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It was cold. It was raining. And it was the final gathering in a week of back-to-back cryptocurrency and blockchain conferences. Attendees should have been inclined to flake or tempted to sell their tickets for a tidy sum. Instead, rumor was that, for the $349 ticket, scalpers were charging a bitcoin — about $2,500 these days. The morning of, 70 ticketed guests, some of whom had flown in from foreign countries, had to be turned away, raindrops pelting them as they went.
Inside, the 560 who remained -- about half of whom were entrepreneurs, with investors and ancillary service providers such as lawyers making up the other half -- mingled over coffee and pastries. They then filed in to an NYU auditorium to fill every seat, each outfitted with a folding desk. It was a conventional setting for what would be a day of unconventional thinking. Thus began the wildly anticipated Token Summit.
That morning, despite the legitimate claims of scams and a bubble in the space, bitcoin was reaching a new high, nearing $2,800, Ether was trading in its highest ranges — around $200 — and the total market capitalization of all cryptocurrencies was trading near the all-time high it hit the day before, $91 billion. (It hadn’t hurt that a couple days before, Fidelity CEO Abigail Johnson had expressed her “love” of Bitcoin.)
But in a day of 15 sessions with 40 speakers, the euphoric prices came up only briefly. Business models, fundamental price analysis, regulations and ways of governing blockchain-based projects were on the agenda, and meetings outside the packed auditorium initiated deals in what everyone was comparing to the dot-com revolution.
“This is not about the price of tokens and the price of cryptocurrency,” said organizer William Mougayar, who is a venture capitalist and author of the book The Business Blockchain, in his opening remarks. “This is a conference about the business models behind the cryptocurrencies and tokens. That is what we’re here to explore.”
Courtesy of Token Summit
A panel on business models at Token Summit. From left, William Mougayar, organizer, Muneeb Ali of Blockstack, Juan Benet of Protocol Labs, Shawn Wilkinson of Storj and David Vorick of Sia Coin
But the attendees, who came from 44 countries including Brazil, Estonia, Japan, Belarus, France, Colombia, Croatia, and Singapore, were only at the earliest stages of building their vision of a blockchain-based world of multiple tokens that power decentralized businesses. When Mougayar asked who owned cryptocurrency or a token, such as bitcoin or Ether, everyone raised their hands. When he queried who was using them in a utility (meaning who was using them not just for speculative purposes but because they were the central function of a service), only a dozen or so hands went up.
The recognition that the few hundred people in the room had barely started their journey was reflected in remarks by NYU Stern Business School professor Luke Williams. “It takes a long time for people’s thinking to catch up to the technology,” he said. “One of the reasons we’re here today is to allow our thinking to keep track with the mechanism of technology. Thinking changes much slower because we’re dealing with really well-established concepts like money.”
The data showed that something new was afoot. In a panel on data about the industry, Brian Lio, CEO of industry data site Smith and Crown, showed that the amount raised in “initial coin offerings” — crowdsales of new crypto assets — in 2017 has already eclipsed the total from 2016. It also already surpasses seed and Series A venture funding the space. The average project raised $2 million, and while more than half of funds went to the top 10% of projects, a massive long tail of shows that even smaller, less well-known projects are raising money this way.
While those numbers seem impressive, the comparisons to venture capital are not entirely apt. A significant portion of the ICO money likely went to projects that would not have gotten venture capital anyway — whether due to lack of access or quality of project or another reason. Plus, in many cases, because the token is integral to the functioning of the network and would need to be widely distributed for the ecosystem to work, it wouldn’t even make sense to give a venture capitalist a substantial cut. “You generally need an ICO just for distribution,” said Sid Kalla of Smith and Crown.
Also, despite the amount of money flowing in the space, the audience fueling the trend was decidedly niche. According to a survey by CoinFund, a blockchain technology research investment company, 91.5% of respondents were male, two-thirds were between ages of 25-40, 60% worked in technology and 26% had participated in equity crowdfunding, suggesting they’re accredited investors. “It’s still a very niche market. It could probably have a few more women in it,” said CoinFund cofounder Jake Brukhman to the almost entirely male audience, which erupted in laughter.
The mostly male audience at Token Summit
CoinFund survey respondents also seemed to be a highly (and dangerously) risk-tolerant crowd. The average respondent had invested 50% of all their investment capital in blockchain assets, and one out of three had more than 75% of their investment capital in blockchain.
The same foolhardy thinking has also created a bubble in tokens, the existence of which attendees widely recognized. Explaining that companies receiving seed funding typically get valuations around $5 million, and firms raising series A funding are valued on average at $15 million to $20 million, Alex Sunnarborg, research analyst at industry trade publication CoinDesk, said, “This morning when I logged into Coinmarketcap” — a resource for data such as price and market cap of the top cryptocurrencies — “every single coin on the top 100 page had over a $10 million valuation. That’s pretty crazy. A seed round is hard enough to raise. A series A requires you to have a decent traction and revenue model.”
But others in the space are already thinking up better ways of evaluating the assets to make smarter financial choices. Chris Burniske, blockchain products lead at ARK Investment Management, the first public fund manager to invest in bitcoin, explained, “It’s important for us to figure out what’s utility and what’s speculative, because in times of correction, we will likely compress through speculative value until we hit utility value.” He walked through an example in which one might project, say, that bitcoin will someday account for 10% of the $500 billion remittance market, which would require bitcoin to facilitate $50 billion of transactions. Assuming that the bitcoins turn over five times a year, bitcoin would need to store $10 billion in value to facilitate 10% of remittances.
Burniske said the current value of any token, which he refers to as network value, would take into account the current utility value, the expected utility value out to the year the investors plan to make their investment, the annual rate of inflation for the number of tokens, and the discount rate, which, for his example of privacy coin Zcash, he estimated at three to four times that of tech stocks. He also described a metric created by cryptocurrency investment analyst Willy Woo, that he called the crypto equivalent of price-earnings (P/E) ratio: market cap divided by daily transaction value. He also emphasized the financial value of developers contributing to the code, describing another metric derived from dividing the market cap by the number of code repository points, which are a proxy for developer activity on that token.
But the majority of the day was focused on other issues such as what business models are enabled by tokens, how these open source protocols should be governed, and how the laws and regulations around these tokens are developing, among other subjects.
Many companies are willing to blaze the trail. The biggest news of the day was an announcement by chat service and unicorn Kik, which as 50 million monthly users, that it would be launching a token, and a number of other well-known projects took the stage to present their efforts, such as smart contract system Tezos, peer-to-peer exchange 0x, decentralized court system Aragon, and identity startup Civic. Fireside chats were held with luminaries of the space such as Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong (who was also the subject of my magazine feature on the company), Erik Voorhees, CEO of Shapeshift, and Fred Wilson, managing partner at Union Square Ventures.
In that last session, fielding an audience question about why a startup would go for an ICO in which it would raise a lot of money but also give away a lot of the company with a low probability of being able to get more funding, Wilson responded, “If you think about it as just a way to finance you’re company, you’re not thinking about it properly. The way to think about it is that the token is also the native monetization model for your business, and if you execute your business well, the value of that token should rise as the utility of the product you ship goes up in value.” Then, he said, though you’re giving away a lot of the tokens right away, the value of the tokens you keep should rise substantially and net you a tidy profit. For example, he and Mougayar speculated that Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin had a half percent of all Ethers, which at that moment was about $90 million.
The crowd seemed largely to agree that despite the current scams and price bubble, the tokens were mostly about a new business model — one that could someday prove highly valuable. “The ICOs are highly unstable, but … I can imagine the utility value,” said Catherine Wood, CEO of ARK. Noting how far these projects are from pulling off their vision, she said, “but you have a few of these networks showing the network effect. It’s going to be boom-bust-boom-bust, I think. It’s going to be unstable but very exciting. I was there at the beginning of the internet, and this is more exciting than that.”
As for the current irrational exuberance, Wood noted that the internet bubble popped at about $3 trillion, which would be $5 trillion in today’s dollars. But today, the network value of all crypto assets is less than $100 billion.
One prominent skeptic, Tone Vays, of the CryptoScam podcast, reflected the stance of much of the world outside: “We are standing at almost the pinnacle of the dot-com bubble.” He put tokens in the same category as tulip mania, the South Sea bubble and the dot-com bubble, and asserted that after this flourishing of multiple tokens, many would fail and bitcoin would prevail.
But as people exchanged cards and email addresses over wine and beer in the post-conference reception, Olaf Carlson-Wee founder and CEO of hedge fund Polychain Capital, which has backing from Andreessen Horowitz and Union Square Ventures, summed up the most common sentiment. As the first employee of Coinbase, and as someone who spent the greater part of the last several years earning and spending almost exclusively cryptocurrency, he had a long-term perspective.
“This is my favorite conference since the San Jose Bitcoin conference in 2013,” he said, referring to the first bitcoin conference ever. “This is the same buzzy energy.”
As the event came to a close, the attendees convened again at a separate reception a few blocks away. They were eager for more face-to-face time before they would each fly back to their separate homes, from which they would keep building the decentralized web.