By definition, unicorns are rare and elusive. Whilst the term was first coined in 2013 to describe a privately held startup company worth in excess of USD1bn, trying to find the "next big thing" has long been the ambition of investors across the globe.
However, unlike the traditional "unicorns" of folklore, you don't necessarily know one as soon as you see one. They may appear tempting as potential investments, with promises of significant returns, or involve cutting edge use of technology, but the past few years have shown that trying to pick the next unicorn is far from straightforward. There are as many headlines around losses and fraudulent schemes, as there are news stories about truly game-changing businesses.
In today's connected world, the ability to learn about, or search for new opportunities is unparalleled. It is also more likely that those with novel ideas can reach out to a wider potential base of investors. However, not all of the opportunities "sparkle". The potential for people to get carried away by promotional materials, the hope of fast returns in a low-interest environment or the promise of market-changing products or services which turn out to be ineffective or too late to market, is all too real.
So, how easy is it for retail investors to try and unearth a unicorn?
It isn't easy by any means. Leaving aside the low probability of identifying a potential unicorn, it is usually difficult for start-up companies to offer their shares for sale to the general public, by virtue of investor protection measures. There is also the question of scalability – we have all heard of good ideas which work in theory, but do not easily translate to reality. Funding is usually sourced from venture capitalists, business angels and private equity houses. Private equity investment is typically limited to high-net worth individuals, banks, pension funds and other institutional investors. They are also more likely to encounter entrepreneurs involved with the unicorns, as they focus their time on those who have experience and investment expertise to maximise their own potential.
Investing in retail technology funds is one option available to an average investor. This means they gain the direct benefit of an investment manager's expertise and indirect exposure to a basket of potential "multibaggers". However, the investment also has to bear the cost of a regulated fund structure (which has the silver lining of regulatory oversight). In addition, the very nature of a retail fund structure with a requirement for high levels of liquidity is fundamentally at odds with the idea of investing in early stage, high-growth investments, which are notoriously difficult to value.
The pace of technological change has meant that there are a number of potential solutions to early-stage investing, making it more accessible and potentially more lucrative.
Crowdfunding, whilst not so recent an innovation, has led to equity in businesses being offered to the public via an online platform and participants typically invest relatively small amounts of money. Whilst these platforms do occasionally provide the potential for outside returns, the due diligence on new ventures can be very limited, many funding requests are for wider social enterprises, rather than financial reward per se, and there is also the risk of identity theft and fraud. It is arguable that some of the most effective crowdfunding innovations have actually been those where the participants themselves have a personal or vested interest in the project, or which have a reward-based outcome rather than financial gain. For example, Kickstarter has been established for a decade this year and has found success with its combination of reward-based returns, often with an altruistic angle.
The initial coin offering or ICO is another innovation which can be viewed as an attempt to democratise the way in which an average investor can invest in tech start-ups. A company looking to create a new coin, application or service will launch an ICO which can cover a multitude of concepts and evolve from the offerings of decentralised virtual currencies.
ICOs can offer significant returns, but also carry significant risks. Their decentralised nature makes it difficult to comply with applicable anti-money laundering and countering the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) legislation. They are also vulnerable to speculation, volatility, fraud and theft. One doesn't have to look far to uncover stories of large-scale frauds and criminal investigations (largely in the USA). As with all investment opportunities, if it looks too good to be true, or the company is slow at answering probing questions, then........
In the past year, the appetite for ICOs seems to have dropped away sharply, perhaps due to the amount of adverse publicity, the regulatory warnings, or the recognition that many of the schemes were just that, schemes. The wider focus is now on sustainability and environmental, social and corporate governance SG investing which offers a myriad of potential investments in the use of technology in order to minimise a business' impact on the environment.
In Guernsey, the Guernsey Financial Services Commission (GFSC) promotes the highest standards of compliance and probity and has long sounded a note of caution in relation to virtual currencies and ICOs. Along with a number of other regulators, it has noted the risks associated with some offerings, in particular those targeted at retail investors, given issues around volatility and secondary markets.
This is consistent with the position adopted by a number of other regulators and reflects the focus on protecting investors and on AML/CFT risk. This is easier to manage when the business is involved in the provision of technological solutions to mainstream businesses, as opposed to virtual assets, especially if the "asset" has yet to be developed.
The fundamental tensions between risk and reward, and investor protection and opportunity remain as prevalent as ever. Technology may reduce "friction" in transactions and investments, but it doesn't necessarily provide the level of "trust" that investors require from an online business. It can be used to "horizon scan" more accurately using data, but then who ever saw a unicorn whilst checking their mobile for a status update...?
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