In November of 2013, Aileen Lee, founder of Cowboy Ventures, introduced us to the Unicorn Club. Since then, the club has grown from 39 members to several hundred. Earlier this month, we all read Bill Gurley’s much-circulated commentary on the state of the unicorn in the Valley. Unicorns have also been called ponies and T-rex’s. Today, the unicorn faces an existential threat – reality.
You see, unicorns are make-believe – like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the simplified tax code. That’s because unicorn investments are unrealized. Bragging about a unicorn is like boasting about making money in the stock market before completing a trade.
Recently, we’ve heard the word unicorn used as an adjective:
“He’s a unicorn VP pf Engineering.” (Translation: really, he’s an imaginary VP of Engineering … that must be why the product is late.)
All of these references to a mythical magical creature are confusing. Perhaps we need a new mascot for our best companies. One that is real. And liquid.
How about the unicorn of the sea? I present … the narwhal.
Narwhals may not elicit thoughts of rainbows and lucky pennies, but the narwhal, unlike the unicorn, actually exists.
Like unicorns, narwhals have a horn — – actually a helical tusk
Like unicorns, narwhals are rare — there are only 75,000 in the world.
Like unicorns, their existence is threatened due to human actions … and discretionary write downs.
Unlike unicorns, narwhals swim in the ocean — so they are liquid.
A modest proposal
If companies with an unrealized value over a billion dollars are called unicorns, then why don’t we refer to companies that have realized outcomes over a billion dollars as narwhals?
Narwhals are very easy to identify — must be the tusk. Instead of tracking imaginary unicorns, shouldn’t CB Insights, Forbes, and other publications be tracking narwhals? (This might reduce some of the subjective nature of their popular lists.)
Narwhals travel in packs, often referred to as portfolios. Rather than list unicorns, VCs should highlight their realized portfolio of narwhals.
Having just completed our latest fundraising at Lightspeed, I can tell you that our limited partners greatly prefer narwhals to unicorns (especially when narwhals are distributed). And as a general partner, there’s no comparison – narwhals are the ultimate achievement.
(Read everything you wanted to know about narwhals but were afraid to ask courtesy of Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narwhal.)
Barry is a founding partner of Lightspeed Venture Partners and focuses primarily on information technology infrastructure, with a specific interest in big data, cloud, IoT, networking, and storage. He has 18 years of venture capital experience, 10 years of operating experience and has been named to the Forbes Midas List of top 100 investors multiple times. He is a board member of Avi Networks, Dremio, MapR Technologies, Mosaixsoft, and Parsable. He previously led investments in Nimble Storage (Public, NMBL), Pliant Technology (acquired by Sandisk), Calista Technologies (acquired by MSFT), Arbor Networks (acquired by DHR), Growth Networks (acquired by CSCO), Maker Communications (Public, acquired post-IPO by CNXT), Memoir Systems (acquired by CSCO), Metasolv Software (Public, acquired post-IPO by ORCL), Sirocco Systems (acquired by SCMR), and Telogy Networks (acquired by TI).