Unicorns are mythical creatures, and in medieval lore they were visible only to very select people of exceptional purity. In Silicon Valley, however, if you miss a unicorn, you can always wait for the next one. After all, there are 90 of them.

In the tech world, of course, a unicorn is not a flitting creature of fancy, but something very different: A startup that is a very tangible, concrete evidence of just how much money is looking for a home in Silicon Valley. “Unicorn” has become a widely used shorthand for startups who have won the techie jackpot: companies that are worth $1 billion or more, solely through fundraising and the generosity and faith of venture capitalists.

Over a dozen unicorns, including Lyft and Pure Storage, a Flash-based enterprise storage company, had a presence at this week’s Collision conference in Las Vegas, which bills itself as “a meeting place for people who are both building the companies of tomorrow and managing the companies of today.”

The specter over the tributes to startups and techie success is the inevitable fall to earth. Some of those high-flying businesses will never live up to those stratospheric expectations, conceded Paddy Cosgrave, the Irish entrepreneur who runs the conference, as well as the annual Web Summit in Dublin. ”

But that has always been the nature of high-growth, high-profile private companies,” he added. In other words: Unicorns don’t have wings.


The reality behind the myth

That ultimate flightlessness — the inevitable fall to earth — is partly why in Silicon Valley, “unicorn” has become something of a dirty word.

John Collison, president of the online and mobile payments company Stripe, gives voice to the disdain for unicorns. Collison cofounded Stripe with his brother Patrick, who serves as CEO. The payments company, which lets businesses and individuals process payments and charges a flat 2.9% fee (plus 30 cents) for each transaction, is used by clients such as Apple, Facebook, Twitter, Lyft and Instacart.

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