There is a worldwide race going on. But this time, it is not for the moon – though similarly unearthly, as we shall see – it is for the most ‘unicorns’, writes Marian Krüger, MSc Psychology of Economic Life.
‘Unicorns’ are private companies valued at more than $1 billion. Just like the quest for the moon, nations are not holding back with their ambitions: France has called for 25 unicorns by 2025, Germany has set its targets at 42 by 2024 and China and the U.S. are competing for the pole position.
However, this emphasis could backfire and discourage growth in new businesses. Conceiving of start-ups as ‘unicorns’ is problematic in both substance and communication, and potentially may exclude existing businesses.
Metaphorically speaking: Unicorns don’t actually exist
Metaphors typically make sense of something abstract or unknown (target) with something concrete or familiar (source). In this way, when successful start-ups (target) are described as unicorns (source), the former takes over the properties commonly associated with the latter – and this is where the trouble comes in: Unicorns do not actually exist; they are superhuman and carry connotations of scarcity and exceptionalism. When metaphorically framing successful businesses as unicorns, it is these properties that are invoked, inducing a lack of agency and increased fears of failure among potential business founders – psychological states which have been shown to reduce entrepreneurship aspirations. In the end, instead of sparking new business growth, it is potentially reduced.
Setting a debatable example: is hyper-growth the only way?
Explicitly calling for more and more ‘unicorns’ causes entrepreneurs to pursue a hyper-growth venture capital (VC) approach when they may not need to. This is in part due to a psychological phenomenon called the availability heuristic. So much emphasis and visibility has been placed on ‘unicorns’ that alternative, more sustainable business models are not readily available to entrepreneurs. To be clear, while VC certainly has a crucial role to play in new business growth, an unquestioned replication of many unicorns’ VC-fueled growth paths disregards the well-grounded criticism of inflated growth and negative externalities, and the more sustainable alternatives.
A focus on ‘unicorns’ excludes established businesses
Taking a broader perspective, publicly presenting ‘unicorns’ as the path to national economic strength disregards a large part of the existing national economies. While having a national Facebook might be desirable as a public face of an economy, it is actually the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that have given many countries the economic stability they have enjoyed for the last few decades. These businesses have been able to show continued success precisely because they follow a sustainable approach to business, one that incorporates long-term thinking and social and environmental sustainability.
By claiming that ‘unicorns’ are a solution to stimulate the economy and a beacon of innovation, SMEs own innovation efforts and achievements are somewhat ignored. Research has shown that these businesses already feel a lack of respect so further exclusion could have consequences where societies are built on businesses’ local and social responsibility.
Enter the zebras
But there is an alternative: the zebra. Zebras actually exist, they are diverse herd animals that cooperate and co-exist and they link black (profit) and white (sustainability) in their appearance. ‘Zebras’ have existed for ages because they live sustainable existences and embody an approach to entrepreneurship that champions long-term thinking. Using the ‘zebra’ metaphor to talk about successful start-ups invokes these properties and can thereby make (sustainable) entrepreneurship appear more accessible. Instead of taking one’s slim chances and fearing to fail at building that one scarce unicorn, potential founders are offered a more attainable goal, grounded in reality rather than magical thinking.
Herds of zebras are the norm
And they can join an existing herd. Research in entrepreneurship has shown that (potential) business founders are influenced by what they perceive to be the social norm, i.e. the explicit or implicit rules about (un)desirable behaviour. Recognising that zebra companies are in fact in the majority and that building one means joining a herd is likely to increase sustainable business growth. For this to happen, alongside a change to the zebra metaphor, the predominant social norms ought to change as well, presenting the zebras as the norm. This provides more readily available examples of successful sustainable entrepreneurship while also socially including the existing zebras among the SMEs.
To realise this change, organisations like ZebrasUnite have formed, bringing together existing and prospective zebra founders in an attempt to shape the public perception of and the debate around start-ups. In times where the lack of diversity in the start-up ecosystem has become painfully obvious, initiatives that foreground entrepreneurship’s diversity and sustainability are of even greater importance. In order for the metaphor and social norms to fundamentally shift towards the zebra, public communication ought to use their power in and authority over the public discourse around entrepreneurship more deliberately – so that rather than shooting for the moon with a unicorn, entrepreneurs build zebras on a planet that needs them to regenerate.
- Image courtesy of Claudio Schwarz | @purzlbaum on Unsplash
- This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Department of Psychological and Behavioural Science or LSE.
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