, like a commitment to growth, a passion for technology, and a dedication to crafting a unique customer experience. 

So, no matter what industry you’re in, your company can benefit from implementing similar tactics.


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