[SIGCIS-Members] So, about these "unicorns"...

Thomas Haigh thaigh at computer.org
Tue Apr 7 21:23:44 PDT 2015



To raise a question that may or may not turn out to have an explanation
within our domain of expertise, I've been struck recently by frequent
references to "unicorns" in the business press. This crystalized over
breakfast last week when I noticed an article "Stockholm: The Unicorn
Factory" in my usually reserved Financial Times. 


Apparently the consensus definition of a "unicorn" in this context is a
newish company worth more than $1 billion. Stockholm has more per capita
than anywhere but Silicon Valley. A total output of five sounds more like an
atelier than a factory, and unicorns probably come from unicorn farms rather
than assembly lines, but that's not really the point.


The point is: unicorns are not just vanishingly rare. They're mythical.
Until recently, if someone told me I was pursuing a unicorn I'd have assumed
they meant I was wasting my time. So where does the metaphor come from?
Something that's very rare but very valuable might be worth pursuing.
Something that is flat-out imaginary seems a bad goal for investment dollars
or public policy. 


Is this something to do with the popularity of fantasy literature in the
tech field? Did it start as some kind of joke and get out of hand? A quick
Google search suggests that it was popularized with
http://techcrunch.com/2013/11/02/welcome-to-the-unicorn-club/, which offers
no particular justification for the term beyond "to us, it means something
extremely rare, and magical."





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