Book Review – Competing With Unicorns

Competing with Unicorns describes a category of businesses with a set of unique attributes that set them aside as Unicorns vs more traditional enterprises. It then describes some key team structures and processes within them that distinguish Unicorns apart from others. The second half of the book then identifies with some key pieces of advice and along with examples gives some more precise tips to the reader and justification which is where the book excels and feels alive. Some 1980’s pixelated titles and images attempt to add a twist, but I am not sure it needs it or that it works. Worth a read if you are looking for some special sauce for your new venture but maybe could have been stronger.

Overview of the chapters in the book:

  • What’s different about start-ups
  • Give Purpose with Missions
  • Empower Through Squads
  • Scale with Tribes
  • Align with Bets
  • Working at a Tech Lead Company
  • Invest in productivity
  • Learn With Data
  • Reinforce through culture
  • Levelling up – from there to here


The book opens with a chapter on what is different about start-ups. It portrays them as new beasts which are lean and, needing to focus on learning rapidly as money is a limiting factor. The author includes Amazon, Spotify, Facebook in the start-ups category and although I can appreciate their attributes are similar and in a different class, I am not sure I would class these companies today as fresh start-ups that are short on money. The alternate business is an “enterprise” and the characteristics are neatly described but without any examples.

The chapter, Giving Purpose with Missions  will resonate with anyone that follows Simon Sinek and his views on explaining Why?

Empowering Through Squads, describes how to have an agile team referred to as a squad, but operate more autonomously by empowering all the people. There are some key nuggets of learning in this chapter, especially the description of decoupling architecture to allow multiple teams to work on it. 

The approach to scaling squads is then covered with tribes and guilds, as per the spotify model. Squads focus on what and the chapters/guilds focus on How.

Align With Bets describes how the objectives of the business are captured in short term strategies called Bets and how these are cascaded down through the business. A useful focus on DIBBS (Data, Insight, Belief and Bet) describes the age old principle of “without data it is just another opinion” and the value of data driven decisions. I found the most interesting section on “The Counter Intuitive Bet“, which explained bets that initially no-one believed would ever come true but were obvious when viewed with hindsight. Unfortunately there is no advice on how to include the counter-intuitive bet into your business strategy planning.

The “Working at a tech lead” chapter had a lot more history of the traitorous eight who left Shockley Semiconductor and started their company and Silicon Valley effect. This story isn’t highlighted in one of the coloured boxes, which seems to be an anomaly but has a rich and colourful story.

The Invest in Productivity chapter felt like it had a lot more detail when it came to advice. More targeted ideas and guidance on how to adopt and deploy them with what could be gained.

Throughout the book there is a smattering of 8-bit emoji’s/icons and text which feels more suitable to a 1980’s review of retro video games, and personally I found them more distracting than beneficial. The concept of a visual marker to highlight an item of special merit is something I like but an image of a cherry didn’t work for me on this occasion. The shaded blocks with more real life examples on the other hand were clear and of value but aren’t used consistently through the book.


Overall I enjoyed the book but had a nagging doubt that it could have been better. I would have felt more rewarded with some restructuring of it and removal of the video game graphics which I found distracting.

The sections on squads, tribes and cascading bets were an interesting collection of stories from Spotify but perhaps could have been combined into a single case study of a single business.

The story of the 1957 issues in the semi-conductor sector and subsequent setup of Silicon Valley provide a useful contrast to Spotify. It added a different perspective and was an engaging story but felt a bit out of place due to the age of the narrative.

The final parts of the book covering  productivity, culture and data were more valuable and had more detail and insight. These sections felt more prescriptive in advice but based upon real experience and as such felt authentic. If you are pushed for time then I would suggest jumping straight to these chapters.

The final chapter is a generalisation of the points and summary of advice. Compared to the previous sections it felt lighter in weight. In my opinion it needed to either end with the advice summarised as a single page, or start with a summary and then delve into justification and benefits.

Details of Book: Competing With Unicorns

Competing with Unicorns: How the World’s Best Companies Ship Software and Work Differently by Jonathan Rasmusson, 27 March 2020

Published by

200 Pages

ISBN 978-1680507232

Review copy of the book supplied by Pragmatic Programmers

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