Investors and corporations around the world have become obsessed with the whole idea of unicorns; largely because of Uber Technologies Inc. Everybody, it seems is searching for the pre-IPO technology company; destined to become the next big thing.
The latest convert to the unicorn cult is the Saudi Sovereign Wealth Fund; which invested $3.5 billion in Uber on June 1, 2016. That brings Uber’s valuation to $62.5 billion making it the largest Unicorn around.
Unicorns have been raking in the cash lately the number two unicorn; Alibaba spin-off Ant Financial, received $4.5 billion in April. Ant; which operates the popular payment app Alipay and two lending companies, is currently valued at $60 billion, which would make it the second largest Unicorn.
Even some fairly conservative companies have joined in the unicorn rush. Apple decided to invest $1 billion in the Chinese ride hailing app provider Didi Chuxing (the company formerly known as Didi Kuadi) in Mid-May.
Other top unicorns include; Chinese software provider Xiaomi, room rental service Airbnb, the shadowy data miner Palantir Technologies and questionable social media company Snapchat. Only three unicorns are valued at over $40 billion; Uber, Ant and Xiaomi which is valued at $46 billion. Airbnb is only worth $25.5 billion according to CBN Insights. Palantir is valued at $20 billion; Didi Chuxing comes in at $20 billion and Snapchat at $16 billion.
Is the Faith in Unicorns Misplaced?
Naturally stockholders and others will be wondering if these tech ventures are a good investment. That question is impossible to answer because unicorns are private companies with no obligation to divulge anything.
There is simply no way to know if Uber, Didi Chuxing or Airbnb is making the money their promoters claim. Uber; in particular, is hard to gauge because nobody even knows if it is legal in many locations. The ride-hailing app has been banned in many places including Brazil. AirBnb’s legality has also been attacked in some areas.
There is a “trust us, we know what we’re doing” attitude at work here that will sound dangerous to many investors. That would not be so bad if it was just venture capitalists; or wealthy movie stars like Will Smith, putting their money in unicorns. The problem is that many large corporations are investing in unicorns, presumably with the company’s money.
General Motors (NYSE: GM) invested $500 million in Uber’s best-known competitor; Lyft, in January for example. Volkswagen invested in $300 million in an Uber competitor called Gelt in May. Gelt claims to be growing at a rate of 300% a year but nobody knows if that is true.
So is this money well spent? Nobody knows, but such Unicorn investment is a serious risk. There is no way to know if something like Uber is a cash cow or about to collapse.
The risk extends beyond just the money because companies like GM, Apple and Volkswagen are putting their reputations on the line, as well as their money. CEOs like GM’s Mary T. Barra, or Tim Cook of Apple; could look very foolish or even lose their jobs if something like Lyft or Didi Chuxing suddenly collapses, or worse gets revealed as a scam.
All it would take is the exposure of one unicorn as a fraud, or a failure; to end the current unicorn craze. Skeptical investors will be reminded of the US subprime mortgage craze of the last decade; when money was invested in shadowy entities nobody truly understood.
One has to wonder how long the unicorn craze will last and will it will lead. For all their faults; Ant, Uber, Lyft, Airbnb and Didi Chuxing are providing services and making money.
The Dangerous New Unicorns Coming Our Way
What is truly frightening from an investor’s standpoint is that there are riskier; and more dangerous unicorns, on the horizon seeking corporate cash.
There’s the American startup Hyperloop One; which is trying to make Elon Musk’s theoretical superfast transport solution a reality. Hyperloop One has reportedly snagged funding from GE Ventures, an arm of General Electric (NYSE: GE) and France’s national railroad SCNF, even though nobody knows if its technology will work.
Another questionable unicorn is Cruise Automation; the self-driving car startup, which General Motors purchased for $1 billion in March. It is not clear if Cruise has a single car on the road, the only picture on its website is of a Chevy Bolt. There is also Blockchain – the bitcoin wallet provider – which recently unveiled the Thunder Network, an opened-sourced payment solution; for which it is not even clear there is a market or even a demand.
With these questionable unicorns out there, one has to wonder if the Unicorn Craze will become as great a debacle as the dot.com bust at the turn of the 21st Century. The investment in business plans and potentially theoretical technologies will remind many investors of the internet bubble.
Hopefully the unicorn bubble will not take down any major corporations; or investment banks, when it bursts. The amounts of money mentioned are incredible, but so are the risks that the Unicorn investors are taking.