A brief field guide to animals of the startup savannah.

Lately, as I comprehensively immerse in the world of startups, I’m becoming very aware of the emphasis on correlating fast growth entrepreneurial business with animals. Animals that roam around on the African savannah, and sometimes in our imagination. I wrote an article recently for Island Magazine on the zebra movement, and how it was gearing up to take on the startup unicorn, challenging its dominance as a destructive force in creating sustainable, equitable purpose driven businesses. Then there are the gazelles and cheetahs of growth and management, and the mice to elephant successes which are the stories of legend found on cave walls and some CEO autobiographies. Confused? Understandably. Time to meet the animals of the startup savannah.

Let’s start with unicorns, the mythical horned creature that has dominated everything from body scrub to birthday cakes in 2017 in a remarkable reification of fantasy creatures and their hypercolor emissions. Unicorns are a consumer symbol of freedom, self-belief, the magic-happening of bumper stickers and other positivity slogans. They are also the signifier of stratospheric wealth for an elite number of fast growth start-up companies known as unicorns, that have a market valuation of in excess of $1b dollars. Australia has a handful of unicorn companies, the leader of the free world of unicorns has 105, with a smaller subset of these firms being super unicorns - reaching a valuation of $10b plus. You might think unicorns are good – massively returning businesses that make their investors vomit rainbows of profit and personal wealth. Zebras would argue that unicorns are Trojan horses, bringing with them social and cultural destruction.

Unicorns the creatures and unicorns the companies have a quite a lot in common. Let’s start with colour. They are comprehensively white. Don’t be fooled by their rainbow glitter vomit, the only pride unicorns have is in their valuations, and their founders are almost unilaterally white, educated and male. There are plenty of glistening horns in their boardrooms too. While gender equity in relation to corporate boards and CEO’s have been a catch cry for decades, like unicorns themselves it remains a fantasy. Here are some depressing statistics that don’t make it to bumper stickers and t-shirts: only 2.4% of unicorn companies are female lead, with only 4.6% of Fortune 500 companies having female CEO’s. If you play that record backwards, that means a whopping 97.6 percent of unicorn companies are all dude. Day-ham.

The concept of the zebra as a replacement for the unicorn was the brainchild of entrepreneurs Jennifer Brandel, Mara Zepeda, Astrid Scholz and Aniyia Williams. Like many other women founders who were repulsed by the consequences of the unicorn fraternity, they posed the question of what the alternative business model was to the one we currently had? The answer was not being begrudgingly let in to the men’s club, being included in a binary only really works if you are part of the majoritarian rule, where all structures are geared to serve one and exclude others. So what did they find to fix what the unicorns broke? And how does a zebra face off a unicorn in the fight for a civil society that is kind and corporate?

The zebra’s key superpower is that it is real. Zebras clearly support people of all stripes of color (and a zebra’s collective noun is a dazzle, which is even more sparkly and awesome than a unicorn). In the zebra business model manifesto, zebra companies solve real problems, generate real sustainable revenue, and have an equal focus on fixing social problems, not merely returning profits at all costs. Rather than the traditional big business growth model which resembles a hockey stick, the zebra company has an inclusive regenerative loop. Instead of pushing at all costs to be a supernova, and for many companies being destroyed by their own unrealistic growth trajectory, zebra companies aren’t looking for massive exits, their return on investment (ROI) are continued growth through capital investment to assist with scale and actual revenue to keep the doors open and lights on. Imagine that.

While the two not quite horses of entreprepocaylpse fight it out, the startup world is also home to another ecosystem of animals roaming on the scale up savannah. Less political and split across social and ethical fault lines Gazelles sit within a curious evolution in the startup animal lexicon according to Scale Up author Verne Harmish – they begin as mice (businesses that startup but never make it beyond the micro size) then if they have the right mix of secret sauce (people, strategy, execution and cash) they become Gazelles (sorry Darwin) leaping from strength to strength as they scale from $10m to $100m in a graceful series of leaps. In rare cases where the gazelles are not picked off by hungry acquisition lions and their IPO pride, they become elephants.

Elephants are massive businesses, with a unicorn level valuation that can crush the other smaller players, and lumber around watching their agile companions and remembering the days when it was easier to turn the business around on a product market fit whim. Elephants in the main aren’t mean and greedy like those unicorns, they are more established,  less vaporware beasts, but they are vulnerable of extinction. To confuse fast growth management texts and metaphors even more, gazelles are often run by cheetahs, who are CEO’s that have a personality that values execution slightly more than soft skills, and don’t tend to change their spots to suit a popularity contest. Cheetahs are contrasted to lambs in Brad Smart’s book Topgrading, but as lambs don’t often stray into deepest darkest Africa, we can see why the cheetahs have a better chance of leading their businesses to be gazelles.

What can we conclude from all of this reverse anthropomorphisation of business characteristics? Firstly, it takes an animal metaphor for us to understand how the menagerie of startups work, and on a base level, we do business along the same lines as our primitive ancestors did, or using the instincts for survival as animals. So much for those prehensile thumbs, what good did they do us huh? Of note, from my lens, is that there is a lot of sprinting and crushing and evolving to rapid size, but less nesting and nurturing and bringing together of the animals to live in harmony, compassionately and sustainable so everyone gets their moment in the sun. Its kill or be killed, and while that is the nature of business, it is little wonder that we have a have/have not binary out of control, and deeply inequitable access to capital and sustainable business for those who aren’t A type animals. Perhaps if we were to characterize startups and their founders and workers as bundles of playful puppies frolicking with kittens and other cute critters, it wouldn’t all seem so brutal. But in keeping with the animal analogy, as someone said to me the other day when discussing top down management – organisations are often like a tree full of monkeys, looking down from the top there are all smiling faces, looking up from the bottom, a bunch of asses.

Polly McGee