How ICOs and Cryptocurrencies Work for Entrepreneurs and Investors

With Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies all the rage, I was recently invited to participate in an ICO (an “initial coin offering”). Warren Buffett made his fortune by limiting his investments to businesses and investments he understood deeply. That seems sensible, so I’ve been delving into the ICO world to understand if it’s for real, if it’s a scam, or if it’s something genuinely new.

Much to my surprise, it doesn’t seem to be a complete scam. ICOs are a fund-raising play for a business. Coin-based entrepreneurship has aspects of equity, and aspects of … something new. It decouples the value of the organization from profit. If it’s sustainable, coin-based organizations could become a way to create markets whose bottom line is genuine societal value. The “triple-bottom line” could be an actual market reality. That’s exciting!!

Or, it could turn be unsustainable, and a fancy way for unskilled or unethical entrepreneurs to walk away with lots of investor cash and no obligation to do anything with it.

As you’ll read below, while the ICO mechanism has been invented in the context of crypto currencies, there’s no inherent reason that this has to be done with cryptography. The same structures could be put in place in the physical world, without needing to buy into blockchain or virtual currencies.

What I’ve Learned so Far About ICOs

Here’s my current understanding of “coins” and initial coin offerings (ICOs). While the concepts are being developed in the context of crypto currencies, as I mention below, they can be (and have been) implemented in ways that are totally independent of crypto, or even computers.

PLEASE CRITIQUE AND COMMENT! This understanding is about two or three hours old, so it’s my very first attempt to understand.

ICOs make a different bet than stock investments

The ICO model is fascinating. Instead of betting on the success of a company, as you would with a traditional corporation, you’re betting on the creation of a market. The entrepreneur is then pitching their ability to create a market for the coin, which can be done in many different ways, depending on the company issuing coins.

This means that an ICO has two cases to analyze. While a traditional startup only needs to make a business case, an ICO needs to make a case for the creation of the coin market, and a case for the success (however that’s defined) of the organization being funded with the ICO.

There must be a market-making mechanism

The entrepreneur needs to present a compelling case:

  • that their endeavor can create a market
  • that the market created makes sense (that there’s a reason want the coin)
  • that there’s a way coins are exchanged for dollars or other value that is valuable enough that people will want to trade the coins

The primary function of the business being financed with the ICO is to create a market for the coins, rather than to make an economic profit. For example, an organization issuing an ICO may not do anything on an ongoing basis, as long as they can kick-start the market for their coin.

(There’s no inherent reason that any of this has to involve blockchain or crypto, by the way. You could be issuing frequent flyer points that are tracked in a spreadsheet in an “IFFPO” and it would basically be the same thing.)

For example, an airline could simply rename their frequent flyer points as “coins” and sell a bunch of those coins rather than issuing stock. People would want the coins because they could be exchanged for flights. If the only way to fly were by paying in frequent flyer points, then the market for the points would be created by anyone who wants to travel by air. Frequent flyer points would then be convertible to and from dollars based on the price in coins the airline charges for a flight, and the overall market demand for air travel.

But the airline would not rise and fall based on its ability to generate a profit; it would rise and fall based on its ability to keep the market for FFCs boosted. It would then presumably pay its employees in FFCs, which they could convert to cash.

Coin-based financing may resemble ongoing equity financing

This scenario resembles a company that is financing itself on the strength of its equity, by selling stock to pay any ongoing expenses, rather than financing itself on its underlying business fundamentals.

For an airline, which needs to pay salaries and has high ongoing expenses, it probably wouldn’t work. But as Amazon shows, a company can consistently generate lackluster business results and have its “coins” (shares of AMZN stock) continue to be valued quite highly.

Coins can fund one-time projects as long as they create ongoing markets

The thing about coins is that the organization that did the ICO might not be an ongoing business at all, but a one-time fund raise, as long as it kick starts the market. For example, if the coins created are done so as the only currency that can be used to access some resource, like time on the Hubble telescope, then one organization can create the coins and the protocol that requires them, while completely separate organizations accept the coins and thus generate demand for them.

[One historical example that comes to mind is the currency of green stamps, which survived for decades but eventually failed. An ICO could be likened to an Initial Green Stamp Offering.]

Coins dilute … the market

Coins are like equity in that issuing additional coins dilutes the value of the coins already in circulation. The one ICO I’ve seen closely puts a cap on the number of coins that can ever be issued, to preserve the coin scarcity. That makes sense for an ICO that finances a one-time, transient organization. But if coins will be used, rather than profit, as an ongoing source of an organization’s funds, then having a hard cap on the number of coins will put a cap on the total amount the organization can raise over its lifetime.

In the social enterprise world, coins could be issued to finance social good, as long as there were some mechanism to drive the demand and market for the coins. Rather than having social enterprise rely on constant begging, a social enterprise could drive demand for their coins by striking agreements with businesses or other organizations to use the social coins as a currency. To fund a social enterprise for years on coins, however, would require a substantial initial ICO or the ability to keep issuing coins when funds are needed, so the coin used for the funding probably shouldn’t be capped.

It’s fascinating! And I have no idea how to value a coin, or whether this will prove to be sustainable in any meaningful way.

Cryptocurrencies for Investors and Entrepreneurs

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