How 9 Iconic Business Unicorns Redefined the Rules

Uber vehicle parked in the street Vicdemi / Deposit Photos

Across every key industry, from tech and tourism to finance and communications, business unicorns – the term coined for privately held companies valued at a minimum of $1bn – are emerging far and wide.

To reach these supreme heights isn't easy, however. Startups must possess a heady mix of innovation, inspiration and, indeed, luck; they must also be willing to take risks and turn conventions on their head. It's no coincidence that most of the companies on this list are disruptors, after all, achieving huge successes while inspiring change in other traditional markets.

Business Unicorns

So, if you're looking for some inspiration, let's take a look at nine business unicorns that have changed the world – and made an awful lot of money in the process.


Status: Privately Held
Valuation: $38bn (2018)
Industry: Hospitality

The international hospitality industry gained a fierce new competitor when Airbnb launched in 2008. An online platform and mobile app, it offers holiday-goers short-stay global accommodation bookings, listed by other users of the service.

The difference is that Airbnb does not own any of the properties listed on its platform and instead acts as an agency, receiving a small commission for each booking; this transformative business model has resulted in low overhead costs and small workforce requirements, shattering the traditional set-up within the hospitality industry.

As with all good ideas, Airbnb was born out of necessity, too, when roommates Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia began renting out an extra bed in their San Francisco apartment in 2007. The company has since overseen rapid expansion across the United States and Europe, with over 100 million nights booked through the platform in 2018.

Today, Airbnb has surpassed unicorn status and is now, in fact, a 'decacorn' – a name given to companies valued over $10bn.


Status: Acquired in 2016
Exit Valuation: $1.7bn (2016)
Industry: Tourism

Founded in Scotland in 2001, Skyscanner is a real-time price comparison engine for commercial flights, enabling customers to find cheap flights at the click of a button. Alongside the influx of low-cost budget carrier airlines and the surge of price-accessible accommodation, it has helped to transform the way that people travel all over the world.

Having expanded its mission to offer both accommodation and car rental bookings, Skyscanner now serves more than 80m travellers per month, although following its acquisition in 2016 by Chinese travel giant Ctrip, it lost its unicorn status.


Status: Publicly offered in 2019
Exit Valuation: $82.4bn (2019)
Industry: Logistics

Founded in San Francisco in 2009, Uber is a mobile app that enables users to rideshare directly from their smartphone. Vehicle and route tracking, estimated time of arrival and payment are all managed via the app, making things more convenient and streamlined than a traditional taxi service.

As with Airbnb, Uber's origins are rooted in solving a common problem. Following co-founder Garrett Camp's excessive taxi bill at a New Year's Eve party, the former software engineer quickly identified peer-to-peer ridesharing as a more cost-effective alternative. Joined by friend Travis Kalanick, who had previously founded and sold Red Swoosh in 2007, the pair officially launched the app in 2011.

Since then, Uber has not been without controversy; the contract status of its drivers as 'independent contractors' is regularly subject to criticism, while pressure and strike action from mainstream transport workers has seen the company prohibited from operating in several jurisdictions. 

Despite successful expansion into the food delivery market, Uber also disappointed at its Initial Public Offering (IPO) in May 2019, falling way short of its original valuation.


Status: Privately Held
Valuation: $30.5bn (2018)
Industry: Technology

Founded by serial entrepreneur, Elon Musk, in 2002, SpaceX is an aerospace transportation company with a grandiose mission statement; as well as driving the private development of sustainable space transportation, Musk's long term vision is to create a self-subsisting city on the planet Mars.

Although much of the company's bluster is built upon what it might achieve in the future, SpaceX has already many accomplishments to its name, such as the successful launch of the Falcon1 vehicle in 2008 – the first privately developed vessel to orbit the earth. This, in turn, has led to lucrative cargo and transport contracts with the likes of NASA, while it has also made groundbreaking progress in the development of reusable spacecraft.


LinkedIn corporate headquarterswolterke / Deposit Photos

Status: Acquired in 2016
Exit Valuation: $4.5bn (2011)
Industry: Technology

In the business world, networking has always been a key part of building relationships. It wasn't until 2002, when former PayPal COO Reid Hoffman proposed the idea of taking the premise online, that the potential for a global network was fully explored, though.

Using his existing startup and tech experience at Silicon Valley firms, Hoffman put together a dynamic team, with LinkedIn launching the following year; the first wide-scale networking platform of its kind, it snowballed, with the concept and positive user experience paving the way for other social media giants to emerge throughout the 2000s.

Following its IPO in 2011, the company was acquired by Microsoft for $26.2bn in 2016; as of July 2019, the platform has over 630m registered users in 200 countries and is a hugely useful tool for job-seekers and recruiters alike.


Facebook headquarters at Silicon ValleySundryPhotography / Deposit Photos

Status: Publicly offered in 2012
Exit Valuation: $104.2bn (2012)
Industry: Technology

If LinkedIn identified the potential for online networks, then Facebook has arguably utilised it better than any other company in the world; it's a true unicorn story, too, with the company's somewhat rocky inception receiving the Hollywood treatment in 2010's The Social Network.

Launched by a small group of Harvard students in 2003, the platform was rolled out to other Ivy League colleges, before going national and eventually global. Its 2012 IPO saw a whopping $104bn valuation - a record at the time.

Despite its incredible growth and success, Facebook has not been immune to controversy, with long-time CEO Mark Zuckerberg receiving intense scrutiny over the company's user privacy mismanagement, suspected political involvement and data mining practices.


Status: Acquired in 2014
Exit Valuation: $19bn (2014)
Industry: Technology

A game-changer in the communications field, WhatsApp is a messaging tool that allows users to send text messages, engage in audio and video chats, as well as exchange media files using a data or Wi-Fi connection.

Co-founders Brian Acton and Jan Joum created the service in 2009, coinciding with a strong boom period for Apple's app store and allowing the fledgeling app to compete against traditional mainstream SMS and MMS services. As a result, it has since become one of the most popular and heavily downloaded mobile apps of all time, with Facebook moving quickly to acquire the company in 2014.


Status: Privately held
Exit Valuation: $1.7bn (2018)
Industry: Financial

Launched in 2015, Revolut may be one of the youngest unicorns on this list, but it is also one of the most disruptive; it offers banking services via a dedicated app and pre-paid debit card, with built-in functions such as currency exchange, peer payments and cryptocurrency access.

It's not just the company's tech-focused approach that is making waves in the financial industry, though; it the first provider of its kind in the European banking market to offer these services without applying the sector's traditionally steep exchange and transfer commission rates, while co-founders Nikolay Storonsky and Vlad Yatsenko have been able to tap into a young consumer market that demands digital financial services.

Despite resistance from the banking industry, Revolut boasts around 5m customers and has completed around $350m worth of transactions; indeed, following its most recent investment cycle, Revolut is now among the fastest companies to achieve unicorn status in Europe.


Alibaba office in Chinazhudifeng / Deposit Photos

Status: Publicly offered in 2014
Exit Valuation: $231bn (2014)
Industry: eCommerce

The brainchild of legendary entrepreneur Jack Ma, Alibaba represents one of the most inspiring unicorn startup stories in history. Founded in 1999 as a small China-based B2B marketplace, the eCommerce giant is now the largest retailer in the world, surpassing even Amazon.

Despite growing up in an impoverished family, failing countless college entrance exams and encountering rejections from successive employers (including, infamously, Burger King), Ma was eventually able to leverage his determination with the dotcom bubble of the late 1990s. That grit has paid off, too; through subsequent expansions, the Alibaba Group now dominates the retail, e-commerce, fintech, artificial intelligence and technology industries in China, as well as in various markets around the world.


As you can see, the success of these past and present unicorns suggests that identifying and exploiting industry disruption is the quickest way to a $1bn valuation, with many of these companies completely transforming the way we live, work, travel and spend.

If you're struggling to think of a way to make a similar impact, then hopefully you can at least take inspiration from the stories told here. Do that and, one day, who knows? You could be riding a business unicorn of your own.