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You Don’t Have to Be a Unicorn to Succeed

Be a Unicorn

We are working in the Age of Unicorns where startups are aiming for those billion dollar valuations. It’s currently the (paper) sign of success in today’s business environment and the magic number that tops of the list of criteria among those where I live in Silicon Valley. While the list is growing, it’s still a relatively exclusive club for a tech startup or business.

However, you don’t have to have a billion-dollar valuation to be considered successful. There are companies and startups not in that club that are doing just fine! These millionaires are generating tens or even hundreds of millions in revenues and are rich in so many other ways.

Millions in Ideas

Million-dollar companies have million-dollar ideas that have substantive, sustainable worth in the form of products or services that people and businesses want (or don’t originally think they need but soon realize make their life easier). Unicorns all started with million-dollar ideas, too, but then someone got really excited and raised the bar on that idea. Those who have stayed within the million-dollar bracket are still smiling and may now be hatching more than one million-dollar idea.

Some recent examples of highly valuable ideas that are delivering innovation include Qualtrics; a survey company helping turn surveys into data; Instagram, a popular photo-sharing site that is fast becoming more popular with teens than Facebook; Flipboard, a personalized magazine and news reading experience; Lyft and Uber, personal ride service; and One Kings Lane, a flash sale website for housewares and home decor.

There are hundreds more like these companies among startups in Silicon Valley and all over the country that exhibit viable business models that started out as smaller ideas but grew into multi-billion dollar companies. Most of these companies didn’t start off as billion dollar ideas but evolved into the unicorn companies they are today.

Millions in Hard Work & Determination

Numerous companies have bootstrapped themselves to success, going from a few hundred dollars of their own bank account to generating millions of dollars each month. Many of these organizations even went without startup funding from any VC group out there.

Disproving the belief that “slow and steady wins the race,” companies like Buffer, 37signals, and Jimdo have quickly developed into successful, sustainable businesses by studying the market and rolling up their sleeves. This commitment to working hard and smart are key ingredients to any successful firm. Whether they are positioned in the million or billion dollar category, companies still find success this way. 

Millions in Value

Other multimillion-dollar startups did have gotten funding from venture capitalist firms and angel investors who focus on small cap companies because they believed smaller can be just as successful. Not every company needs to be huge. However, every company must hold value in terms of solving a problem, providing for an audience need or desire, and being relevant for more than a white-hot minute. Companies like ZenCoder, Versly, and Rapportive have proved that value in smaller-sized operations.

Other companies have proven success by piggybacking off a billion-dollar business. This creates a win-win for both as a unique strategy for success. Pillow is a prime example. It provides online property management for short-term rentals like those found on Airbnb, a billion dollar company. While Pillow is much smaller in its valuation, it has capitalized on recognizing a niche opportunity tied to the burgeoning short-term rental market and become a market leader straight out the gate. That’s smart and priceless thinking!

Other million-dollar companies like Digger, OMGPOP (purchased by Zynga), Heroku (purchased by, and Wildfire (purchased by Google) were viewed as highly valuable to other companies that recognized components they needed for their billion-dollar businesses continue gaining momentum.

Each of these acquired companies was considerably smaller. However, they had something bigger companies wanted badly to the point where they were willing to spend hundreds of millions to buy them. It’s just another example that good things do come in smaller packages!

Millions in Individual Ingenuity

Many VC’s dismiss businesses outside of the unicorn field because they may not be “sexy” or have some type of “wow factor,” but the truth is these multi-million dollar companies are getting it done. For example, some might snicker when they hear about Pillow Pet, but that company now clears $300 million in annual revenue. The idea was born in 2003 after founder Jennifer Telfer watched her sons use their stuffed animals as pillows. It was a simple idea that has continued to appeal to children and make millions year after year.

Jennifer Telfer is a prime example of many individuals who represent small businesses currently breaking the million-dollar mark or higher. The research shows that there is significant potential beyond hi-tech to generate a million-dollar business. This includes finance and insurance firms, arts and entertainment, retail, and professional and technical services.

Previously referred as “Mom and Pop” shops, these millionaires are entrepreneurs in their own right. Take each of these small businesses and put them together. At the end you’ll have a sizable network of economic strength that is fueling our country’s recovery.

Then there are the lists of hundreds of American companies that are considered small cap businesses. They make under $1 billion but proving quite successful and delivering sustainable success. They also might not be coming up with the next big thing. However, they are producing the goods and services that keep the engine of growth moving forward.

Millions + Millions = Sustainable Wealth and Purchasing Power

The point here is that you don’t have to become a Facebook, Uber, or Pinterest to do well. The signs of success go beyond what is on the surface. Like the companies mentioned here, a start-up needs those go-the-distance criteria for sustainability through all economic cycles and survive fickle customers.

You don’t have to be a unicorn to be successful. Success should be defined by your own accomplishments and what you feel is success; not what some of the mainstream media says is success.

Many well-known startups that are now full-fledged brands have proved that making tens or hundreds of millions of dollars is still a great thing, because it’s about what is on the balance sheet in the long run over the value of the company as a whole. Valuation can often be subjective and involve criteria that tend toward the emotional than the substantive. In the end, whether you are a unicorn jumping over a rainbow or a racehorse going the distance, it shows that the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well and providing a very necessary boost to the American economy.

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