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The Secrets of Successful Unicorns

December 2, 2015, 8:39 PM UTC

There’s been much fretting of late that Silicon Valley’s unicorns are too good to be true. But Wednesday morning at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in San Francisco, Aileen Lee, founder of venture capital firm Cowboy Ventures— the very woman who coined the term for private start-ups with valuations over $1 billion—declared at least three of them “built to last.” Speaking with the co-founders of Eventbrite, Nextdoor and CloudFlare, Lee asked the three entrepreneurs to spill their secrets on creating unicorn companies that are alive and well.

Eventbrite’s Julia Hartz credited her online-ticketing business’s customer-centric—and not just customer-focused—nature. Nextdoor’s Sarah Leary cited the importance of hitting upon a genuine market need (her social networking platform serves specific geographical communities and neighborhoods). And Michelle Zatlyn of CloudFlare, the web performance and security business she started with two college classmates, said her company’s secret sauce was being incredibly easy to use; her team got sign-up time down from 6 weeks to five minutes.

Yet the secrets the co-founders had in common were counterintuitive ones, given the prevailing “fail fast” ethos of Silicon Valley: time and patience.


“If you look at the graveyard of companies, they weren’t working on building a real business for 10-plus years,” says Hartz, who notes Eventbrite’s trajectory has been steady, rather than on a hockey stick-like growth curve, since its founding in 2006.

The three women co-founders also disclosed their respective “superpowers” (another Lee term). Hartz named her “deep empathy” for others—a trait that she used to consider “weak”—which she says allows her to better connect with people and make smarter business decisions. Leary said hers, in the unicorn context at least, was an “eye for good teammates.” And Zatlyn? “I’m really good ‘glue’…I hold everything together.”