Almost every day, I get an email about a hot new initial coin offering (ICO). These come from tech companies selling their future services. In my stock portfolio, I’m happy to find anything that can give me 10 percent return over the course of a year. These days you can measure a crypto portfolio in 2x, 3x, or even 10x (as in, 1,000 percent). But lately, all this good news has been bothering me.
The financial magic works like this: imagine if someone builds a casino in your neighborhood and they fund the entire operation by selling their poker chips ahead of time. With that money, they will pay for every slot machine, every bottle of liquor, every plate in the dining room, and the salaries of every manager and construction worker involved. Would you go for it? Most of us would say no, and even most gamblers would just rather buy some chips when they actually go to the casino.
Now imagine that casino is being built by Terry Benedict, the fictional casino owner from Ocean’s 11. Benedict offers you a deal: they’re selling the chips now, but they are only ever going to have 1 million of them total. In the future, the casino’s customers will have to buy chips from you. Benedict has created an artificial supply problem. They even look at Benedict’s past success (he got robbed and got his money back with interest—that’s security!) and his team on this project and they go all in. Even non-gamblers (“investors”) are buying chips and holding on to them. They’re placing bets before the casino is ever built. Heck, why go to a casino when you could stay home and watch your chips go up in value?
That’s one of the many problems facing tech companies that do an initial coin offering before they even build their businesses. And just like casinos, these token-operated tech companies have no hope of ever getting any money from businesses, governments, or banks.
To unravel this $353 billion problem facing the blockchain tech world, I caught up with Brendan Taylor and Patrick Manasse at MonetaGo. They run an “enterprise focused” (read: businesses, governments, and banks) blockchain solutions company down the street from Modern Consensus’ decentralized office in New York.
Modern Consensus: No matter how exciting a blockchain solution is, every ICO seems to suffer from the same flaw.
Brendan Taylor: “Most people would prefer to use a service with a known and stable price so they can make a decision on the cost rather than rely on the open market. A lot of ICOs that are supposedly falling within the law are classified as utility tokens, meaning they grant the right to use the future service of that network.”
MC: Exactly. If you ran a business and you found that you save money on shipping by using a token-operated tech company, that would only drive up the price of that token and you’d lose your solution.
BT: “ICOs attract speculators. The price of the service is then driven by speculation instead of the fundamental value of the underlying service itself. That is a critical disconnect between what the ICO is intended to achieve and what every single ICO actually achieves.”
MC: What determines a successful ICO?
BT: “A successfully ICO only mean the raise is successful, not that the company is successful. That’s really determined by only two things: 1) Length of the marketing period—the longer the marketing period the higher the chance of success; 2) Price of various digital assets on the day of the launch.”
MC: Whoa. It’s the opposite of what a startup is supposed to do.
Patrick Manasse: “In a lot of cases, they’re not even building out a prototype. It’s normal in the startup space to conceive a product, work toward a ‘minimum viable product,’ and then work toward the desired product. Even then, you improve it with everything you learn. Google, Amazon, Facebook—they get better every day. Landscapes change. A change in a regulation can change how your product functions. A lot of the ICO companies are putting together a white paper and really trying to evangelize the notion that there’s a problem that only they will be able to solve without doing the homework of whether the approach they’re taking will even solve that problem.”
MC: Even good products can suffer from getting pigeonholed in by their ICO.
PM: “An ICO is primarily a way of raising funds. Putting aside the legality about it, they’re using it to raise money for companies. Regardless of what they are trying to do, we believe there are a number of reasons why you don’t want to use this type of infrastructure and tokenization.”
MC: But even knowing that, there are a lot of smart people digging in to ICOs.
BT: “The driver for doing an ICO is never in line with the service they’re offering. They are a regulatory grey area. You don’t have to comply with getting accredited investors. It’s an easy and quick way of accessing money in a space where there is plenty of spare cash. People who made a lot of money in bitcoin and ethereum are looking for places to store that cash. On the other side of the coin, the people trying to raise cash see ICOs as a way of getting their funds. To stay in that regulatory grey area, you have to issue utility tokens. That token equals the right to use whatever service that company is offering in a tokenized system. A tokenized system has plenty of drawbacks.”
MC: Even if the token is perfect, it still locks out the majority of the market because businesses and governments can’t use them.
BT: “The only current legal path is by utility token. You are selling the right to use the future service. Ultimately, the tokens will have to be used in a network. When you’re talking about an enterprise solution, none of our clients are authorized to use any tokenized system. So right from the getgo, our clients cannot use a system that uses a token.”
PM: “You really can’t take this approach. If you’re trying to do anything in enterprise, you cannot use this type of architecture. If we decided to do an ICO tomorrow, we would be making it impossible to do long term or near term.”
MC: And when you say “enterprise,” you mean everything that isn’t for a consumer. So businesses, schools, governments, banks, etc.
BT: “Ninety-nine percent of all companies doing an ICO will never be in an enterprise space. Maybe Ripple. They’re trying really hard to make that model work.”
MC: Your team never did an ICO, but you are currently running a blockchain in the enterprise space?
BT: “The network we launched in India is to mitigate fraud. First of all, our network is not public. It is private permissioned. All participants that are permissioned do see everyone else’s data. The information we are sharing on this network needs to be known by all participants. We are trying to stop duplicate financing. The only way to do that is to share that financing to the rest of the industry. But nobody wants to share who their clients are, what their volume is. How do you get around sharing information without sharing information? Traditionally, you trust a third party. The alternative is to obscure that information or create a digital fingerprint of it. We use the same SHA-256 hashing algorithm. That fingerprint identifies an invoice that is not on our network. Someone would have to find the invoice itself to give you the details. And they will see the same fingerprint registered by the financier. So the real information of the invoice is only held by the customer and the financier.”
MC: Should people who have already bought into ICOs be worried?
PM: “The SEC has been busting people for straight up fraud. They recently sent out a swooping set of letters to many of the companies that touted as premiere ICOs, mainly because they are very clearly doing something illegal. What we’ve learned in the last few years is that there is a reason why they don’t want any type of tokenization. There are data issues with having any kind of open network. If you’re a bank, you don’t want to publish every single one of your transactions. Really you don’t want to broadcast that information. From an enterprise side, who is going to be actually using an open network?”
MC: So an ICO could put a good idea in a bad spot?
PM: “There are really only a handful of companies trying to think long term. The arc that we’ve seen is that three years ago, it was just early adopters, a few budding companies. Last year, it was a lot of financial institutions. This year, it was a 500-to-1 ratio of startup companies trying to sell ICOs to a real enterprise company. People have come up with this notion that this is the way to raise a bunch of money very quickly. The long-term prospects of that company are not looking good. Now they are locked into an infrastructure and processes that have a number of issues. It does make for a very crowded marketplace. It makes for a lot of noise. So, we’ll see who’s around in the next few years.”
MC: I still do think that blockchain is the future. I just think people are on the wrong wave to the future with most ICOs. Startups need to make mistakes to grow.
BT: “We have never tried to be a blockchain. We rely on hyperledger and we provide applications that live on these networks. We set the up and maintain them for the operators and users of them.”
MC: The problem with every ICO now is they do one of two things: they solve a problem that no one has or they provide a solution that only works if everyone uses their system.
BT: “The problem we initially had was we tried to ‘boil the ocean’ we took on an impossible task and made everything along the way more complicated. That was never very successful because they were too untargeted. Now we start with the problem and solution and tell them how we use blockchain on the back end.”
PM: “Our clients were having a problem with fraud. They wanted to find a solution to make it possible to prevent that. The technology that makes that possible is interesting, but it’s in the background. We’re solutions first.”
MC: So yours worked the second you plugged in your servers?
PM: “From Day One, our clients were able to see if they had their invoicing right. Nobody will know the details of the financing—the name of the company or anything. ou know the receipt of the finances. And no single party has control over this network. It’s not our company, it’s not one client. If you’re permissioned,you can join the network. You can derisk your entire portfolio and provide lending rates and financing rates. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel. We’re trying to provide a simple solution to customers facing a serious problem.”
MC: And Monetago works no matter what accounting software your customers want to use or whatever workflow they have in house?
PM: “Yep. Everyone who is permissioned into the system can see if a receivable has already been financed.”
MC: Should we be concerned about these bloated ICOs that have all our money? In the Economist last week I saw a Silicon Valley phrase for the first time, “Startups perish more often from indigestion than starvation”
PM: “That is sometimes true. There are companies that get a lot of visibility. Overfunding can impact the trajectory of future financing. That is a tightrope you need to walk. or every company that is funded, there are lots of companies that are not. But most people never hear of the companies that starve.”
MC: Is there some portfolio theory here? Getting involved in a lot of ICOs means you cast a wide net.
PM: “In a lot of cases, an investor is really looking for that one success. They invest in 10 startups a year or 100 a year. They’re hoping that one or two are ultra-successful. But your traditional business training comes into play: Team, company, and structure. Market and solution. All the way you would judge a company.”
MC: What about these venture capitalists who are leaving their funds and going all crypto?
BT: “Sometimes you hear of some high-flying investor who has spun off his own crypto fund, but their success is still only driven by the frenzy. A lot of the actual successes are based on speculative valuations. So the fact that someone does create a new coin and the valuation goes up and they cash out—that’s a success for them. Speculation, not real results. You’ll see that die out as these companies fold.”
MC: If you advised a project today would you talk them out of doing an ICO?
PM: “There’s temptation to raise that easy money. But if you understand the space and understand the systems, you don’t want to go for an ICO. We wouldn’t do one because it’s the wrong choice.”