The business definition of the word 'unicorn' is a privately owned startup that is worth over $1 billion (currently around £760 million). The term was first coined in 2013 by Aileen Lee, a US based Venture Capital investor, in her blog called “Welcome To The Unicorn Club: Learning From Billion-Dollar Startups”. Her blog is a good read, it provides some interesting insights into the US startup market, and I do recommend it! However, I want to focus on the UK. How many startups are there in the UK and what insights can we get from analysing them?
How many UK startup unicorns are there?
There currently 13 UK unicorn startups, and 18 since since 2001:
- FarFetch (Exited)
- Funding Circle (Exited)
- Just Eat (Exited)
- OakNorth Bank
- OVO Energy
- Oxford Nanopore
- Skyscanner (Exited)
- The Hut Group
- Zoopla (Exited)
Other important mentions are Atom Bank and Bulb who both last raised in 2018 with £200-400M pre-money valuations. Both of these companies will probably hit unicorn status in 2019 if they fundraise again.
There are some simple and interesting takeaways we can get just from looking at this simple dataset.
UK unicorns stats
- It takes on average 6.4 years to become a unicorn. However, this average is slowly decreasing, for the 9 companies founded since 2012 the average time to become a unicorn is 3.89 years.
- 5 Unicorns have exited (Just Eat, FarFetch, Funding Circle, Skyscanner, and Zoopla), 13 are still going without being acquired or going public.
But what does the data say if we go a little deeper?
Of the 5 UK unicorn exit events, 4 were Initial Public Offerings, 1 (Skyscanner) was an acquisition. Interestingly only Just Eat and Zoopla reached their unicorn status during their exit event, the rest were acquired after.
How much funding has gone into UK unicorns?
- A total of £5.5 billion has been raised by the 18 UK unicorns, the majority (>97 %) being through equity, and with a small number of debt and grant raises. The heavy preference towards equity rounds is probably just a product of the company stage, debt raises are often preferred by later stage (SME) companies, not high growth startups.
- To date, an average of £304 million per Company has been raised throughout their lifetime.
- On the journey to becoming a unicorn (where the company pre-money valuation at the time of funding was below £760 million) a total of £2.21 billion has been raised by all the companies.
- Per Company an average of £123 million is needed in funding to make a Unicorn. Interestingly for a £760 million valuation company, this £123 million in funding equates to around 15 %. From SeedLegals data we have shown that a median of 15 % is given away to investors in funding rounds. It is good to see that even with the UKs biggest startups the amount of equity given to investors stays around 10 to 20 %!
- A total of £3.26 billion has been raised by Companies since achieving Unicorn status. This often includes the funding round valuation from which the Company is granted its Unicorn status (when they realised the company was a unicorn!).
- An average per Company of £204 million has been raised in the post-Unicorn period, with 16 out of 18 companies raising with an above £760 million valuation.
- The average number of rounds it takes to achieve unicorn status is 5, that is on average 1 funding round every 1 year and 3 months.
What was the founding team like at incorporation?
- The average size of the founding team was 2.5 people. Single founders are rare! Only 3 unicorns started with lone founders, and the largest team was made up of 5 founding individuals.
- When looking at the founding teams, it's good to highlight the importance of having strong founder relationships. In the 11 companies where the founding team back stories have been publicised, 5 founding teams were made up of university friends, 3 companies are formed from old/childhood friends, and 3 from groups of work friends who met at previous companies.
- The average age of the CEO founder at incorporation was 34, with 12 companies being founded by people in their 30s and only 3 unicorns had founders in their 20s. The oldest founders are from Graphcore, where Nigel Toon and Simon Knowles both founded the company in their 50s.
Locations and sectors
- 12 out of the 18 unicorns are based in London, 2 in Bristol, 1 in Manchester, 1 in Edinburgh, and 1 in Aberdeen.
- The sectors in which the unicorns operate are all quite diverse. There is 1 traveltech company, 1 in the energy sector, 1 property, 1 food and drink, 1 gaming, 1 cybersecurity, 1 DNA/RNA analytics, 2 e-commerce, 2 foodtech, 2 Ai focused, and 5 banking and financial services.
- Looking at the current market trends there is no surprise that over half of the 12 unicorns in the last 10 years have come from AI or banking and financial services.
It is hard to draw conclusions from unicorn datasets because as you can see anything is possible! Founding teams are diverse in size, founders are diverse in age, and unicorn startups have come from a variety of sectors. One conclusion we can take away, when trying to spot the next UK Unicorn, is focus on the macrotrends. In the last 10 years unicorns from the banking and financial services sector have outnumbered the rest, probably due to regulation and policy reforms after the last financial crisis that reduced the barriers to entry for challenger banks.
I would also like to highlight the importance of strong founding teams, most founding teams have previously worked together or have relationships that predated the business.
The last conclusion we can take from this article is that when growing large companies equity funding is important and unicorn companies continue to fundraise at regular intervals throughout their lifetime (even after they achieve unicorn status)! Like it or hate it, as a startup founder you are going to have to get used to fundraising.
And, if you are looking to fundraise (and hoping to become one of the next UK unicorns) sign up at SeedLegals.com. We reduce the barrier to entry for UK startups by drastically cutting legal fees and helping companies build insight driven funding round documentation.