Your chances of spotting a unicorn on your way to work are nil. They’re creatures that only exist in mythology and dreams. But unicorn companies are a different story. Rare as these companies are, you’ve heard of many. Think Uber, Slack and Facebook.
If you aren’t entirely sure what the term “unicorn company” means, let me clue you in. In a nutshell, a unicorn is a startup valued at least $1 billion. That’s before the business goes public—if it ever does. Unicorn companies rise to the top fast, and they do it by disrupting the market with problem-solving innovations. Here are three truths all business leaders can learn from these unique startups.
1. Unicorns Make Their Offering and Their Brand Synonymous
Unicorn companies don’t create products and services and search for markets later. They start with the end user in mind. By developing offerings future customers find irresistible, unicorns create brand enthusiasts. Yet what the company sells and its brand identity aren’t separate entities. They’re one and the same.
Unicorns pull this off with more than clever marketing. Many fuse online marketing and convenience. Strategies like accessibility to products and services have helped unicorn companies become who they are today. For example, food delivery services via mobile apps have certainly changed the way customers dine. This marketing method starts with what customers want and how they want to receive it. It syncs online marketing with accessibility by tuning into a desire for a new dining experience.
People don’t order from Uber Eats because they’re hungry. The truth is they want a restaurant dining experience at home. And they want their favorite comfort foods and potential new culinary experiences at their fingertips. End to end design tools have built on this truth with an app that literally caters to it. The technology behind the app serves as the product, service vehicle and brand.
2. Unicorns Are Mission-Driven
Any company can sell anything. But why would they? Unicorn companies like Tesla and InstaCart operate with a clearly defined mission. And these businesses excel at telling the world what those purposes are. Usually, it’s a reason appealing to the core of who the customer is and what drives their day.
However, a mission can also encapsulate how a business helps solve a problem. This issue is typically something the target audience cares about deeply. It could be a societal problem, such as climate change. Or it might embody a personal characteristic, such as a desire to break free of irksome daily errands.
Whatever the mission is, leaders of unicorn companies make it the center of what they do. Their missions aren’t simply slogans on websites and ads. Every business decision, including product or service design, points back to the company’s purpose. At the same time, the mission communicates a relatable story and scalable objectives. You know what the company does, why it exists and where it’s going.
3. Unicorns Expect the Unexpected
Anticipating what could happen can lead to the “what-if” game. Sometimes you get stuck in rumination, overthinking worst-case scenarios. Then again, expecting the unexpected might also save you. Think of when you fire up your car’s engine and get on the road. You can avoid accidents with defensive driving techniques once you learn to anticipate what moves other drivers might make.
Leaders of unicorn companies do the same with market conditions. They’re constantly on the lookout for signals something’s about to change. Those shifts might be temporary or long-lasting, but unicorn companies are good at remaining adaptable. Unicorns aren’t afraid to rethink corporate strategy on the fly, as Airbnb had to do when it tabled ambitious expansion plans during the COVID-19 pandemic. These companies’ teams are avid about analyzing trends, consumer behavior and social and economic developments to see how they might impact the business.
In other words, they’re not slow to react. They don’t say, “This is how things have always been done.” Unicorn companies stay open to novel ideas and find success through experimentation. Adaptability may mean acquiring a hot new competitor and transforming how the business serves customers. Yet flexibility can also mean revolutionizing processes with cutting-edge tech and discovering ways to meet underserved, emerging niche market needs.
Undoubtedly, you’ve heard experience is the best teacher. But in business, you can learn from the experiences of others who’ve successfully catapulted an idea to unicorn company status. While you may be leading an organization well past its IPO, borrowing a trick or two from the unicorns’ playbook can serve you well. Taking your business to new heights means thinking differently. Instead of hoping enough people will buy what you sell, build everything around why they do.
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