When Credit Karma began in 2007, venture capital dollars were a lot scarcer than they are today. In 2015, a significant increase in private market investment has driven a subsequent spike in attention around valuations and led to the now probably over-hyped "unicorn club" for companies with valuations greater than $1 billion, which Credit Karma joined in September 2014.
In our earlier days as a company, user growth was the biggest focal point in the industry, with everyone talking about the rise of Facebook or the growth of Twitter, but valuation has since taken over as the major talking point in the press. Reaching a $1 billion valuation was never a goal of ours and we never raised money specifically to get there. Either way, it's a mark that attracts a lot of attention whatever your thoughts are on it.
A little over one year since joining the "club," it's taught me some interesting things about valuations and labels, and the real meaning of building a great business.
There's a definite brand benefit
When you pass the $1 billion valuation mark you see an immediate change in the way you're seen by the press. It's become such a noted hump now, that I think companies that are close want to stretch out to get over it. For the time being, we may see less and less startups valued at $800 or $900 million. There can be a big bolster to your brand when you join the unicorn club, which I think we definitely saw at Credit Karma. It can be a signal to outsiders that there's something special about your business, which is validating. The Wall Street Journal and Fortune maintain unicorn lists and pay close attention to you. The valuation means that there's a clear box reporters can put you in that is meaningful to them.
That attention can be a double-edged sword if you're not ready
In 2015, more people are looking at Credit Karma. For me it's hard to tell if that's because more people are using our products (we've grown past 45 million members in 2015) or because we joined a club that every startup wants to be a part of. Either way, increased attention to our company's prospects and strengths is definitely one of the biggest changes since we first got a billion-dollar-plus valuation. Spending some time under the radar in our early days has worked in our favor here. It took us seven years as a business to reach a $1 billion valuation, where some companies get to this mark now in two or three years. Having that added time to mature as a business has meant that when we got there, our fundamentals were really strong and we've coped well with drawing more attention.
Labels change how people think about you, but not your real business concerns
It might take a little while, but after the excitement of being inducted into the unicorn club, you quickly realize that labels don't matter and whatever business impact the valuation had was mostly external. The increased scrutiny from the press can lead you to step into a spotlight you don't want. The valuation can distract people from focusing on the strengths in your business that drove that high valuation in the first place. You're still left exactly where you were, building your company. You still have to create a meaningful business. You still have to execute.
With more than 100 of these formerly mythical creatures running around, a unicorn is almost as rare as a horse. As the club gets bigger, whatever benefit to your brand there is will get diluted, if it hasn't already. Things might have been different even five years ago, when a billion-dollar valuation was an actual rarity. Everyone is so used to the term now that it will eventually lose its shine.
Building a business will always be a marathon, not a sprint
Getting a high valuation is a sprint that can distract companies from the marathon of realizing their real goals. Creating ongoing value--for both Credit Karma members and our investors--takes a long time. A one-time valuation doesn't mean much no matter how high it is; trying to build something that matters is more important. Focusing on a short-term metric for success can give people the wrong perspective internally, inflating a brand without building a business. It can create a set of expectations and pressures that might not be obvious at the time, but can come with real business risk.