Unicorns face 5-1 odds as they wait for public markets to warm

A working model of unicorn death

Earlier today, The Exchange dug into changing investor sentiment regarding growth and profitability. A new report looking at cloud and software companies from Battery Ventures ran the math on how investors are rewarding faster growth from less unprofitable companies — dare we say, profitable companies? — with the data indicating that, at least for now, growth is no longer enough to maximize corporate value.

For startups busy stacking new revenue with minimal burn, the situation is good news. For companies that raised while money was cheap — and sitting on huge valuations predicated on yesteryear’s valuations — the news that profitability is in vogue again is far from welcome. Many unicorns are likely now trapped between changing investor preferences and a general compression of the value of software companies.

Why? Because many a unicorn was minted during the 2020-2021 era on the back of quick revenue growth more than anything else. And, as revenue multiples stretched to the sky during that time period, a great number of startups reached the $1 billion valuation threshold — or a multiple thereof — on the back of small, if quickly expanding, top line.

If revenue multiples have come down, that’s bad news for unicorns. If revenue multiples have come down and growth is losing comparative luster to profits, high-burn unicorns that were once valued more for something else are doubly bound by changing market conditions.

Even worse, Battery points out a few difficult facts about just how many unicorns might be able to go public in the coming years compared to how many unicorns there are in the market today. There’s a lining of good news in the data for truly standout startups. But for the bog-standard unicorn, there’s more than just storm clouds on the horizon.

Why is the math bad?

In the last 10 years, Battery counts 200 software companies that went public. In contrast, the venture firm counts more than 1,000 new unicorns minted over the same time frame. That’s a 5-1 ratio of IPOs to new billion-dollar companies.