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Camels Are the New Unicorns

By Courtney McColgan - Runa
Founder and CEO


By Courtney McColgan | Founder & CEO - Tue, 07/25/2023 - 09:00

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In the ever-evolving landscape of startups, a paradigm shift has taken place. While growth and market dominance were once the Holy Grails, profitability has emerged as the new focal point. Startups are being forced to bring their businesses to breakeven with the money they have in the bank, or face the reality of shutting down or selling at a fraction of their future potential worth. 

For many years, the startup ecosystem has been dominated by the "growth at all costs" mentality. Venture capitalists and investors poured vast amounts of capital into high-potential startups, often valuing rapid growth over profitability. The belief was that achieving a substantial market share and becoming the dominant player would eventually lead to profitability.

This approach led to the rise of "unicorns," startups valued at over $1 billion, fueled by enormous investments and often operating at significant losses. Companies focused on customer acquisition, market expansion, and scaling operations, often neglecting their financial bottom line. The mantra was to capture the market first, worry about profitability later.

Over the last 12 months, we have seen the tides dramatically turn, forcing investors and entrepreneurs alike to change their tune on the growth-at-all-costs model. Several factors have contributed to this shift:

  • Rising interest rates: The Federal Reserve began raising interest rates in 2022 in an effort to combat inflation. This caused a lot of capital to leave the startup ecosystem as they could obtain higher returns for their money through other investment vehicles. High interest rates also made it more expensive and difficult for startups to borrow money. 

  • War in Ukraine: The war in Ukraine created uncertainty in the global economy, which led to a decline in investment in startups. The war also disrupted supply chains, which made it more difficult for startups to get the products and services they needed.

  • Broader tech sell-off: The broader tech sell-off has also had a negative impact on startups. As the prices of tech stocks have declined, the valuations of many startups have also declined. This has made it more difficult for startups to raise money and has led to many layoffs and shutdowns.

  • COVID-19 pandemic: The COVID-19 pandemic has had a number of negative impacts on the startup ecosystem. The pandemic has disrupted supply chains, slowed economic growth, and made it more difficult for startups to attract and retain talent.

The shift toward prioritizing profitability has significant implications for startups, shaping their strategies, metrics, and overall business approach. Here's what it means for these emerging ventures:

  • Growth Metrics: Startups are redefining their growth metrics beyond vanity numbers like user acquisition and revenue growth. They are focusing on sustainable growth that drives profitability, such as customer lifetime value, gross margin, and unit economics.
  • Operational Efficiency: Startups are streamlining their operations to ensure profitability. This might involve adopting lean methodologies, implementing automation and AI, and prioritizing efficiency in all aspects of their business.

  • Sustainable Business Models: Startups are narrowing in on business models that promise profitability at scale. This may involve refining pricing strategies, diversifying revenue streams, and focusing on high-margin products or services.

  • Cash Flow Management: Startups are being smarter than ever about how they manage cash. They are balancing spending with revenue generation, avoiding excessive burn rates, and exploring alternative funding options like bootstrapping or debt financing.

With this change in focus, the target for an entrepreneur is no longer the unicorn but the camel. Camels, known as the desert's great survivors, are quick to adapt. They can survive for long periods of time without water or food. They can even carry 200 pounds and move up to 20 miles a day. 

Camels represent what startups need to become over the next 24 months: self-sufficient. They need to survive off much fewer resources than before, learning to operate with lean budgets and finding innovative ways to sustain themselves without heavy reliance on external capital. Like camels crossing the desert, startups must navigate through challenging terrains, uncertain markets, and potential funding droughts while staying resilient and forward-moving.

While this shift represents a significant change for the startup world, it aligns with the principles of sustainable entrepreneurship. Startups that prioritize profitability and sustainability are more likely to weather economic downturns, unforeseen challenges, and market fluctuations. Moreover, they can attract more discerning investors who seek long-term value and stable returns rather than mere speculation.

The era of chasing unicorn status at any cost is slowly being replaced by a more pragmatic and sustainable approach. The camel mindset urges startups to prioritize profitability, operational efficiency, and innovation while being agile enough to adapt to changing market conditions. By adopting this approach, startups can secure their footing in the business landscape, surviving and thriving even in challenging times. As the startup ecosystem continues to evolve, the camel will be the symbol of strength, resilience, and success for the entrepreneurs of the future.

Photo by:   Courtney McColgan

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