The world’s most elite startup investors come in all shapes and sizes.
Some of them, such as Marc Andreessen or Josh Kopelman, come from an operating background as former entrepreneurs themselves. They know what it takes to build a great company, and they use that knowledge to try and spot the next Mark Zuckerberg or Evan Spiegel to place a bet on.
Other venture capitalists come at it from a more institutional angle. Mary Meeker, for example, spent a lot of time on Wall Street before making the move to Silicon Valley. She covered technology research for investment banks such as Salomon Brothers and Morgan Stanley, and helped lead famous IPOs for companies like Netscape and Google.
However, despite the differences in the backgrounds and approaches of top VCs, there does seem to be at least one commonality: they tend to be exceptionally well-read. Every new book helps arm them with knowledge, some of which could help give them the edge on their next deal or investment.
The favorite books of top startup investors
Each guest on the podcast is asked to provide a book recommendation, and Hovde has visualized this information.
The most cited authors include Ben Horowitz, Eric Ries, Nassim Taleb, and Peter Thiel
Ben Horowitz and Peter Thiel are fellow venture capitalists, while Eric Ries developed the “lean startup” methodology based on his experiences advising startups. Nassim Taleb is a mathematician, philosopher, and former trader that is best-known for popularizing the ideas of “black swans” and “antifragility”.
The most cited book overall is easily The Hard Things About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz
Ben Horowitz’s book The Hard Things About Hard Things covers Ben’s early trials and tribulations as a co-founder of Loudcloud, which almost imploded multiple times during the Dotcom Bust. Eventually the company pivoted to enterprise software and was sold to HP for $1.7 billion in 2007, proving to ultimately be a success. The book cuts right to the hard facts about entrepreneurship and building companies, relating back to the challenges faced in Ben’s previous endeavors.
Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is considered a modern classic by many. It tells the story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who one night dreams of a distant treasure in the Egyptian pyramids. He leaves Spain to pursue his dream, and discovers himself along the way.
The Master and Margarita, a novel by Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov, is another modern masterpiece. Written during the darkest days of Stalin’s reign, it is a satirical take on the Soviet Union that uses a visit by the Devil as a literary vehicle to tell the tale.
What are the books that have influenced you the most?
Charted: How Long Does it Take Unicorns to Exit?
There are roughly 1,400 unicorns—startups worth $1 billion or more. How many years does it take these giants to get acquired or go public?
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:
(Founding to Exit)
|Unicorn Example||Number of Unicorns
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.
|# Unicorn IPOs||79||13||-84%|
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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