In a November 2013 blogpost, venture capitalist, Aileen Lee coined the term “unicorn” to refer to internet-based privately held companies worth more than $1 billion.

Lee, the founder of Cowboy Ventures and an alumnus of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, concluded there were 39 members of the Unicorn Club.

She looked at what these companies had in common and found that just 0.07 per cent of internet-based start-ups made it to unicorn status.

“Takeaway: it’s really hard, and highly unlikely, to build or invest in a billion-dollar company,” she concluded.

“The tech news may make it seem like there’s a winner being born every minute — but the reality is, the odds are somewhere between catching a foul ball at an MLB (Major League Baseball) game and being struck by lightning in one’s lifetime. Or, more than 100x harder than getting into Stanford.”

CB Insights estimated that by June 2020 there were a little over 400 unicorns. This is still very rare in comparison to the explosion of tech startups.

For Workhuman to join this group which includes Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Epic Games the maker of Fortnite, and grocery delivery service Instacart is an extraordinary achievement. It joins a select group of amazing Irish founded companies to have made it before: Stripe, Intercom and Cartrawler.

The Currency spoke to all three.


Intercom co-founder Eoin McCabe

Less than two weeks ago Eoghan McCabe moved from being chief executive of Intercom to chairman. McCabe, who co-founded Intercom with three friends, led the business from an idea in a coffee shop in Dublin to becoming a star of Silicon Valley. Being named a unicorn, he feels, “glorifies the financial outcome a little bit too much”.

For McCabe, the real reward was in making a pioneering product and becoming a success on both sides of the Atlantic. McCabe had the entrepreneurial drive to convince Twitter co-founder Biz Stone to back his new venture over a pint of Guinness in San Francisco. He led the business as its valuation rocketed until a $125 million series D round in 2018 valued it at more than $1 billion. Investors include Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers as well as Google Ventures. The goal of becoming a unicorn evolved over time, he told me.

“It was not a goal at the beginning. When we started, I pitched my co-founders on the idea that we could be worth $50 million! But soon enough I asked why not a lot more?”

His advice to anyone hoping to build a $1 billion business? “Think bigger. Way bigger. Most founders think far too small about the opportunities ahead of them.”


The entrepreneur Bobby Healy

Bobby Healy joined Cartrawler in 2005, the year after it was founded by brothers Niall and Greg Turley. Healy had just sold Eland Technologies, a travel software business he founded. Over the next 15 years as executive director, Healy and his team turned Cartrawler into the world’s largest mobility marketplace for airlines.

The Dublin-based private equity backed business was definitely a unicorn until the start of this year. The Covid-19 crisis, however, impacted Cartrawler, causing it to recently sell a controlling stake in the business for €100 million to Towerbrook. It remains nonetheless an incredible business that will come back as people begin to travel again.

Healy, who is today the chief executive of drone delivery start-up Manna, said it was important not to get distracted chasing unicorn status. “I think the focus on valuations sometimes deflects from the true value companies like CarTrawler and others bring to the Irish economy,” he said. “I prefer to focus on job creation and high quality, sustainable jobs for Ireland. In the case of CarTrawler we’ve directly created over 2,000 jobs and many more indirectly. That’s something we (and many others like us) have achieved on our own and in the face of massive competition from international giants.”

He said becoming a unicorn didn’t really feature as a goal. “We never had any valuation target. Our own measure of success was more around big customer wins than valuation. Winning a customer was always a massive celebration for us and the team. Nothing like it,” he said. “CarTrawler hasn’t been sold or floated yet so the question of valuation doesn’t make sense. It’s a private company so until that happens, valuations are just conjecture. Fun conjecture, but conjecture nonetheless.”

What advice would he give Workhuman or any founder on their way to $1 billion? “Same advice I was given many years ago by a good friend: If you’re on a winning horse, you don’t hop off. Keep collecting the trophies…Translated to: Float.”


Patrick and John Collison

A decarcorn is a company worth $10 billion or more. Stripe, the online payments firm founded in 2009 by Patrick and John Collison, is today valued at $36 billion. Stripe is the most valuable private financial technology company in the world. Its first investor was Y Combinator and PCH founder Liam Casey was also an early supporter. From there it went on to raise money from some of the biggest and best investors in the world from billionaire angels like Peter Thiel and Elon Musk to private equity giants Sequoia, Andreessen Horowitz and General Catalyst.

It is now on its series G round, and still growing incredibly fast. Eileen O’Mara joined Stripe in August 2019 after quitting a big job in Salesforce. The NUI Galway graduate is Stripe’s revenue and growth lead EMEA making her effectively its European boss. O’Mara has watched Workhuman’s phenomenal growth as a supplier. “It’s really great to see yet another Irish born B2B company doing well on the global stage, and I’m pretty sure they will inspire many others to follow suit,” she said.

“We’re lucky to work with the world’s most ambitious businesses and we’re always very proud when one of our users grows into a global giant.”

“This is probably the thing that gets me most excited working at Stripe. We’re only playing a small part helping ambitious globally facing businesses reach their potential right here, in Ireland. This is what motivates everyone at Stripe.”

“I can only wish the best to Workhuman and the team there. We’re living in uncertain times, but I can only imagine good things for them if they continue to obsess over delighting their customers as they have done to date.”