What does it mean to become a unicorn business?

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The pinnacle of achievement for many scale-up businesses is to reach ‘unicorn’ status. Business Leader recently spoke to two UK companies that have hit the fabled $1bn (c.£760m) valuation this year.

Anne Boden MBE, Founder and CEO of the digital bank, Starling, spoke to Business Leader about becoming a unicorn company.

What does it mean to Starling to reach unicorn status?

We achieved unicorn status with our latest, Series D, funding round. What was important about this round is that it diversified Starling’s investor base to bring in some of the world’s biggest financial heavyweights and institutional investors.

These new investors will bring a wealth of experience as we enter the next stage of growth, while the continued support of our existing backers represents a huge vote of confidence.

What have been the main challenges you’ve faced?

We’ve aimed to achieve sustainable growth, rather than go for growth at any cost. To build a profitable digital bank from scratch, you must first lay firm foundations, with a proper regulatory framework, a strong technology architecture and a clear product roadmap. And you must learn to control costs.

This takes time, effort, and resources. It may seem to slow down growth, but it puts you on a clear path to profitability and are better placed to adapt to changing market conditions.

What does it take to exponentially grow a business in your sector?

The speed in which you grow is not important. What is important is being relevant and exceeding customer expectations. At Starling we haven’t rushed anything, and we constantly check what we are doing to ensure it is the best it can possibly be. Once this is all in place you can focus on brand awareness.

What are the company’s plans for the future?

We continue to have a strategic goal of taking the Starling brand into Europe; we’re building out our lending and are already on record as saying that we are looking for acquisition targets in this space.

Ray Chohan, Founder, West & VP New Ventures at PatSnap spoke to Business Leader about the achievement.

What does it mean to reach unicorn status?

Becoming a unicorn is a special milestone for any company. Indeed, there are only 728 private companies worldwide that can boast unicorn status – being one of them is truly humbling.

Back in 2013, I remember going for dinner with the other PatSnap founders. We spoke about the dream of reaching a valuation of $1bn-plus, but it seemed completely out of reach.

However, thanks to a highly dedicated team, collaborative culture, impressive product, and huge market scope, just eight years later we’re proud to call ourselves a genuine information services unicorn, pioneering the future of connected innovation intelligence.

What have been the main challenges to achieving this growth?

While the total addressable market was bigger than we ever imagined, having the right product, and experiencing huge global demand wasn’t enough to achieve consistent growth. In any business, your people are your biggest asset – they’re the key to realising your goals.

It’s all about people and cultivating an awesome culture – attracting, recruiting, and retaining top talent. Crucially, this talent base must have the right values to shape a strong culture and inspire the team to execute against corporate objectives. These elements have been the most difficult elements to get right.

Culture eats strategy every day of the week. Our culture is based around inclusion, integrity, innovation and providing the environment to take risks and express yourself. Our team really buys into this mentality, and this has been a significant factor in our continued growth.

What does it take to exponentially grow a business in your sector?

Our strategy is simple – build the best possible product, create an inspiring vision and foster a company-wide culture of ambition to expand into previously untapped blue ocean markets.

We were careful to hire the best people from the outset and give them the freedom to be entrepreneurial. This has seen us grow exponentially – expanding rapidly into sectors including life sciences and chemicals, as well as further developing the IP space.

What are the company’s future plans?

We are hugely ambitious and have a clear focus on innovation. We want to continue developing new solutions, continue delighting our customers and continue building the best possible platform for our staff to thrive.

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