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What makes a unicorn founder? 

Early stage startup investing is first and foremost team and market. I’ll look a founder in the eye and ask myself – hmmm, will they buy from you? Are there enough of them to build a global business? Can you attract a formidable team?

On the business side timing and luck is all too often the unlock, but in the early delicate stages it’s so human-centric, founder driven – so what creates success at the person level? And ultimately…

Can you codify a ‘unicorn founder’? 

In SuperSeed towers we all switch on our own radar when meeting new founders. My personal version – are they charmingly disagreeable and determined. That’s what I try to get a sense of early, and you know when they’re in the room. It fizzes.

Defiance Capital has has crunched the data and broken down unicorn founder success metrics, deconstructing the DNA of over 2,000 founders from 800 unicorns born between 2013 and 2023. Much you’d expect, but some of the insights are surprising.

70% of unicorns have “underdog founders”. Unsurprisingly the core ‘outsider’ drivers were mostly developed in childhood – imbuing tenacity, ambition, with a strong work ethic: They have no “plan B”, a huge “chip on their shoulder” and display “total self belief”. The themes they chose to tackle were often connected to their own personal struggle.

The Zuckerberg all-white, male, Ivy league archetype isn’t the norm, at only 11% of founders. However, 53% do have degrees from top 10 global universities, 49% STEM. And yes 34% had worked at an elite employer prior to starting-up – they just tended to not be from privileged backgrounds.

38% of unicorns had at least one non-white founder but 82% did have at least one. 62% are immigrants, regardless of skin colour. In 2023 17% had at least one female founder, an upward trend, but only 3% had a black founder. 50% were serial founders with 20% solo.

Apart from YC who invested in 10% of unicorns, no other fund got into more than 2.8% (Sequoia), suggesting any early stage fund has as much chance as a tier 1 to invest in one. From the other side of the desk, 28% of unicorn startups had raised capital from a tier 1 VC.

It took 7 years on average to reach unicorn status.

As this survey was effectively all bull run, will these stats stay static and how will the trends play out? One thing for sure is that we will see more women in future surveys. The UK Scale-Up Female Founders Index 2023 report highlights significant growth in the number of female founded scaling businesses. 623 scale-ups were tracked marking a 70% increase from the previous year​​. Wider afield in India, the number of female founders has roughly doubled in 5 years to 18%.

While reading the report something else kept poking me – Is unicorn status even the right measure of success? A post for another time…


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