Unicorns vs Donkeys. Am I riding a unicorn of a donkey?

A unicorn is a privately held startup company valued at over $1 billion. The term was coined in 2013 by venture capitalist Aileen Lee, choosing the mythical animal to represent the statistical rarity of such successful ventures. […] According to TechCrunch, there were 279 unicorns as of March 2018. The largest unicorns included Uber, Xiaomi, Airbnb, Palantir, and Pinterest. Wikipedia

During the Rome startup week I met dozens of small companies well determined to prove to be the next unicorn. People who strongly believe in their project, people who have committed themselves to the development of an idea that they consider innovative and that according to them will change the world.

I was at the Rome startup week in a somewhat peculiar condition, certainly privileged in some aspects and certainly slowed down and stressed by others as a journalist and photographer I was there to document the event, so I can not follow with the necessary attention all the panels that followed each other incessantly.

As some will know I was lucky enough to be one of the founders of Italia On Line (iol.it) one of the first startups in Italy so to speak ante litteram and I was lucky: IOL was certainly not a great unicorn but surely a puppy of unicorn was, and a little sorry when we arrived at the showdown and we signed our exit from IOL once and for all, on the other hand it was too big a company because a group like ours could even just economically carry it forward.

Now I see in the eyes of the boys who push their projects more a search for an output goal of “I had an idea, I carry it, give me money to continue or start the development, maybe someone can incubate me, maybe someone can speed me up “, but the ultimate goal is to sell the company for an imaginatively stratospheric price considering that I think my company is a unicorn, and then who knows maybe start with another startup or maybe retire in retirement. Many of the projects I’ve seen have this goal; few people really think that the company they are launching, the new startup is really a unicorn and therefore unicorns should never be sold sold or otherwise alienated: unicorns should be kept tight because they are few and can lead you to a lifetime future far beyond your wildest imagination, very interesting full of great news, full of great great fortune.

So how many (future) entrepreneurs who are building a startup really believe they have a unicorn?

Listening to Montemagno last summer in a cycle of lessons for the online TV of Repubblica, series “Workshop of the future” dedicated to the great entrepreneurs, episode 8: Mark Zuckerberg, “Always daring, to be ahead of everyone” [1’40 ” ] ( https://video.repubblica.it/rubriche/officina-futuro/8-mark-zuckerberg-osare-sempre-per-essere-davanti-a-tutti/281009/281592 ) tells about a first offer made to Facebook when it was still little more than a startup: a billion dollars. All the shareholders wanted to sell, and at the meeting of the board of directors, Zuckerberg was the last to arrive. He sat down at the command post and said, “Guys, of course, we do not sell. What is the next item on the agenda? “.

Zuckerberg had a vision he had believed very strongly in his company because I can assure you that a billion dollars is a gigantic figure and far more than 99.5% of the world’s population will ever have earned in a lifetime of sacrifice and work ( source Credit Suisse Research Institute’s Global Wealth Report 2017); are big figures figures that have significant weight in the life of one of a person so Zuckerberg strongly believed in his in his project and told the shareholders “grow grow grow”. We had to grow up and actually doing easy dietrism was right.

On the other hand, for how many boards of directors have been where hundreds of millions of dollars or even a few million dollars or even more than a billion dollars have come, and someone has sat at the head of the table like the good Mark, beaten his fist on the table and said “No, we do not sell these guys do not talk about it” and their companies now have nothing left but the memory and regret of a great lost opportunity. Hundreds if not thousands.

They had their golden opportunity but the company was not a unicorn but it was a donkey that looked like a unicorn in which someone else had believed, in which the president, the founder, the “who was in charge” had believed but that then they died in the space of a few years: data in hand is shown that among the companies even momentarily seem to have a great deal of value The majority closes over the first 5 years over 90% of startups are able to close, unfortunately often badly, so you have to be sure when you are at the fork to ride a unicorn or be more reasonable and however aware of its value and say “Okay my time has come, I like my company, but looking in the face things may be the case to sell “.

For many companies this moment will never come and no one will make an interesting offer to sell and some will manage to survive to grow and maybe become really a unicorn but most will be destined for closure. So what drives all these young people to look for a new future, something different from everyone else and want to become an entrepreneur, even entrepreneurs of themselves? I think behind this there is a great self-esteem combined with an uncommon willpower and a great knowledge of their abilities but there is also a bit of idealism and that touch of ingenuity that still allows us to dream and ride the unicorns.

Instead, the idea is growing that a startup can be a panacea and make it magically possible to “make a lot of money quickly” because it is true, newspapers and online sites are full of the stories of dozens of companies that get richer and gain fame and quickly they are acquired for large amounts, but few companies manage to make a lot of money quickly, an overwhelming end up eroding the wealth of those who founded it to the point of bankruptcy or complete failure of their idea. Of these only in very few cases are they spoken on the web, the vast majority are spent in complete anonymity. The circumstances surrounding this are many, especially in Italy the situation is disastrous: it is disastrous economic situation, it is difficult to find a job, it is difficult even more to start a company so the idea, it may seem a contradiction compared to as I have just said, it is the need and idealism that leads so many young people to start a startup and seems to be the only escape and a good idea at the right time because the world and the market around us is evolving and revolutionizing at very high speed. Unfortunately, this phenomenon affects only marginally Italy, where we see that the financing of ventures capitalism are among the lowest in Europe.

This generates a new phenomenon, after the brain drain is the escape of startups: they seek funding abroad mainly in England and in any case in Europe and with some attempts to go to America where the new America is called New York because even the Silicon Valley is slowly slowing down; and let us not forget that from the east there is China: a completely new world, a new continent, a new planet, something we fear and desire.

The question we must always ask ourselves is: “I think I have a unicorn, I am sure I have a unicorn, am I ready to bet my future on my unicorn?”.

All venture capitalists and even the very few very few Angel want to see your commitment and our money invested before putting their money into our idea.

One of the questions that often makes the barrier to the development of startups is “But how much did you invest in this project? You have the idea and, of course, it’s nice to have an idea it’s nice to have a development plan, it’s nice to have a beautiful border with people of experience and qualification, but how much have you really invested in your pocket? Or do you want your company to be made only with my money? ”

So if you have the resources to give life to your startup, know that the odds are against you, and that the boundary conditions often make it impossible to take off your company so the question returns: “I’m riding a unicorn or a donkey? “.

Bibliography and sources:

Wikipedia: unicorn


“Workshop of the future”, episode 8: Mark Zuckerberg, “Always daring, to be ahead of everyone” ( https://video.repubblica.it/rubriche/officina-futuro/8-mark-zuckerberg-osare-sempre-per -being-in-front-to-all / 281009/281592 )

Credit Suisse Research Institute’s Global Wealth Report 2017




Forbes, Five Reasons 8 Out Of 10 Businesses Fail


Success Harbor



The Ultimate Startup Failure Rate Infographic [2018]



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