In the middle of last year, two of the biggest names in bike sharing, Ofo and Mobike, were grabbing headlines with valuations topping US$2 billion. This put them squarely among the ranks of the so-called “unicorns” – start-ups with a value over a billion dollars.

What a difference a few months makes.

As we witness the bike-sharing boom fizzle, both firms are in spectacular retreat; maybe near total collapse. Ofo is on the verge of declaring bankruptcy while Mobike recently announced it was quitting Singapore and most of its other Asian ventures, retreating to its home market in China to lick its wounds and try to consolidate.

So, what happened? How did firms that were only recently “valued” highly then see that value evaporate so quickly?

It’s an issue that is not confined only to bike-sharing. The move-fast-and-break-things tech industry is littered with examples of start-ups that became the darling of the business pages at one moment – drawing multi-billion dollar valuations – yet months later have collapsed into nothing.

Most of these failures occurred not because of some act of god or other unforeseen misfortune, but because of fundamental problems with either the firm’s business model or its capabilities. In other words, factors that you might think would be central to determining its value.

Hard facts

Of course, on the flipside we have also seen many highly-valued start-ups that have lived up to their valuation. Some have gone on to deliver solid, or even outstanding performance.

Yet in some ways these successes only add to the confusion.

Thousands of impounded share bikes at a Chinese storage facility

 

This raises obvious questions about what meaning such valuations really have, not least: do valuations have any real “value” to them?

Look back a few decades and valuations of firms used to be based on tangible hard facts – costs, output of products, sales and cash flows. What dictated the valuation was the flow of money.

The tech boom has changed much of that.

Today valuations are frequently based on ideas, inspiring or compelling stories, and on other nebulous, concepts. The result is that often a firm’s purported “value”comes from of bagging attention, capturing eyeballs, and visions – glitzily presented by the firm’s founders – of how some new revolutionary software or device will be perceived.

Putting it differently, it is based on expected growth of the company. Yet, time and again we have seen the expected never materialise.

‘Apple of healthcare’

One stark example of an overblown valuation is the now defunct California-based biotech firm Theranos, the story of which is the subject of a recent HBO documentary

Launched by Stanford dropout Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos attracted more than US$700 million in funding on a promise to revolutionise preventative medicine using a compact in-home bloodtesting machine called the Edison. Theranos and its founder gave slick presentations and attracted huge media coverage, luring in many high-profile investors.

The firm was touted by some as ”the Apple of healthcare” and Holmes even went as far as copying Steve Jobs clothing choices by sporting his trademark black polo neck.

At its peak in 2014, Theranos was valued at more than US$10 billion.

But a year later an investigation by the Wall Street Journal exposed the truth behind the company’s “breakthrough” technology. Behind all the hype, and behind a wall of secrecy, it was using routine medical equipment to carry out tests that were supposedly done by its Edison machine.

Theranos rapidly collapsed and the firm’s founder and senior executives now face a raft of fraud charges.

Of course, by no means are all overvalued start-ups as potentially fraudulent as Theranos. Neither are all failed, formerly highly valued firms, necessarily criminal. But the case sends a cautionary message about valuations and the conditions that can fuel them.

‘Get big fast’

One important factor has been a decade of near zero interest rates, leading to a mountain of excitable investor cash eagerly chasing “the next big thing”.

Fed by gushing headlines about soaring valuations, this frenzy has led to a “get big fast” approach to business development, based on a race to build market share and a blind faith that overlooks or obscures key fundamentals such as revenue growth.

This has produced an ecosystem of unicorns, none of which have to reveal detailed results, talk to analysts or open their books because they haven’t gone public. As a result transparency has plunged and the potential for outright fraud, as was seen with Theranos, is much higher.

Of course, overhyped investments are nothing particularly new. The Dutch had their own experience with the tulip craze back in the seventeenth century. But in the scenarios we see playing out today, technology has played a major role in fuelling the scope, speed and scale at which the hype spreads.

In the boom-to-bust tale of bike sharing, many firms built their business models on the promise of vast amounts of supposedly valuable data they would collect about users.

Riding on the back of slick, social media-driven marketing campaigns, they raced to build market share, flooding cities with bikes which were too cheap, too heavy and unreliable, and too poorly maintained to build any kind of loyal user base. They also failed to anticipate the regulatory backlash from authorities fed up with the rash of bikes littering their streets.

On top of this, firms were unable to establish barriers to entry, meaning other players were able to enter the market easily. Driven by a hyped-up frenzy of investor interest around bike sharing, many firms did exactly that.

That these issues might undermine their initial business model now seems rather obvious. Indeed, as one Chinese bike share founder revealingly told Reuters late last year: “It now appears bike sharing is the stupidest business, but the smartest brains of China all tried to get in.”

The lesson then is to take valuations with a large fist-full of salt.

In the meantime if you find yourself dazzled by the megabucks valuations for a start-up that has yet to turn a single cent in profit, it might be wise to remember one important thing about unicorns.

They are mythical creatures.