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Charted: How Long Does it Take Unicorns to Exit?

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Charting How Many Years Unicorns take to Exit

How Long Does it Take For Unicorns to Exit?

For most unicorns—startups with a $1 billion valuation or more—it can take years to see a liquidity event.

Take Twitter, which went public seven years after its 2006 founding. Or Uber, which had an IPO after a decade of operation in 2019. After all, companies first have to succeed and build up their valuation in order to not go bankrupt or dissolve. Few are able to succeed and capitalize in a quick and tidy manner.

So when do unicorns exit, either successfully through an IPO or acquisition, or unsuccessfully through bankruptcy or liquidation? The above visualization from Ilya Strebulaev breaks down the time it took for 595 unicorns to exit from 1997 to 2022.

Unicorns: From Founding to Exit

Here’s how unicorn exits broke down over the last 25 years. Data was collected by Strebulaev at the Venture Capital Initiative in Stanford and covers exits up to October 2022:

Years
(Founding to Exit)
Unicorn ExampleNumber of Unicorns
1997‒2022
1YouTube10
2Instagram31
3Groupon41
4Zynga43
5Salesforce36
6Alphabet (Google)51
7Tesla35
8Zoom59
9Coursera44
10Uber Technologies45
11WeWork46
12Airbnb35
13Credit Karma18
14SimilarWeb19
1523andMe15
16Sonos11
17Roblox12
18Squarespace6
19Vizio9
>20Cytek17

Overall, unicorns exited after a median of eight years in business.

Companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Indeed are among the unicorns that exited in exactly eight years, which in total made up 10% of tracked exits. Another major example is Zoom, which launched in 2011 and went public in 2019 at a $9.2 billion valuation.

There were also many earlier exits, such as YouTube’s one-year turnaround from 2005 founding to 2006 acquisition by Google. Groupon also had an early exit just three years after its founding in 2008, after turning down an even earlier acquisition exit (also through Google).

In total, unicorn exits within 11 years or less accounted for just over three-quarters of tracked exits from 1997 to 2022. Many of the companies that took longer to exit also took longer to reach unicorn status, including website company Squarespace, which was founded in 2003 but didn’t reach a billion-dollar valuation until 2017 (and listed on the NYSE in 2021).

Unicorns, by Exit Strategy

Broadly speaking, there are three main types of exits: going public through an IPO, SPAC, or direct listing, being acquired, or liquidation/bankruptcy.

The most well-known are IPOs, or initial public offerings. These are the most common types of unicorn exits in strong market conditions, with 2021 seeing 79 unicorn IPOs globally, with $83 billion in proceeds.

20212022% Change
# Unicorn IPOs7913-84%
Proceeds$82.9B$5.3B-94%

But the number of IPOs drops drastically given weaker market performance, as seen above. At the end of 2022, an estimated 91% of unicorn IPOs listed since 2021 had share prices fall below their IPO price.

A less common unicorn exit is an SPAC (special purpose acquisition company), although they’ve been gaining momentum and were used by WeWork and BuzzFeed. With an SPAC, a shell company raises money in an IPO and merges with a private company to take it public.

Finally, while an IPO lists new shares to the public with an underwriter, a direct listing sells existing shares without an underwriter. Though it was historically seen as a cheaper IPO alternative, some well-known unicorns have used direct listings including Roblox and Coinbase.

And as valuations for unicorns (and their public listings) have grown, acquisitions have become less frequent. Additionally, many major firms have been buying back shares since 2022 to shore up investor confidence instead of engaging in acquisitions.

Slower Exit Activity

While the growth of unicorns has been exponential over the last decade, exit activity has virtually ground to a halt in 2023.

Investor caution and increased conservation of capital have contributed to the lack of unicorn exits. As of the second quarter of 2023, just eight unicorns in the U.S. exited. These include Mosaic ML, an artificial intelligence startup, and carbon recycling firm LanzaTech.

As exit activity declines, companies may halt listing plans and eventually slow expansion and cut costs. What’s uncertain is whether or not this lull in unicorn exits—and declining influx of private capital influx—is temporary or part of a long-term readjustment.

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This article was published as a part of Visual Capitalist's Creator Program, which features data-driven visuals from some of our favorite Creators around the world.

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Ranked: The World’s 50 Largest Private Equity Firms

In this graphic, we show the largest private equity firms in the world—from titan Blackstone to China’s leading alternative funds.

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The World’s 50 Largest Private Equity Firms

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

In 2023, private equity firms controlled $8.2 trillion in assets globally according to McKinsey & Company, a figure that has rapidly expanded since the industry first emerged 40 years ago.

As large investors such as pension funds and insurance companies increasingly look to private markets, these alternative asset managers have seen their assets grow by more than twofold in the last five years.

This graphic shows the top 50 private equity firms worldwide, based on data from Private Equity International (PEI).

The Top 50 Private Equity Firms

To determine the rankings, private equity firms were defined as those that raise capital with the purpose of directly investing in businesses, covering diversified private equity, venture capital, growth equity, buyouts, along with turnaround or control-oriented distressed investment capital.

The ranking does not include funds of funds, private investment in public equity (PIPE), or funds that follow a secondaries, real estate, infrastructure, hedge fund, debt or mezzanine strategies.

Below, we show the 50 biggest private equity companies around the world, measured by the scale of capital raised over the five-year period ending March 31, 2023:

RankingFund ManagerCityCapital Raised
1BlackstoneNew York$125.6B
2KKRNew York$103.7B
3EQTStockholm$101.7B
4Thoma BravoChicago$74.1B
5The Carlyle GroupWashington DC$69.7B
6TPGFort Worth$55.0B
7Advent InternationalBoston$52.9B
8HgLondon$51.0B
9General AtlanticNew York$48.7B
10Warburg PincusNew York$48.5B
11Silver LakeMenlo Park$48.3B
12Goldman SachsNew York$45.4B
13Bain CapitalBoston$44.3B
14Clearlake Capital GroupSanta Monica$44.0B
15CVC Capital PartnersLuxembourg$41.8B
16Vista Equity PartnersAustin$41.5B
17Clayton, Dubilier & RiceNew York$41.1B
18Hellman & FriedmanSan Francisco$40.9B
19Insight PartnersNew York$40.2B
20Leonard Green & PartnersLos Angeles$39.6B
21Permira AdvisersLondon$34.8B
22CinvenLondon$32.7B
23Brookfield Asset ManagementToronto$31.2B
24Nordic CapitalSaint Helier$31.1B
25Genstar CapitalSan Francisco$29.9B
26Francisco PartnersSan Francisco$28.3B
27Tiger Global ManagementNew York$28.3B
28Blue Owl CapitalNew York$27.2B
29Partners GroupZug$26.7B
30Ares ManagementLos Angeles$26.6B
31Hillhouse Capital GroupSingapore$26.4B
32L CattertonGreenwich$24.1B
33Neuberger Berman
Private Markets
New York$23.7B
34PAI PartnersParis$23.7B
35TA AssociatesBoston$23.5B
36Apollo Global ManagementNew York$22.8B
37Stone Point CapitalGreenwich$22.3B
38BC PartnersLondon$20.3B
39Adams Street PartnersChicago$20.2B
40BlackRockNew York$19.9B
41BDT & MSD PartnersChicago$19.5B
42Veritas CapitalNew York$19.0B
43BridgepointLondon$18.0B
44ArdianParis$17.9B
45HarbourVest PartnersBoston$17.5B
46China Reform Fund
Management Corporation
Beijing$16.8B
47Andreessen HorowitzMenlo Park$16.7B
48Thomas H. Lee PartnersBoston$16.0B
49Summit PartnersBoston$16.0B
50PSG EquityBoston$15.8B

Private equity titan Blackstone is the top in the United States and the world, raising $125.6 billion in capital from 2018 to 2023.

Headquartered in New York, Blackstone’s total assets under management stood at $991 billion as of the first quarter of 2023, and have since surpassed $1 trillion this year. For perspective, this is comparable to the GDP of the Netherlands.

Following next in line are KKR and Sweden’s EQT, each raising over $100 billion. In fact, this was the first time three firms achieved this $100 billion equity-raise milestone in PEI’s ranking over a five-year period. This was particularly notable given a challenging fundraising landscape amid higher borrowing costs and lagging dealmaking activity.

North American Firms Dominate Private Equity

As we can see, the vast majority of the biggest private equity firms are based in America, accounting for 36 of the top 50 firms globally. North American PE firms made up $1.34 trillion (72%) of the $1.85 trillion raised by the top 50 firms in the ranking.

Falling in second by a wide margin is Europe, with nine firms making up $179 billion (9.7%) of the total funds raised. Many of Europe’s largest private equity firms are based in London, England, with the most prominent asset managers in the city being Hg and Permira Advisors.

Across Asia, the top alternative investment firm was Singapore-based Hillhouse Capital Group, which launched in 2005. The firm has backed several internet companies spanning from Tencent, the largest publicly-traded company in China, to Baidu, but has faced increasing setbacks amid regulatory crackdowns and a sluggish Chinese stock market.

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