Harry Potter and the Digital Unicorns

When you imagine a land of make believe, characters emerge. Depending on where you look you can find trolls, pirates, avatars, white-hatted defenders of good and even a giant or two. Upon reflection, today's digital ecosystem parallels the fantasy worlds found in Harry Potter and elsewhere. There's enough creative license interspersed with reality to make us believe.

Perhaps the most magical creature interloping the two worlds is the unicorn. It happened in 2013. Aileen Lee coined the phrase "Digital Unicorn." It sparked instant curiosity and lasting fascination. People from all industries are captivated by digital unicorns - seeking to capture, clone, milk or sometimes kill these mythical beasts. Similar to the world of Harry Potter, an industry has grown up around them. Interest is so high that media sites including TechCrunch, CBInsights and Fortune maintain active lists of unicorn sightings - now including 150+ companies with a combined value of $500+ billion. Beyond the catchy description, these companies are among the most emulated in the digital era, replacing P&G's and GE's iconic roles of the past. Fueled by seemingly limitless venture capital investment, they seem more invincible than ever. It seems the right time to ask, "why?"

Hope for the future: More than eight years after the final book installment, Harry Potter still excites audiences in a way other stories haven't been able to replicate (e.g The Hunger Games, Twilight, Divergent). J.K. Rowling's original creative arc offered a hopeful future for audiences. One whose appeal inspired a musical produced for London's West End centered on Harry Potter's children. Digital unicorns offer similar hope. They foretell a better future where cars appear when needed, travel becomes a voyage of discovery, and the world loves our style. After all, when our day-to-day world is filled with competitive danger and the threat of an earnings cliff, escapism is a hard lure to resist. A little hope goes a long way.

No real world comp: Creating fantasy worlds has long allowed authors to script their own reality. When J.K. Rowling, George RR Martin or even Stan Lee tell their stories, they aren't restricted to established protocols. They can invent sports like Quidditch and turn them into global competitions. They kill beloved characters on a whim. And everyone can fly. The disconnected relationship with our realities negates comparisons and is part of what gives digital unicorns their magic. It is as if these companies live in a mythical space where net income is secondary or even tertiary to the embedded narrative. Storylines rule and the more outside the norm, the better. Unlike the Fortune 500, digital unicorns can't be held to a standard for performance. It doesn't exist. Unshackled by reality, digital unicorns are free to do whatever they want - creating magical footprints for mortals to marvel.

Killing them is evil: In the first installment of Harry Potter, we are introduced to the evil that comes from killing a unicorn and drinking its blood. While it may keep you alive (and generate page views) it comes with consequences. Meg Whitman's recent alarm over the valuation of digital unicorns was unique - but well founded. At some point, digital unicorns, often pushed by their venture capitalists backers, realize it's time to join the main stream business community enriching early investors and spreading the risk to new owners. As soon as a unicorn becomes real, the magic is gone. This is a lesson that Facebook and Twitter, among others, illustrate. But, as long as they stay in the digital ecosystem, unicorns are something "pure and defenseless" which evokes blind reverence.

For most mortals, the opportunity to see a digital unicorn up close is rare. Those that do will come away undeniably impressed - and potentially rich depending on when their paths intersect. Stories like Harry Potter introduce us to the unique opportunity born when magic and hope combine. Many college courses teach the allegorical lessons from the Harry Potter books. There are plenty of real-word lessons wrought in the magical universe. However, when it comes to digital unicorns those lessons will come in many installments that are yet to be written, and might require a Marauder's Map to follow.