In business, a “unicorn” is a privately held startup company valued at more than $1 billion.
The term was popularized by venture capitalist Aileen Lee, who chose the mythical creature to represent the statistical rarity of such successful ventures.
Michael Bervell, 24, of Mill Creek, is the author of “Unlocking Unicorns,” a book that profiles successful billion-dollar startup founders in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
“Most people, if you ask them to name a super-successful business founder and entrepreneur, they might say Steve Jobs, or Bill Gates, or Warren Buffett, or maybe Jeff Bezos. They’re all men, they’re all white men, so where are the rest of the startup founders?
“I wrote a book that looks at female founders, out of the U.S., and non-white founders, out of the U.S., who have still been successful. They have lesser-known stories with even more interesting lessons.”
“Unlocking Unicorns” features 10 entrepreneurs who found the key to success — including Jack Ma, founder of e-commerce giant AliBaba; Robin Li, co-founder of the search engine Baidu; Ritesh Agarwal, founder of OYO Rooms for budget hotels; Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, founder of Biocon, a biopharmaceutical company; Mudassir Sheikha, founder of the vehicle-for-hire company Careem; Bang Si-Hyuk, producer behind the boy band BTS; Cher Wang, founder of HTC, a consumer electronics company; and Mitchell Elegbe, founder of Interswitch, a cashless payment processor.
“Unlocking Unicorns” explains how 10 founders in non-Western nations overcame and adapted to brain drain, leapfrogging technologies, location-based discrimination and government unrest.
Here’s another business term for you: Bervell is an angel investor through M12, Microsoft’s venture fund, meaning he provides capital for startup companies — when most investors aren’t yet prepared to back them — in exchange for convertible debt or ownership equity.
“I would describe what I do now as ‘Shark Tank,’” he said. “Entrepreneurs will pitch our team different ideas of startups that they’ve created, and we use Microsoft’s money to invest in these startups.
“It’s a really fun and interesting job because you get to see essentially five years into the future at what people are trying to build to become the next multi-million dollar company.”
The Kamiak High School graduate is writing what he knows. Bervell has helped to found and lead a number of organizations, including the Enchiridion Corp., a marketing consulting company, and Billion Dollar Startup Ideas, a media and innovation company.
“I really grew to love technology as a fast-growing method for changing the world,” said Bervell, who has worked as a venture fellow at Harlem Capital, product manager at Microsoft and a software engineer at Twitter. “It’s making a positive impact.”
His daily blog, about billion-dollar startup ideas, has more than 750,000 readers and 10,000 subscribers from 150 countries. He founded the Billion Dollar Startup Club on TikTok — his account is @startupideaking — which has more than 832,000 views.
“It’s my way of being curious about the world,” Bervell said. “I love looking at the world, and trying to find a problem with it, and thinking about how could you build a business to solve this problem. And eventually a bunch of other people thought that was a really cool idea as well.”
At Kamiak, Bervell also co-founded Hugs for Ghana, a nonprofit that sends gifts to kids in hospitals and orphanages around the world. (He is a Ghanaian-American.) Since 2007, the student-run organization has expanded its operations to Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Sierra Leone and the United States.
After graduating from Kamiak High School, he earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy and computer science at Harvard University and his master’s degree in communication at the University of Washington.
Janice Riley, a marketing revisions editor for New Degree Press, was assigned to edit his book. Together, Michael and Janice unlocked the book’s potential.
“We’re asked what are we interested in, what do we like reading and what is our expertise,” Riley said. “Since I had experience working in business development for a software startup for four years and ran a business incubator for six years, it was kind of a no-brainer to assign Michael’s book to me.”
Riley said Bervell’s book is destined to be a best-seller because it’s about startup companies from around the world — not just the U.S. What makes “Unlocking Unicorns” special, she said, is that it doesn’t profile the billion-dollar companies all Americans know: Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google, etc.
“The world’s bigger than the just the United States,” she said. “Artificial intelligence, tech advances and cutting-edge technology exists in other countries. There are scientists and technologists and engineers doing amazing things around the world.”
Who should read this book? Bervell said “Unlocking Unicorns” is for aspiring startup founders or emerging economy investors who want to do business in the 21st century.
He said it’s not that hard to think of a billion-dollar startup idea. “If 1 billion people are facing a problem, and you solve it for $1, and they’re willing to pay it, then you’ve created a business that could potentially be a billion-dollar business,” he said.
There’s your unicorn.
Riley recommends the book if you like watching ABC’s “Shark Tank,” in which entrepreneurs pitch ideas for a business, or CNBC’s “The Profit,” which follows venture capitalist Marcus Lemonis.
What’s next for Bervell? “I definitely want to write a second book,” he said. Bervell is thinking about profiling startup companies in Latin America, the Caribbean and Australia. “Maybe ‘Unlocking Unicorns’ could be a series of different books about startup founders and startup stories all around the world.”
Maybe he’ll launch an “Unlocking Unicorns” podcast to go with his blog and TikTok, he said.
Bervell also has applied to go back to Harvard to get another master’s degree, this time in business administration.
All this, and he’s only 24 — “What’s he going to accomplish by the time he’s 30?” Riley asked.
With his own key to success, Bervell might just make it to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list.
Sara Bruestle: 425-339-3046; [email protected]; @sarabruestle.
By Michael Bervell
New Degree. 196 pages. $19.99.