Gilt Groupe Was A Different Type of ‘Unicorn’

Updated: Jan 08, 2016 6:21 PM UTC

Gilt Groupe yesterday was acquired by Hudson's Bay Co., the Canadian parent company of Saks Fifth Avenue, for $250 million in cash. That may sound like a lot to pay for the luxury-focused flash sales site, but it's a much lower valuation than Gilt received from its venture capital investors ― thus prompting several stories about how Gilt is emblematic of how several unicorns are about to become unicorpses.

Yes, Gilt raised money back in early 2011 at a valuation above $1 billion. In fact, it did so before companies like Airbnb, Snapchat or Uber. But unlike most of its fellow unicorns, Gilt had left its stable long before Hudson's Bay came calling.

New York-based Gilt laid off 10% of its employees in 2012 and soon shuttered and sold some of its non-core verticals. In 2013 it switched CEOs. And then came February 2015, when the company raised $46 million in new venture capital funding. The deal was a recapitalization at a post-money valuation just north of $600 million (per VC Experts). Existing investors saw their preferred shares convert to common. In other words, investor hope for Gilt had dimmed at the very time that most other tech startups ― including in the e-commerce space ― were watching their valuations skyrocket.

This isn't to say that Gilt won't go down as a cautionary tale. And I'm certainly not ignoring private-market valuation contraction or what I see to be the folly of startups not going public when they had the chance.

But Gilt simply isn't of the same vintage of most other unicorns, which means that it was riding different trend waves. As such, its (relative) failure should not be used as predictive evidence of what will or won't happen to other companies that have been valued at $1 billion. There are more differences than similarities, even if they both disappoint in the end.