Unicorn is the modern English form of the Latin adjective unicornis, mE. In its initial use, uni- referred to one and corn referred to the horn. The unicorn, in its initial use in English, was used to refer to a mythical creature that resembled a horse, with a singular horn protruding from its head. Unicorn imagery has been found in ancient Greek and Persian texts and images and to this day, historians continue to find references to this mythical being. Unicorn has been found in English writings as early as the 1600s, as well as in images. As one can see below, the unicorn was a theme in medieval tapestries as well. The use of the word unicorn was not limited to only describing the creature. It was also, notably, used to represent purity and chastity as well as innocence.
In fact, the Scottish have taken the unicorn to be their heraldic symbol. John Guillim, in his 17th century book Displays of Heraldry, describes characteristics of a unicorn:
“Some have made doubt whether there be any such beast as this or no, but the great esteem of his horn may take away that needless scruple.
…wherein the Unicorn and valiant-minded soldier are alike, which both condemn death, and rather than be compelled to undergo any base servitude or bondage, they will lose their lives.”
In contemporary culture, the word unicorn often still refers to a horse-like creature with a horn. It is a term that children are familiar with, particularly girls, as in recent years unicorns have become far more gendered towards young women. Regardless, children are constantly inundated with symbols of unicorns, perusing books and cartoons that feature unicorns in prominent roles such as the top-selling novel Uni the Unicorn, who’s story begins by talking about how “[t]here’s no such thing as unicorns, everybody (well, every adult) knows that”, which was a top seller for the young child demographic. Not to mention the material goods children can wear and eat! Asos’s top selling item is unicorn slippers. Kellogg’s has even gone so far as to launch a unicorn cereal line. Needless to say, there is an endless amount of content to be found revolving around unicorns for the younger demographic.
For those who still hear it in their regular lingo past their teenage years, it is likely because of a term that has become popularized recently in the sexual realm. When someone is referred to as a unicorn, it means that they are the ideal third partner in a threesome. It can be used for any gender third partner and is often found through dating apps such as Tinder, “looking for a unicorn”, alongside photos of a smiling couple and rainbow flags.
In today’s professional context, however, unicorn represents a brand of company in the world of startup culture, particularly technology. Unicorn refers to startups that have been started since 2003, after the Bubble collapsed and new technology start ups were beginning to appear again. Unicorns are startups that are valued at over $1 billion by public or private investors. The term was coined by a venture capitalist, Aileen Lee, who wanted a word that would appropriately capture the rarity and specialness of these few startups. Only about 0.7 startups reach the level of unicorn startup. To put that into a better perspective, the odds are slightly less than getting struck by lightning. A few examples of these notable startups are: Facebook (considered a “super unicorn” with its valuation of greater than $100 billion), Twitter, Pinterest, GroupOn and Hulu. These companies have all since moved out of the startup label. There is an average of about four unicorns occurring per year, but it is unclear if that pattern will stay consistent — it is clear that investments in unicorns are linked to how successful the general economy is in a given year. Yet, much like the mythical unicorn creature, there is much debate over how real these startups are. “A study found that unicorns, valued at over $1 billion, should carry smaller valuations, because the conditions assigned to some of their shares make other shares far less valuable”. This is apparent, for example, with Blue Apron which was valued at $2.1 billion and was ultimately sold for $1.6 billion. It is struggling and is now only valued at $577 million. Those numbers can be as far off as 15%!
Additionally, these evaluations are made with little regard to legal ramifications or the social impact of the start-ups. The article by Tom Slee, “A Place to stay with Airbnb: Airbnb and the cities” explains how Airbnb, touted as a unicorn whose evalution was ultimately 15% less than predicted, held social and political ramifications for the cities that it has invaded — most notably, Amsterdam and Portland, Oregon. Not only do these start-ups often have devastating impacts on the communities they infiltrate, but also many of the unicorn start-ups are promoting the gig economy, therefore capitalizing on the “lean entrepreneur” — a term the company Fiverr has coined in their ad campaigns where they sell people’s services for as low as five dollars. In Jia Tolentino’s article, “The Gig Economy Celebrates Working Yourself to Death”, she highlights Fiverr, Lyft and a host of other companies who capitalize on individuals who must work unrealistic hours with next-to-none — and more often that not, zero — benefits. Therefore, evaluations of unicorn start-ups do not have to take into account the hundreds, and sometimes thousands of employees that will never be labeled as such, and the cost of giving those people benefits, even though they are the product being sold.
Therefore, as the world tackles the next round of startups in the artificial intelligence and medical realms, it will be fascinating to see which unicorns will succeed and which will fade away, and which will continue to monetize off of improperly compensated labor for maximum profits and valuations.