Why are universities always chasing the next unicorn?

Now, I don’t mean a unicorn as in the mythical horn-headed creature featured in thousands of years of European art and literature. Nor do I mean that “special someone” that hapless romantics fantasise about meeting in a magical way just like they do in the movies.

Although I might argue both of these would be far easier to find than my actual definition. 

No, when I refer to a unicorn, I mean a one-of-a-kind, young, hot shot, genius entrepreneur who graduates with no interest in “finding a normal job,” instead launches their own venture that becomes hugely successful, and ends up selling their explosive startup only a few years later in a multi-million acquisition deal to some big tech conglomerate….on the road to becoming the next Elon Musk to boot. 

Imagine being the institution who produced this alumnus? The glory. The prestige.

No different to being the football club who produces the next Lionel Messi. 

It’s seductive. It’s powerful. It’s only natural to want to invest in this possibility.

But make sure you’re seeing the whole forest…not just the trees

Apologies, now I’m switching up the metaphorical terms. 

In the case of a forest, one of these unicorns would be a tree. Hey, aren’t unicorns found in the forest? — so you could say the analogy works. 


Here at the Freelancer Club, we partner with a number of universities, providing their students with training and support. We are continually in conversation with educational institutions about the ways we can empower and nurture the next generation of talent  — and perhaps encourage and inspire these talented young minds to think about a freelance career.

But what we notice far too often, and understandably so, is that investors, backers, and educational institutions get caught up in discovering the next unicorn — and overlook us freelancers — that could be detrimental to their objective of preparing students for work and helping them find a meaningful career.    

Obviously, I don’t need to preach to the choir here about the abundance of opportunity and potential success there is for a freelancer in this modern world — a world where both startups  and freelancers rely on each other. A world where they can both thrive.

Yes, we totally appreciate why universities are eager to produce a member of their alumni who launches the next Twitter, and will ‘go all in’ to invest in their future. But it’s important not to forget about, or ignore, those who help them get there either. Afterall, freelancers are the safe bet. They are steady, reliable, and build long-term sustainable businesses.

Startups may be exciting and innovative, but the vast majority absorb and waste millions, barely get off the ground let alone change the world. Moreover, if universities and backers require further incentive, note that a high percentage of freelancers go on to set up their own companies — it’s the entrepreneurial spirit we share with our startup founders. 

More about this in just a moment…

Freelancing simply suits my personality more than entrepreneurialism 

Let me tell ya something…

I have never, and will never, have any grand aspirations to want to be an entrepreneur — dedicating years of my life to one sole venture in the hope of making a success of it. I prefer a variety of clients and different projects on a continual basis. I like the constant new challenges. It's just the cloth I’m cut from, that’s all…

…and I suspect many students feel the same way. Our goals are different from a unicorn’s goals. We value doing what we love every day, creative fulfilment, professional growth, travelling with our laptops, and our time — not building a business from the ground floor, managing a team, and/or raising investment…then looking to cash out at the first opportunity.

Freelancing is a lifestyle choice and that should be just as viable as the unicorn trying to change the world. It’s not a hobby, we work bloody hard, we just have different ambitions. 

When I was in college studying my craft, I always dreamt about one day working for myself, being my own boss, and having a client base that would not only give me a comfortable livelihood…but a client base consisting of a unicorn startup entrepreneur who I would be invaluable to — play a part in their story behind the scenes. 

The freelancing life just suits me more. And I’m not alone.

But therein lies the problem. 

Students, like me, aspiring to be freelancers, are lumped into the same crowd. We’re all ‘basically like an entrepreneur’, but we don’t want to call ourselves one and we have very different needs. I don’t care about venture capital seed rounds or pitch decks. I’m not interested in ‘an exit strategy’ in 5 years' time. 

And yet, it's concerningly common for people to misconstrue what I do and just associate it with a startup founder. Many appear to think that ‘entrepreneur’ and ‘freelancer’ are synonymous. 

I understand and appreciate why universities would allocate so much of their annual corporate partner funding to create opportunities at their institution with the objective of discovering a unicorn, and innocently overlook the fact that so many alienated students would feel zero desire to attend this “Entrepreneur Club” — as they want to go freelance instead. 

They want a chunk of that budget spent on their dreams and aspirations too. Yes, freelancers share many similarities to startup founders, sure, there’s always overlap — but they are 2 different career paths.

Let's look at the similarities and nuanced, but decisive, differences between founders and freelancers…

  • A founder has an idea and goes through an ideation stage to test if the idea will work. A freelancer has a service, often within an existing market and does not need to trial or test the validity of their business.

  • A founder has a mission, whereas a freelancer can have brand values, although they generally do not have an overarching mission they are trying to achieve.

  • A founder often requires capital investment to get their business off the ground. This is due to the cost of building a business. They build an MVP (Minimum Viable Product), similar to a prototype, to see if it will work. A freelancer can generally get started straight away without the need to raise investment.

  • A founder thinks in business terms from the off. How much capital they need to launch, valuations when raising investment, return on investment for investors, how much they want to sell for. Many freelancers start their business from a place of passion, or to create a superior work-life balance, or as a lifestyle choice. Business tends to come second which opens freelancers up to exploitation and naivety — but this is all a part of the leaning process, to become a better freelancer.  

  • A founder will almost always need to hire and manage teams. A freelancer may require some freelance support eg: an accountant, virtual assistant, web designer etc… but will not require the same level of management skills.

  • Both need to know the business basics, have the right mindset (resilience, fluctuating income, rejection etc…) and certain soft skills (communication, organisation, teamwork). Both work extremely hard to achieve their goals. Both contribute to and help stimulate the economy, and wider world. Both work in tandem. Both are valid.

 Say It Loud, Say It Proud - “I’m a Freelancer!”

I couldn’t be prouder to be a freelancer. I wouldn’t change this life for anything else. 

I’m proud to be my own man, my own one-stop-shop marketing service — contributing to my economy and country as a sought after independent professional with a broad skill-set. 

I love nothing more than helping my clients achieve their goals with my copy and content. This isn’t a job for me, it’s a calling. 

And hopefully, one day soon, with a little luck and a lot of hard work….I’ll also find my unicorn — maybe helping the next Elon Musk become the next Elon Musk. 

But remember…not everything that glitters is gold. 

We can’t have an economy of only Elon Musks and startups with shiny ideas all reaching for the stars. That’s a recipe for disaster. Just take a look at the news - the tech bubble has burst and thousands are out of work. 

So while many will continue to look for the next unicorn, let's not throw all our eggs into one basket in that pursuit. We must not forget about the next generation of freelancers who are just as important.  

So let's make sure to invest in them too.

Let's make sure to create a future where the entire next generation can matter what they choose to do.

Feature: Mark Clancy
2. Johannes Plenio
4. Helena Lopes
5. James Wheeler
6. Nubia Navarro