UK Unicorn Companies
A free report on the UK's $1b businesses
We take an in-depth look at the UK’s current list of unicorn companies, the investors and accelerators that have supported them, and the founders leading them forward—including key stats and exclusive interviews with members of the herd themselves.
The UK’s unicorn companies: at a glance
- There are currently 32 private $1b+ businesses headquartered in the UK—a further 11 have exited, whilst 2 are no longer active
- 11 UK companies became unicorns in H1 2021—the largest concentration of new unicorns to date
- 4 in 5 of the UK’s unicorn companies are based in London, including all 14 fintech unicorns
- The average unicorn is 7 years old when it reaches its billion-dollar valuation
- There’s a severe lack of gender diversity amongst unicorn company founders—just 5% are women
- Prior to reaching unicorn status, the average unicorn has raised £100m in equity investment, across 4 funding rounds
- 1 in 3 UK unicorns have made at least one acquisition prior to reaching their billion-dollar valuations
- 60% of unicorn companies have previously attended an accelerator programme
The full list of UK unicorns
What are unicorn companies?
First things first, what is a unicorn?
Unicorn startups are private companies which have reached a valuation of at least $1b (currently about £720m). Aileen Lee, Founder of Cowboy Ventures, first coined the term back in 2013, in her article ‘Welcome to the Unicorn Club: Learning from Billion-Dollar Startups.’ Such businesses were classified as unicorns due to the scarcity of privately-held startups achieving this billion-dollar valuation—but unicorn companies are no longer so rare.
Globally, there are now thought to be over 800 companies on the unicorn list, and startup vocabulary is expanding to accommodate increasingly large valuations: companies worth over $10b (like SpaceX in the United States) are known as ‘decacorns’, while those worth over $100b (such as China’s Bytedance) are known as ‘hectocorns’.
How many unicorn companies are there in the UK?
There are now 32 active unicorns headquartered in the UK, whilst a further 11 have exited the private market since achieving unicorn status. Two additional companies, financial services firm Greensill and e-commerce platform provider Powa Technologies, reached unicorn status before entering administration in 2021 and 2016, respectively. The UK’s billion-dollar startups span a range of sectors, from fintech and artificial intelligence, to cybersecurity and healthcare, each with vastly different business models and methods of growth.
UK startups are reaching unicorn status at a faster rate than ever before, largely driven by the maturing venture capital industry. Early access to large amounts of funding, plus mentoring and business networks, allow a startup company to accelerate their growth, demonstrate their potential, and reach colossal valuations at a very young age. As a result, the total number of unicorns is steadily increasing. Despite the outbreak of COVID-19, and the initial decline in investment activity that came with it, a total of seven companies joined the UK unicorn club in 2020, and 11 companies in H1 2021 alone—the largest concentration of companies joining the herd to date.
Why are unicorn companies interesting to look at?
In a diverse portfolio with multiple businesses that may fail to make any return on investment, just one multibillion-dollar exit could mean the portfolio still makes a significant return. This is why many early-stage investors are on the hunt for future unicorn companies to put their money behind. And what better way to spot the tell-tale signs of a unicorn startup than by examining the herd as it currently stands?
Mapping the current unicorn herd
We map out the UK’s active unicorn companies, including those that have exited, to determine which regions produce the most unicorns, what sectors they operate in, how long it takes businesses to reach a billion-dollar valuation, and the types of founders that are leading them there.
Where in the UK are unicorns based?
London dominates the UK’s high-growth ecosystem as a whole, but this is especially true of unicorn companies. Four in five UK unicorns call the Capital their home, benefitting from their proximity to nearly 70% of the country’s private equity and venture capital investors, and access to a world-class talent pool. Hailed as the ‘fintech capital of Europe’, London also claims every single one of the UK’s fintech unicorns.
The remaining unicorns are spread across the country. Renewable energy supplier OVO has based itself in Bristol, alongside chips and processors firm Graphcore. The City of Bristol, part of the Silicon Gorge tech cluster, is a hub for innovation and entrepreneurship in the South West and, with its strong roster of university spinouts and accelerator programmes, could soon be home to more unicorn companies.
Meanwhile, Oxford Nanopore Technologies and Darktrace—the only two unicorn companies to have spun-out from academic institutions in the UK—both set up shop in their hometowns, Oxford and Cambridge. This has enabled them to make full use of their parent universities’ resources and state-of-the-art research centres, plus the large supply of graduate talent in the cities. Fellow unicorn CMR Surgical is also headquartered in Cambridge.
Further North, fitness brand and online retailer Gymshark hails from Solihull, in the West Midlands, whilst acquisition aficionado The Hut Group (THG) controls its empire of e-commerce brands from Manchester. THG is one of just three exited unicorns in the UK to be headquartered outside of London, the others being Darktrace and Skyscanner. Skyscanner remains headquartered in Edinburgh, despite being acquired by Chinese online travel company Ctrip back in 2016. It was the first private company to reach a billion-dollar valuation in Scotland, but has since been joined by Aberdeen-based BrewDog.
Whilst these companies are prime examples of how ambitious startups can flourish outside of the Capital, we suspect future unicorns will continue to be concentrated between London and the research clusters of Oxford and Cambridge. These trio of cities—dubbed ‘The Golden Triangle’—claim the vast majority of equity investment in the UK, and are also the most attractive locations for foreign investors to deploy large-scale capital.
Head Office Location of UK Unicorn Companies
What sectors do UK unicorns operate in?
Here in the UK, unicorn companies are spread across a fairly broad range of sectors, from cleantech and eHealth, to gaming and proptech. And these billion-dollar businesses are applying all sorts of disruptive technologies, artificial intelligence (AI) in particular, as well as blockchain, robotics, machine learning, and big data. Fintech is by far the most common industry for UK tech unicorns, however, with 14 currently operating in the space. These include four of the country’s leading challenger banks, namely OakNorth Bank, Revolut, Starling Bank, and Monzo.
Fintech’s dominance in the unicorn club comes as no surprise, given that it consistently ranks as the top performing high-growth industry in the UK, attracting more equity investment than any other startup sector. Yet the first UK fintech company to become a unicorn, Funding Circle, didn’t reach its billion-dollar valuation until January 2017, with the remainder of the fintech herd coming in thick and fast just over the past few years.
Besides fintech, other popular sectors for UK unicorns are healthtech (with five unicorn companies), insurtech (with four), and food and drink (also with four, including exited food delivery ventures Just Eat and Deliveroo). Meanwhile, digital security and e-commerce each account for three of the UK’s unicorn companies. Digital security and insurtech were two of the UK’s fastest-growing sectors in 2020, whilst all four insurtech unicorns reached their billion-dollar valuations for the first time in 2021, so we could soon be seeing more entrants from this emerging industry.
How old are UK unicorns?
The average age of UK companies at unicorn status is seven years old. There’s considerable variation amongst the unicorns, however, with some businesses reaching their billion-dollar valuations at lightning speed. Within the digital security sector, for instance, companies are closer to 4.5 years old—and around half the age of e-commerce companies at unicorn status. But online events platform Hopin is the only company to have become a unicorn within a year and a half of launching. Having started its life in the summer of 2019, the (already fully-remote) business capitalised on surging demand for virtual events amidst COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, quickly securing its spot in the unicorn club by November 2020.
At the other end of the scale, Skyscanner took 10 times as long as Hopin to reach its $1b valuation in 2016, at 15 years old. Skyscanner arrived on the scene back in 2001, but even among the recent entrants to the unicorn club, time taken to reach unicorn status varies considerably. Having said that, on average, UK unicorns are hitting these billion-dollar valuations faster than ever before. In 2015, the average age of UK companies at unicorn status (10 years old) was 40% higher than it is now. And this trend has coincided with the increase in the number of companies achieving billion-dollar valuations—just two UK businesses became unicorns in 2014, compared to seven in 2020.
Years to Unicorn Status
From the blog
Meet the UK’s Newest Unicorn Startups
Who are the UK’s unicorn founders?
With unicorn companies regarded as the high-growth economy’s leading lights, one can assume their founders have fairly enviable CVs. In fact, many of the UK’s unicorn founders are serial entrepreneurs. Alex Chesterman, for instance, Founder of Zoopla, was already a well-established entrepreneur by the time he started the unicorn property site. In 2001, during the dotcom boom, he started the (now rather retro) DVD rental company Lovefilm. The venture was acquired by Amazon in 2011, after pivoting to an online streaming service, whilst Zoopla listed on the London Stock Exchange back in 2014. Chesterman is also Founder and CEO at his second unicorn company, Cazoo—an online marketplace that allows customers to buy and rent used cars, which also exited in 2021.
Then there’s Tom Blomfield, Monzo’s Co-Founder and President, who previously had a hand in two other well-known fintech startups: GoCardless (Co-Founder) and fellow unicorn Starling Bank (CTO). Monzo’s founding team first met whilst working at Starling, but left the company in 2015 to start their own venture. Meanwhile, Taavet Hinrikus, Chairman and Co-Founder of Wise (the fintech unicorn formerly known as TransferWise), is an active angel investor who’s backed several European tech startups, and is on the board of unicorn insurtech company Zego.
Even for those that lacked previous startup experience, many of the UK’s unicorn founders held senior positions at big name corporates, and already had years of experience, connections, and business know-how under their belt. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that the average age of founders at the time of reaching unicorn status is 41, whilst average age at company incorporation date is 34. But the age of unicorn founders varies considerably in the UK, with the youngest at unicorn status being 26 years old (Johnny Boufarhat, Hopin), and the youngest at incorporation just 19 (Ben Francis, Gymshark). Boufarhat became Britain’s youngest self-made billionaire when Hopin reached its billion-dollar valuation. Meanwhile, fitness fanatic Francis launched Gymshark as a university student, while working as a delivery driver for Pizza Hut.
On the other end of the scale, CMR Surgical’s Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer, Mark Slack, was 56 at the time the company started, and 62 at unicorn status. Similarly, Anne Boden was 61 when Starling Bank reached unicorn status. Boden, Starling’s Founder and CEO, launched the company off the back of a 30-year career in finance, and was awarded an MBE for services to financial technology in 2018. She is also one of just five female entrepreneurs to have founded a UK unicorn—the others being Poppy Gustaffson (Darktrace), Victoria van Lennep (Lendable), Guan Dian (PatSnap), and Catherine Wines (Zepz). This equates to just 5% of unicorn company founders being women.
Gender of Unicorn Founders
According to a report by The Entrepreneurs Network, just 14% of UK residents are foreign-born, yet 49% of the UK’s 100 fastest-growing businesses have foreign nationals in their founding teams. And we’ve found there’s a similarly high rate of international founders amongst unicorn companies, with 18 of the UK’s 43 unicorns having been founded by a foreign national (42%). But of the founders for whom nationality is known, 62% are from the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, only 18% of unicorn founders hail from outside of Europe, predominantly from Israel (8%) and the United States (5%).
Nationality of Unicorn Founders (where known)
How are unicorns reaching their billion-dollar valuations?
Over the past few decades, the UK’s equity funding landscape has matured considerably. It now offers a more diverse range of growth finance than ever before, from Silicon Valley-style venture capital investment, to comprehensive government grants and crowdfunding. We’ve also seen a huge increase in the amount of capital available to high-growth startups. The effects of this are most pronounced at the extreme end of the scale, with 39 megadeals (funding rounds worth £50m or more) announced in 2020, including 13 gigadeals (£100m+). And no less than 50 megadeals were announced in the first half of 2021 alone. These massive rounds are allowing companies to reach larger valuations, in fewer rounds than before.
R&D-intensive tech companies, which many of our unicorns are, have a big appetite for capital, to accelerate innovation, and achieve and maintain a market-leading position. Prior to reaching unicorn status, the average unicorn has raised £100m in equity investment, across four funding rounds. Of all the UK unicorns, Deliveroo had raised the most before joining the herd, with £341m of equity funding already under its belt. Whereas, Checkout.com, OneTrust, and Gymshark had never raised equity before securing the rounds that saw them enter the unicorn club.
In 2020, 65% of equity deals were not announced to the public, yet these unannounced rounds (also known as ‘stealth rounds’) are an important part of many high-growth companies’ growth journeys. This is equally true for unicorn companies, with 58% of active UK unicorns having secured at least one unannounced funding round so far—and for 13 of these businesses, their very first equity raise went unannounced.
Equity raised prior to unicorn status
The increasing involvement of international funds in UK equity deals has further stimulated the market. These funds will often have deeper pockets and more freedom to deploy greater amounts of capital in one go. Indeed, 93% of the UK’s unicorn companies have an international investor on their cap table.
Investors play a significant and multifaceted role in the growth trajectory of ambitious businesses, not only providing capital, but also mentoring and access to their expansive business networks. And whilst there are hundreds of investors in the UK, only a handful have been successful in identifying high-potential startups and guiding them to a billion-dollar valuation.
Index Ventures has been the most active investor into UK unicorns, having backed six companies prior to their unicorn fundraisings so far. As well as holding shares in Revolut, the firm has also guided Funding Circle, Just Eat, Farfetch, Deliveroo, and Wise through to their exits. Meanwhile, fellow venture capitalist Accel has backed four, whilst General Catalyst Partners, Octopus Ventures, Seedcamp, and Balderton Capital have all backed three unicorns prior to their unicorn fundraisings.
Alongside these private equity and venture capital firms, however, crowdfunding platform Crowdcube has also facilitated funding rounds for BrewDog, Revolut, and Monzo. Crowdfunding has been a popular method of raising capital for these unicorns, as they can leverage their consumer-facing brands to build successful campaigns on the site, and mobilise their loyal customer bases to take their own stake in the business.
Top unicorn investor
Accelerating towards unicorn status
Startup accelerators are programmes designed to help entrepreneurs grow their ideas into fast-growing businesses, through mentoring, financial investment, business advice, office space, and access to investor networks. First conceived in 2005, with Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator, there are now over 150 competitive accelerator programmes operating in the UK, which have fast become one of the most important ways to nurture young companies from seed to scaleup and beyond. This is evident in the fact that 61% of UK unicorns attended an accelerator prior to reaching their billion-dollar valuations.
Between them, UK unicorn companies have attended 10 different accelerator programmes. The most popular of these is by far Tech Nation’s Future Fifty, a two-year programme focused on developing late-stage technology businesses. Future Fifty has accelerated an impressive 16 unicorns towards reaching their billion-dollar valuations, including Skyscanner, Just Eat, Darktrace, and Wise. Meanwhile, Tech Nation also manages the Upscale accelerator programme, which counts Monzo, Improbable, Bought By Many, and Zego amongst its alumni.
From the blog
Future Fifty: Empowering Future Unicorns
Growth by acquisition
One quick way to assert your dominance in the market is by subsuming your competitors and peers. By acquiring other startups, a business can expand their customer base, their IP, and their product range and value, whilst reducing competition in the landscape. It’s no wonder, therefore, that one in three UK unicorns made at least one acquisition prior to reaching their billion-dollar valuations. These include Just Eat, with five acquisitions prior to unicorn status, and Zoopla and Skyscanner, with three, as well as SaltPay, OneTrust, OVO, and SumUp, with two.
Most notably, however, THG (The Hut Group) made six acquisitions prior to becoming a unicorn company, and has gone on to acquire an additional 15 more businesses since then. As an operator of e-commerce websites, purchasing e-commerce sites and bringing them into the suite that they own and manage is a critical part of their business model. It’s a very direct example of how acquisition can fuel the growth of startups.
Inside unicorn companies: stories of growth
Through exclusive interviews with Tractable, Starling Bank, Gousto, OneTrust, OVO, and OakNorth, we investigate the unique stories of growth behind the UK’s unicorn companies.
Interviewing: Adrien Cohen, Co-Founder & President at Tractable
Tractable is an AI software company that develops tools for accident and disaster recovery. It uses artificial intelligence to analyse photos of accidents, significantly speeding up damage assessments. The company is headquartered in London, but also has offices in New York and Tokyo. It’s one of the UK’s newest unicorns, having secured its billion-dollar valuation in June 2021.
What’s the story behind Tractable?
Tractable was inspired by the prospect of being able to take computer vision technology from the lab, and apply it to complex problems facing the real world, in a way that is commercially viable. What artificial intelligence can do, which humans can’t, is to run thousands of visual photo checks across different events or instances, all in real time. And in 2014, when the company was founded, computer vision (i.e. how a computer understands what’s in an image) had reached the same level as human performance.
What that means is that, with the right training, you could accelerate any industry that relies on visual assessments. So we looked around for the right problem to solve, and focused on accidents and disasters—as these affect hundreds of millions of people every year, and the financial impact is over $1 trillion.
When did you realise you had product-market fit?
We made sure to work with customers from an early stage—as a VC-backed company, we needed our products to be commercially applicable and to fit into users’ workflows. We were lucky in that our first partners—companies such as Ageas in the UK, and Covéa in France—were open to the possibilities our solutions provided, and were happy to collaborate with us to work on how best we could apply AI to improve their processes for them, and their customers.
One real light bulb moment was when we deployed our AI Estimating product live for the first time, so it was helping real customers in the UK accelerate their claims at the first notice of loss (i.e. on the initial phone call). Seeing our tech being used live, ‘in the wild’, really brought home that we had created something that would help people across the world.
What has been your approach to growth so far?
We’ve always made sure to build our solutions alongside a client, rather than in a research silo, and this has meant that we’ve had commercial fit from early on in the lifespan of the company. This approach hasn’t changed—indeed, it’s even more important to keep consistent as we begin to expand into new areas.
Today, we’re working with a major Japanese insurer to apply our AI to understanding property damage, with the goal of helping people recover faster in 2021 from typhoons. Similarly, we’re working now with LKQ, one of the world’s leading car parts recycling companies, to use our technology to understand how to reclaim parts from salvaged cars more quickly and accurately.
How do you think the artificial intelligence industry has changed since you first started out?
One difference is that there is greater global awareness that AI is at a point where it can actually have an impact on people’s lives. Still, there’s the threat of an ‘AI winter’—when investment dries up, because progress is too slow—and companies like ours must ensure that our work has a clear commercial application and returns. We are excited to see more and more AI company founders focusing on solving problems in the real world, actual pain points, rather than building cool theoretical tech, as used to be a few years ago.
Why do you think Tractable has been so successful—what did you do differently that allowed you to succeed where others failed?
We’ve always had a laser focus on commercial success, making sure to target the biggest possible companies in our target markets and, once we signed those partnerships, to do everything we could to make them a success.
An important factor also has been international development—our solutions are used by over 20 of the world’s top insurers, in 12 countries. That gave our business resilience—when things weren’t going quickly in country X, we could still achieve growth in country Y, which meant we could overcome any speed bumps that might have derailed companies with a focus on a single market. That’s been particularly useful during the current COVID crisis—as when Europe was heavily affected by the pandemic, East Asia was relatively unaffected, and we were able to concentrate on growth there.
What have been some of the biggest opportunities and challenges of COVID-19 for the company?
We moved to a WFH pattern of work before it was mandated by the UK Government, although we plan to return in September as soon as people are fully vaccinated. Before that decision, I wouldn’t have believed it was possible to continue developing a complex AI solution remotely, but how the team has risen to the challenge has been remarkable, and I’m extremely proud of what we’ve been able to achieve.
One benefit of our solution is that it facilitates remote assessment of auto damage. We obviously didn’t design it with COVID in mind, but because they reduce the number of touchpoints along the claims journey, insurers have been increasingly interested in applying them at the present time.
Interviewing: Anne Boden, Founder & CEO at Starling Bank
Starling Bank is a fully-licensed and regulated bank, headquartered in London, with offices in Southampton, Cardiff, and Dublin. In addition to current accounts, Starling provides B2B banking and payments services through its Banking-as-a-Service model, based on the proprietary tech platform it uses to power its own bank. It became a unicorn company in March 2021.
How did Starling Bank get started?
I’ve worked in banking nearly all of my adult life, holding a number of senior roles. During this time, I saw the growing appeal of digital banking among consumers and businesses. People’s lives had moved online, yet banking had not. I knew there was room for a new kind of bank—a digital one that uses technology to meet the real problems of consumers, rather than merely to support the banks’ operations.
Throughout my career, I had been consistently told that current accounts were loss leaders. Banking folklore as I put it. But I challenged this notion. I believed that forgoing the branch network and creating more efficient technological processes would deliver a lean enough cost base to make current accounts profitable. Once this core product was running smoothly, we would have a firm foundation from which to offer other products, such as lending. So I launched Starling Bank in 2014, with the aim of delivering a fairer, smarter, and more human bank.
When did you realise you had product-market fit?
I always knew we had product relevance, but the proof point came in May 2017, when we launched our app. We were out of beta by October and receiving glowing reviews. Our small business account was launched in March 2018. We’ve now opened 2.4m accounts and are at the top of Which?’s rankings for bank customer service—one of only two banks that is a Which? recommended provider. We’ve also won the Best British Bank accolade at the British Bank Awards four years on the trot.
What has been your approach to growth? And how has this changed with every new round of funding secured?
Starling has been focused on its path to profitability from day one. We became monthly profitable in October 2020, and have recorded a profit every month since then. Of course, in the very early days, fundraising is needed to keep the lights on. But as you mature as a company and become less of a risk to investors, you can secure greater sums and begin to scale up and deliver on your business plan.
So more recent rounds of funding have allowed us to evolve the product, hire new colleagues and build our brand. But the focus on steady and responsible growth hasn’t gone away. Our most recent funding round is supporting a targeted expansion of Starling’s lending in the UK, as well as to launch Starling in Europe and for anticipated M&A.
How do you think the fintech industry has changed since you first started out?
There’s more focus from regulators and investors on profitability and responsible governance. The sector has moved on from growth at any cost, and we’ve seen the emergence of a handful of companies that have achieved success at scale. Fintech was very much about failing fast and growing quickly a decade ago, and while that might still be true for some startups, there’s a focus on the culture and mission of financial services brands, now more than ever.
That goes for consumers too. They want to know the bank they’re choosing is both responsible and ethical. It’s one reason we’ve recently begun making our bank cards from recycled materials and campaigning for better representation of women when it comes to money in the media.
What do you see as emerging trends in the sector?
The big shift has been toward products and services that are relevant and useful, and away from those that are not driven by need. That’s what’s really going to differentiate companies now. Furthermore, the companies that produce the very best technology can not only use this to service their customers, but offer that technology to other companies across the globe, by white-labelling their offering. No doubt automation will continue to bring with it cost-savings and new technological opportunities, but for Starling, we still believe a human at the heart of the service is key.
Why do you think Starling has been so successful—what did you do differently that allowed you to succeed where others failed?
We’re known for our execution ability; this is what really makes us stand out. We embraced technology and delivered a truly smart bank, but with humans at the core—in our call centres, interacting by email, webchat, phone or app. It’s been about serving customers in the ways they prefer. We’ve married this with a culture of transparency and plain-speaking. You won’t hear jargon from our colleagues, be it during an in-app conversation or a digital billboard ad.
What have been some of the biggest opportunities and challenges of COVID-19 for Starling?
We’ve supported tens of thousands of small businesses through government-backed lending schemes. That was both an opportunity and a challenge—to ensure those businesses were supported before, during, and after accessing funds. It’s been interesting to note that some companies which accessed capital actually found business busier than ever during the crisis, and so instead used funds to invest and grow, rather than simply survive.
With the pandemic boosting uptake of digital banking, it puts us in the drivers’ seat to take a greater share of the market. This will, as ever, be fueled by building more products that are relevant and useful to the changing needs of businesses and consumers.
Interviewing: Timo Boldt, Founder & CEO at Gousto
Founded in 2012, Gousto pioneered the recipe box offering in the UK. By 2021, the company was delivering 25m boxes to its customers in Q1 alone, equating to three meals a second. Gousto has been recognised in the Sunday Times Tech Track 100 ranking of Britain’s fastest-growing private tech companies for three years running, and reached unicorn status in November 2020.
How did Gousto get started?
Having worked super long hours in the finance industry, I quickly identified a need for convenient and easy-to-cook recipes that were both healthy and enjoyable to eat. It also became clear how much food was being wasted by people with similarly busy lifestyles, and I thought there must be a better way. At the age of 26, I quit my job to found Gousto. To help fund the business, I moved into student accommodation, where I was involved in every step of the process, including packing the Gousto boxes, before hand-delivering them to customers.
When did you realise you had product-market fit?
Having identified a gap in the market, I realised that the optimal solution required a regular delivery service, direct to people’s homes, with all of the ingredients provided and already measured out, and easy-to-follow recipe cards. Since the business was founded, Gousto has grown rapidly, in response to increasing demand. We have continued to disrupt the grocery market through the use of data and technology, and industry-leading choice, meeting customer demand for convenience, sustainable choices, and healthier lifestyles.
What has been your approach to growth? And how has this changed with every new round of funding secured?
For any founder-led business, it can be difficult to dilute your ownership of the business. However, raising additional capital has allowed Gousto to grow significantly and continue to fulfil its mission of becoming the UK’s most loved way to eat dinner. The customer has always been at the heart of our growth strategy. Investments in our technology have been focused on enhancing the customer experience and proposition.
Recently, we have made significant investment to increase our capacity, doubling it in 2020. Our plans to open two further automated fulfilment centres, in Essex and Cheshire by the end of 2022, will see us double capacity again. We have also made investments in our workforce, growing from 500 to 1,000 in 2020, with plans to double this again by 2022, specifically focusing on our technology team.
What do you see as emerging trends in the sector?
There are three consumer mega trends driving a seismic shift in the grocery market today—convenience, health, and sustainability. Gousto is perfectly positioned to capitalise on these trends.
Convenience: customers want frictionless shopping and choice that is relevant to them, and Gousto is making the evening meal easier and more convenient at every stage.
Health: the future of healthcare and wellbeing will see a continuing shift from reactive medicine to preventive medicine, especially nutrition. Gousto’s data-driven menus set baseline standards for recipes, to establish a threshold of nutrient content, as well as calorie ceilings. Precisely measured ingredients also support portion control. In future, through personalisation and the unparalleled choice inherent in a growing menu, recipes can be grouped into targeted ranges to address specific health issues, like obesity, diabetes or hypertension.
Sustainability: the traditional grocery supply chain is not environmentally sustainable. Gousto uses forecasting algorithms to reliably predict supply needs which minimise food waste in our fulfilment centres, with less than 1% food wasted vs 20% in supermarket supply chains. Exact portion sizes also mean next to zero waste in the home.
Technology is enabling us to respond to these trends. Technology has been one of the key drivers of change in the industry, with traditional supply chains being revolutionised by technology. Gousto has invested in its technology and data from day one, and continues to do so, meaning it can significantly scale choice and personalise its offering to individual customers.
Why do you think Gousto has been so successful—what did you do differently that allowed you to succeed where others failed?
Gousto is a data business that loves food, and technology has been absolutely integral to our success. It drives our own algorithms to automate our fulfilment centres. These maximise the speed and accuracy of picking, enabling us to offer 50+ recipe choices per week, more than anyone else in the market, and meet growing daily order volumes. Gousto’s differentiation lies in its 200+ tech team and our focus on data and artificial intelligence. More than half of orders are made by AI, through Gousto’s recommendation engine, which is unique in our sector, enabling more choice and customisation.
Our relentless focus on the customer is also central to our strategy. We obsess about our NPS (Net Promoter Score), which is a key business metric. We track it at every stage of the customer journey, to remove any pain points and elevate the moments of magic that make the Gousto experience so brilliant. In 2020, Gousto’s score was 70, whilst Tesco’s was 29 and Spotify’s was 54.
What have been some of the biggest opportunities and challenges of COVID-19 for Gousto?
Whilst we were already experiencing high growth pre-pandemic, this has accelerated over the last year, as households opted for home delivery over supermarket visits. To meet this challenge, we utilised our technology to help bolster capacity in the short term, whilst we brought forward the opening of our new fulfilment centres to meet increasing demand. More than anything, it has created huge opportunities. Most people across the world shopped for groceries online for the first time, and we believe they are unlikely to go back to pushing trolleys and queuing. Gousto catered for just 0.2% of UK evening meals in 2020, so we are only scratching the surface of the opportunity ahead.
Interviewing: Ian Evans, Managing Director – EMEA at OneTrust
OneTrust has developed a platform for users to manage privay, security, and data governance. The software company is co-headquartered in London and Atlanta, with 11 other offices across the world, including in Munich, Paris, Melbourne, San Francisco, São Paulo, and Bangkok. It joined the unicorn herd in July 2019, following a Series A funding round which saw the company valued at $1.3b.
How did OneTrust get started?
OneTrust was founded in 2016. The GDPR was two years away from becoming law, and other regulations were sure to follow. We understood that these new and emerging global regulations meant that many companies could no longer manage privacy programs manually, and so we created technology to assist and automate privacy compliance and accountability.
When did you realise you had product-market fit?
We recently celebrated our five-year anniversary and met a few significant milestones, including growing to more than 10k customers and 2k employees (including many in our London co-headquarters), raising $920m in funds, with a $5.3b valuation, and being named the #1 fastest-growing company on the Inc. 500. We are the #1 platform to operationalise privacy, security, and data governance, and we don’t just fit into the market—we built the trust market and now lead it.
What has been your approach to growth so far?
OneTrust continuously grows and scales as the trust market evolves. We quickly learned from our customers that, as privacy programs matured, they had broader goals on trust and transparency. We asked ourselves, “how can companies be more trusted, and how can we support them in making trust a competitive advantage?”
Building trust brings together privacy, security, data governance, third-party risk, GRC, ethics and compliance, and ESG into a single operational workflow. To this end, we continue to make strategic investments and acquisitions that go beyond privacy and security. These strategic investments, coupled with our 48,000% growth rate, allow us to offer our customers truly innovative products and solutions that operationalise trust.
How do you think the privacy and security industry has changed since you first started out? Are you doing anything differently as a result?
The most significant change is that organisations are no longer solely focused on privacy and security for the sake of regulatory compliance. Now, the focus has shifted towards making privacy and security a competitive advantage and business differentiator.
From offering consumers’ transparent choices via marketing technologies and preference centers, to evaluating vendor sustainability and implementing whistleblower tools, companies must now integrate privacy, security, data governance, ESG, and ethics into the fabric of their organisations. To meet these ever-changing needs, OneTrust works alongside our ecosystem of customers, partners, employees, and the community, to build and evolve our category-defining, enterprise software of trust.
What do you see as emerging trends in the sector?
Organisations can no longer make trust optional. Consumers, employees, and all stakeholders expect trust and transparency from companies. This expectation is the driving force behind many emerging trends, including ESG and the discussion around AI’s impact on ethics.
Building trust through operational practices and marketing strategies is quickly emerging as a critical component to many organisations’ roadmaps. As third-party tracking technologies are phased out, companies must find creative ways to know their customers. This means brands will need to leverage first-party data that can only be gathered once trust has been established to provide more targeted experiences.
As more consumers, employees, and investors base their decisions on trust, they pay closer attention to companies’ environmental, social, and governance (ESG) principles to include climate change, and diversity and inclusion initiatives. This creates tremendous opportunities in the trust market, as organisations must be able to track, measure, and report on their ESG goals.
Another emerging trend we’re seeing is the discussion around companies’ need to analyse the data ethics impacts of automated decision-making, processing analysis, and profiling. As artificial intelligence grows to enable and power all kinds of new processes and tools to help with cybersecurity and data privacy, businesses must evaluate the ethical risk level for new technologies they are implementing, to balance the benefit with the risks to those involved.
Why do you think OneTrust has been so successful—what did you do differently that allowed you to succeed where others failed?
Our active customer community, real-time collaboration, and “bear hug” approach to supporting our customers has differentiated OneTrust from the beginning, and continues to be what sets us apart in an increasingly crowded market.
We take the time to listen to our customers and actively collaborate and support them. We build our product roadmap with our customers, to improve and introduce new products to the market. It’s common for the OneTrust team to host collaborative sessions with our customers, where we “whiteboard” solutions together. And, because we are truly a global brand with 13 international offices, we can offer same-day support to resolve most customer issues quickly.
Another key differentiator for us is our active user community of more than 20k privacy and security professionals and our global events like PrivacyConnect. Through our user community and events run by local Chapter Chairs that work in various privacy roles within their community, we create opportunities for our customers and partners to network with one another, learn best practices, and be better prepared for changing regulations or updates.
What have been some of the biggest opportunities and challenges of COVID-19 for the company?
The pandemic spotlighted the need for better risk mitigation strategies, third-party risk management, and data governance. In the digital work environment, companies have accelerated their digital transformation timelines, which means that they now—more than ever—must understand what consumer and employee data and data assets they have, where this data is, and they must effectively govern and protect it.
Through tools such as OneTrust GRC, OneTrust Vendorpedia, and OneTrust DataGovernance, we give companies a complete solution to manage risk and controls across their organisations, as well as glean real data intelligence from their data, while effectively governing it to comply with ever-evolving privacy regulations and security frameworks.
Based in Bristol, OVO is a collection of international companies driving progress to net zero carbon living, through harnessing clean, affordable energy for everyone. Across the group, OVO serves nearly 5m customers in the UK and Europe, with intelligent energy technology solutions to decarbonise homes. The firm has been a unicorn company since February 2019.
What’s the story behind OVO?
Founded in 2009, by Stephen Fitzpatrick, OVO redesigned the energy experience to be fairer, greener, and simpler for all. Expanding into smart home services and investing heavily in new technologies, including energy storage and electric vehicle (EV) charging, the company launched the world’s first domestic vehicle-to-grid charger for electric vehicles.
What was it about Bristol that made OVO decide to set up its HQ there?
OVO started out of a barn in Kemble, which we quickly outgrew. Moving to Bristol seemed like a natural step as it’s a city that shares many of our values—a vibrant culture and tech community, entrepreneurial flair, and challenger mentality. We’ve created a great place to work: fair pay, engaging work, flexible working, and access to world-class training, including sponsored MBA courses, OVO University (our in-house training lab) and a bespoke SMART meter engineering programme for our Installation Field Force.
You raised £200m in equity finance from Mitsubishi Corporation in 2019—how do they fit in with your company vision?
OVO and Mitsubishi Corporation share the same vision for the future of energy: secure, distributed and consumer centric, with affordable clean energy for everyone. They are also focused on our long-term vision—this isn’t about making a quick return for them, they are in it for the long run. We’re delighted to be working with an exceptional global partner which is perfectly placed to help us accelerate our international expansion and technology roll out.
What do you see as emerging trends in the energy sector?
The energy industry is going through enormous change, driven by new technology, digitisation and the falling cost of renewables and storage. As other industries like media and finance have been disrupted by new technology, customers are now expecting much more from their energy suppliers. The energy system of the future will be decentralised, distributed, and decarbonised—giving customers more control over their energy.
Why has OVO been so successful—what did you do differently that allowed you to succeed where others have failed?
OVO has redefined what an energy company is, combining digital technology and human insight to completely transform consumers’ understanding and relationship with energy. We are confident in our current strategy, which focuses on growing our UK retail business, delivering award-winning customer service, and expanding our retail reach into new international markets, both organically and by acquisition—as well as capitalising on the significant potential of Kaluza (our leading intelligent energy platform) with new partners, new products and new geographies.
Interviewing: Valentina Kristensen, Director of Growth & Communications at OakNorth
Launched in 2015, OakNorth is on a mission to empower the ‘Missing Middle’—businesses that are the most significant contributors to economic and employment growth, yet still struggle to access fast, flexible debt finance. OakNorth is addressing this funding gap with its commercial lending software, which it also leverages within its own bank. It became a unicorn company in October 2017.
How did OakNorth get started?
In 2005, our co-founders, Rishi Khosla and Joel Perlman, were looking for a working capital facility to support their growing business, Copal Partners, a financial research firm they’d founded three years previously. They approached numerous high-street banks and kept getting variations of the same response—“the computer says ‘no’”. Despite being a profitable business with strong cash flow and retained clients, none of the commercial banks were willing to lend to them. It was too small a ticket to offset the costs the bank would incur in doing a fundamental assessment of their business and structuring a finance facility for their needs.
A few months later, through one of their institutional client’s special situations desk, they managed to secure 100x the amount of debt for a dividend recap. So, an institutional division of a bank was able to support them, but the commercial lending part of the bank was not. This experience stuck with them. After they’d scaled Copal Partners to a 3k-employee business and sold it to Moody’s Corporation (NYSE: MCO) in 2014, they then set out to address the funding gap they had experienced first-hand and help growth businesses achieve their potential.
When did you realise you had product-market fit?
If you look at the SME lending market today, a pattern emerges. For loans of several hundred thousand dollars or less, big banks and platforms such as: Ant Financial, Kabbage, Funding Circle, Lending Club, etc. offer several debt options, including general-purpose business loans, asset finance, and invoice finance, typically based on automated credit models which allow lenders to process loans quickly and efficiently. When it comes to loans of $70m or more, banks can justify allocating significant amounts of time and resources to underwriting because the potential returns are greater.
But loans that fall outside these parameters are either too large to be subject to the automated credit process (from a risk perspective) or too small to be underwritten in the way that big banks do with large loans (because the potential returns don’t make it commercially viable). As a result, this segment of the market has been overlooked and underserved for decades.
What was your approach to securing initial investment? And what do you look for in an investor?
Rishi and Joel had a very successful exit from their first business, so that helped attract investors for their second. We look for investors who share our long-term vision, believe in the mission, can help us get there, and are willing to back our founders and management team. Rishi and Joel believe you should run your business like you’ll be running it forever, so building a sustainable, profitable business for the long-term has always been very important to them.
Do you think there are enough resources to support high-growth companies these days?
The UK is one of the best places to start a business, but we languish in comparison when it comes to supporting scaleups. This was a key highlight in Ron Kalifa’s Fintech Review, published earlier this year, which said there needed to be greater emphasis on making the UK a great place to scale a tech business. If we support scaleups, we can close the productivity gap, the housing gap, generate more GDP for the economy, and ensure that the country’s fastest growing, and most successful businesses are being supported.
What do you see as emerging trends in the fintech sector?
I think we’ll see a lot more focus on building sustainable, profitable business models. I believe the fintechs that develop solutions that help improve the effectiveness and efficiency of existing institutions—i.e. making incumbent banks their customers, rather than their competitors.
Why has OakNorth been so successful—what did you do differently that allowed you to succeed where others failed?
I think it comes down to a number of things:
- A clear mission and vision on how to achieve it
- Strong product-market fit
- A unique understanding of our customers and their pain points
- Incredibly high talent density within our team
- Loyal customers and committed investors
- A forward-thinking and innovation-friendly regulator
We have only just started. The first five years of OakNorth’s journey have seen it secure one of the first new UK banking licences in 150 years, lend over £5.5b to the Missing Middle in the UK since inception, achieve performance metrics which rank it in the top 1% of banks in the developed world, and bring the benefits of the ON Credit Intelligence Suite to other commercial banks. If this is ‘Season One’ of the OakNorth story, the title would be ‘Build’. Season Two has now started.
What's next for UK unicorns?
We take a closer look at the unicorn companies that have chosen to exit the private market, plus potential newcomers to the herd, so-called ‘soonicorns’.
An exit—whereby a business is acquired or listed on a public stock exchange—can provide significant financial reward to shareholders, particularly those with a large stake in the company. For many entrepreneurs, it is the prospect of this sizeable payout which incentivises them to undertake the high-risk venture of starting a company in the first place. For others, an exit can be a method of growth, through nestling under larger companies of similar interest, or a means of securing additional funding to support ambitious growth plans into new markets or regions.
Exits are not without their risks, however: subjecting to the volatility of the stock market can raise a magnifying glass to a company’s (previously private) mistakes or weaknesses, with potentially disastrous consequences to its share price, whilst being acquired risks businesses losing the culture upon which they’ve so far thrived. Equally troublesome can be the additional bureaucracy associated with becoming a public company—red tape, in the form of additional corporate governance requirements, and the challenge of dealing with an increased pool of investors and potentially competing interests.
To date, 11 of the UK’s unicorn companies have decided to exit the private market, seven via an initial public offering (IPO) and three via an acquisition, whilst Wise underwent a rare direct listing (DPO). The first of these exits was Just Eat, which listed on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) in April 2014, at £2.60 a share. The offering raised over £360m, and valued the company at £1.47b. Just two months on from this, fellow unicorn Zoopla also floated on the LSE, with a share price of £2.20. Zoopla raised just shy of £352m, and ceased trading in July 2018, after US firm Silver Lake acquired its parent company ZPG in a $3b deal.
Already proving to be a record year for unicorn exits, Arrival, Deliveroo, Darktrace, Wise, and Cazoo have all gone public in 2021. Wise’s direct listing—when existing shares are sold to the public instead of issuing new ones—was the first of its kind for a tech company on the LSE. Also interesting was the way in which Arrival and Cazoo chose to exit, both merging with a Special Purpose Acquisition Company (or SPAC). But despite the large number of unicorn exits this year, not all are deemed to have been successful, with Deliveroo’s £1b float on the LSE described by many as “London’s worst IPO in history” or (more colloquially) “Floperoo”. Following claims that the company was overvalued, at £7.6b, Deliveroo’s share price fell 26% on its first day of trading.
From the blog
Making Sense of Unicorn Startup Valuations: Is There A Bubble?
Just Eat: A word on Exits
Just Eat provides a marketplace for food delivery services, enabling its customers to easily order and pay for food from their restaurant partners. Founded in Denmark in August 2001, the company aims to offer its customers unrivalled variety in their food choices, and now operates in 24 countries across the world. Just Eat’s unicorn status was confirmed in April 2014, when it underwent a £360m IPO on the LSE.
Was there any noticeable change in the way stakeholders approached or worked with you after achieving unicorn status?
The term ‘unicorn’ did not really enter common parlance until 2013, by which time we had been in existence already for more than a decade, steadily growing all the time. During that period we had engaged with a huge number of stakeholders, whether they be suppliers, customers, regulators or investors, and they had all got to know us pretty well. In that sense, we were not really even aware of being a unicorn, it remained business as usual. We were still doing our best to offer the best possible service using the best possible technology. It certainly didn’t change the way we operated, or how we were treated by others.
How did achieving unicorn status affect your path to exit?
Our valuation was never an issue. We didn’t ever seek to achieve a certain status before listing. The timing was more impacted by the growth we had achieved, the size we had reached, and the opportunities in front of us. We were better able to go after those opportunities as a listed business.
Did the company or its culture change at all following your IPO?
The culture has not changed at all, and that was a conscious decision. We deliberately wanted to retain the entrepreneurial, startup spirit within our culture that had proved so successful. We ensured that our people remained empowered and did not feel constrained as a result of the change in status of the company. As a business, our people remain our greatest asset. Many of them joined because they recognised our unique culture, so it was vital to keep it intact. The business itself has of course changed as we have continued to grow, and we have had to adapt rapidly as customer attitudes and demand shift, but our ability to retain our leadership position has been, in large part, due to our ability to keep our culture dynamic and fast-moving.
The UK's soonicorns
With the growing hype around unicorn companies in recent years, industry eyes have inevitably turned to companies that seem close to securing their much sought-after billion-dollar valuations. Beyond the 43 active UK companies confirmed to have reached this, there are also a handful of ‘invisible’ unicorns—companies rumoured to have surpassed the $1b mark, but who have not yet confirmed this to the media or through their financials—and several ambitious businesses that we anticipate will reach unicorn status in the near future. These high-potential companies have become known as ‘soonicorns’. Find out who our soonicorn picks are here.
From the blog
Soonicorns: Will These 10 Startups Be The Next Unicorns?
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