Chasing Unicorns?

Whilst Mrs May is busy chasing unicorns with her vision of post-Brexit Britain, UK businesses have proven themselves to be rather better at growing an entirely different type of ‘unicorn’. 

chasing unicorns

Wherever you stand on Brexit, there's no denying there are storm clouds ahead. The rumour mill is running overtime and whether we're facing a transitional period or the apocalypse is a moot point, we're all in need of some good news.

So we thought we'd bring out a little sunshine... or should we say a rainbow, because after all, rainbows and unicorns go hand in hand.

Unicorn is the latest handle for a specific set of organisations, those privately held startup companies valued at over $1 billion, which like their mythical namesakes defy the norm and are so elusive to the point of non-existence.

If you think about it, the idea of a Unicorn isn't a reach.  Unicorns, after all, are simply horned horses.  When you consider that we already have deer, elk and moose... are they so unbelievable?  Especially in a world where we have the duck-billed platypus.

What is the ideal habitat for Unicorns?

We'll skip any quips about the UK's beautiful forests and grasslands and instead try to stick to the facts.

Business sector

The first thing to consider when we look at Unicorns is industry sector.  The fastest and indeed most traditional way to achieve Unicorn status is to make your mark in the property and mobile sectors.  The fastest growing companies in these markets have reached the $1billion mark on average between two to three years in, although none of the 13 Unicorns in the UK took these particular routes.  Then again, our horned friends seem to cut against the grain in a number of ways.

The UK Unicorns straddle a number of different fields and range from household names to relative unknowns.  Their stories couldn't be more different either.

Out of their box

You may think that founding a Unicorn requires a lot of personal wealth and while that is certainly true of some of the firms in the UK list, it is not so for all of them.  One organisation, in particular, is not only a unicorn in name, it's also one by nature.


Brewdog, a UK brewery, is currently valued at $1.5 billion and is now a major global voice in the alcoholic beverage industry.  Their meteoric rise was nothing short of maverick.  It's not every firm that can found a billion dollar empire off the back of a Tesco competition, but that's exactly where Brewdog found their calling.  The, then tinpot, brewery entered a Tesco competition to find the UK's best homebrew.  They wound up not only winning, but also came second and third. 

Their unusual business model didn't stop there however and the controversial firm came up for equal criticism and praise for their frankly insane marketing ploys.  The most famous of which was dropping half a dozen stuffed cats full of beer over the city of Edinburgh.  They didn't slow down there either.  Through their unique crowdfunding campaigns, Brewdog has raised a staggering amount of capital.  You can even buy shares in the company over the bar in their pubs.  Naturally, they come with a free pint.  Their AGMs are also the stuff of legends with giant stages and heavy metal concerts.


If you think the Virtual, Augmented and Mixed reality revolution isn't here yet... you haven't been paying attention.

For an industry which at first glance appears to still be in beta testing there's a lot of money in VR.  Which explains why Improbable, a VR firm from London, is one of our lucky 13.  Formed in 2012, Improbable has quickly risen through the ranks to become the UK's leader in this still developing market and technology.  One thing we can be sure of is... their future is so bright... we gotta wear VR headsets...

Improbable VR


It may surprise you to know that two of our Unicorns are actually all about finding and indeed funding the future herd.

Funding Circle, a UK based lending platform, is dedicated to helping other firms grow.  The London based company has a value of $1billion and is itself backed by a number of financial organisations and banks.

While the Acorn group, with a value of $1.2 billion, is also in the business of funding UK business.

Upwardly mobile

While some of the firms in the UK unicorn herd are dark horses, there's one name amidst their ranks that you can't have escaped.  Deliveroo.  It's a great British success story.  The end to end food delivery systems, as the firm likes to call itself, is the perfect marriage of the real and online worlds.  It was only a matter of time before someone realised that the internet was the perfect place to order takeaway food.  While early pioneers like fell by the kerbside, Deliveroo managed that perfect recipe of technology, quality and affordable labour and claimed the takeout crown.


Two of the firms which made the top 13 are from an industry which might not seem like a huge growth area.  Especially as we have a free healthcare service in the United Kingdom.  However, both Benevolent.AI and the Oxford Nanopore Technologies have managed to carve out multi-billion dollar niches in the healthcare sector.  This serves as proof that to be a Unicorn you have to think globally.

Benevolent.AI uses machine learning and advanced artificial intelligence to leverage insight from medical data.  Oxford Nanopore's revenue comes from their creation the MinION, a portable DNA sequencer which is used for a variety of purposes across the medical sector.


One factor which arguably fits all of the 13 UK Unicorns is their drive to disrupt the status quo.  That sometimes means inventing new business models like BGL Group's Compare the Market, a comparison site pioneer, which although common place now was unheard of at the time.  Similarly, Transferwise's unique peer to peer money exchange service is years ahead of the field.

Just getting started

The UK already boasts a baker's dozen in Unicorns, but we're not done yet, there are a number of upstarts on the Unicorn periphery and experts predict that we’ll have another couple very soon.

So here's to our Unicorns. Those bold and audacious firms who believe in bigger, better and braver.

About the Author

ALAN is CEO of CD as well as a qualified executive coach and a seasoned business mentor. He challenges progressive business people to step-up & realise their vision.

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