In the booming world of crypto startups, you don’t need a business plan to get rich. You just need an idea, and a coin
n October 3, 2017, a cloudy, muggy day, 700,000 people took to the streets of Barcelona to protest against Spain’s government. Two days earlier, Madrid had reacted harshly when Catalonia had held a referendum on independence, despite Spanish courts deeming the vote illegal. The police prevented Catalans from voting; violence had broken out. Barcelona was now on general strike – shops shuttered, taxis ignored exasperated potential customers. The flag-draped multitude snaking through the tree-lined Avinguda del Paral·lel had a Victor Hugo vibe. A country might be dismembered, history might be in the making. But Irfon Watkins and his team were thinking about tokens.
“We’re going through a riot,” Watkins said. “Oh, the joy of running a global technology company.” For 53-year-old Watkins, this was supposed to be their big day. A bespectacled Welshman with floppy grey hair, light stubble and thick-rimmed glasses, Watkins is the CEO of DOVU, a UK startup that aims to create an online market for mobility data using the blockchain – the peer-to-peer decentralised ledger technology that underpins cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ether.
The nine-person company had already secured an undisclosed investment from Jaguar Land Rover and government-backed fund Creative England. But most of the money to build DOVU would come from another source: the online sale of 300 million digital tokens – or “coins” – to whoever would pay for them using the cryptocurrency Ether.
The tokens (in fact, strings of code representing units of value) would become a mini-currency for buying data on DOVU’s blockchain, when it was created. Some prospective buyers were fans eager to get the tokens and use them on DOVU in the future; others were speculators, planning to stockpile them and resell them on cryptocurrency exchanges if DOVU’s success made them appreciate. Online, potential buyers were doing the same with tens, if not hundreds, of tokens from other projects, with the expectation of getting rich.
Watkins and his co-founders, Arwen Smit and Krasina Mileva, were walking from the Barcelona Fair, where they had pitched at a blockchain conference, to their hotel in the city centre. There, they would join their head of product Alex Morris and kick-start the sale, scheduled for 7pm. It was 6.35pm, and we were weaving through the crowd as gaggles of bereted gendarmes glowered from the sidewalks. The protesters chanted, “Asesinos” (murderers).
“We have to support these guys,” said Smit, a Dutch 26-year-old with blue eyes and a smattering of freckles, looking at her nearly-dead phone. “The Catalans?” asked Watkins, raising an eyebrow. “I mean the investors,” replied Smit. “They’re asking questions.”
Since announcing their plans to mint and sell their tokens in a 25-page PDF document uploaded online in September, DOVU had been in touch with prospective buyers through Telegram, a messaging app loved by cryptocurrency fans. Questions ranged from enquiries about DOVU’s technology and how the tokens would be delivered after the sale, to quizzing over whether and when DOVU’s tokens (official name: DOV) would be tradeable on online cryptocurrency exchanges. People in the Telegram group were already reporting being privately messaged by scammers posing as members of the DOVU team, offering tokens at discounted rates.
“There are a few things that can go wrong,” said Watkins as the team cut through the narrow medieval alleys off Las Ramblas. “The website being hacked; someone breaking into the wallet where we are collecting the payments; and phishing – fake Telegram accounts or doppelganger token-sale websites defrauding buyers. But, in general, I am calm.”
The trio barged into the hotel at 7.03pm. Morris, an ex-lifestyle journalist with a wave of umber hair, was waiting for them by the rooftop pool. “Sale has started,” announced Morris, eyes on his laptop. His voice was muffled by the whir of a police chopper in the dusking sky. In the streets below, demonstrators began banging on pans – a traditional form of protest called cacerolada. The hotel manager responded by raising the muzak’s volume.
“OK, champagne,” ordered Watkins. As Moët & Chandon flowed into flutes, payments from token-buyers started flowing into DOVU’s crypto wallet. It was going well, at a pace of two purchases a minute. The DOV token sale was due to run for two weeks: if it managed to sell all its tokens, DOVU would eventually be £30 million richer. (Cryptocurrency can be traded for fiat money – a currency without an intrinsic value or physical commodity, but which can be declared legal tender – on exchanges such as Coinbase.) “It’s like throwing a party thinking no one will come – then everyone comes. That’s what an ICO feels like,” Watkins explained.
Imagine you want to open a casino. The trouble is you have no money. Investors are not keen on the plan. Banks stonewall you; friends and family can only help so much. But what if you fabricated a finite number of chips to be used in your soon-to-be-built casino and sold them to the public, in order to raise the money? People who like your idea would be both helping bring the casino into existence and getting a bunch of chips to play with once the place is up and running. And – since there is only a limited number of them around – chip-buyers could resell their tokens at a higher price if the enthusiasm around the future casino grows.
The metaphor is not watertight (casino chips have a fixed value) but it helps explain the crypto-craze that portended this year’s great Bitcoin bubble: token sales, popularly known as Initial Coin Offerings or ICOs.
In 2016, entrepreneurs began to realise that blockchain technology enabled them to mint their own money and crowdfund their immaterial supermarkets. And what made it really easy was a second-wave blockchain called Ethereum (powered by Ether). Ethereum allows developers to run open-source applications on top of it, and to mint digital tokens to be used in-app. Importantly, the tokens would also be tradeable on online exchanges, making room for speculators.
What triggered the craze was The DAO, an Ethereum-based venture fund that raised $150 million (£112m) in Ether by selling tokens that conferred the right to vote on investment decisions. Weeks after its launch in May 2016, The DAO was hacked and robbed of $50 million; but, although a failure, it had proved there were people out there ready to pay huge sums for tokens.
Things moved quickly. Every day, self-styled founders armed with an idea asked millions for their tokens – and regularly received them. In April 2017, blockchain prediction market Gnosis raised $12.5m in 12 minutes; in June, a company called Bancor raised $147m in three hours; in July, a project for a novel blockchain called Tezos raised $232m in Ether and Bitcoin. Even a parody ICO, “Useless Ethereum Token” (its logo is a middle finger), raised $40,000.
In most cases, there was no guarantee these projects would ever be built. Some admitted they may eventually not deliver; payments were often defined as donations, and the anonymous make-up of the blockchain made it hard to hold scammers accountable. But people in the cryptosphere, out of passion, out of a wish to diversify their portfolios or out of hunger for quick money, soldiered on.
Months before the concepts of bitcoin and bubble became so deeply entwined, it was ICOs that got lumped with the “bubbly” label. “It’s totally in a bubble,” Erik Voorhees, CEO of cryptocurrency exchange ShapeShift, told me. “The amount of money some projects are raising pre-product or pre any demonstration is absurd.”
As the buzz grew, companies scrambled to underline that their tokens were utilities (with some intrinsic function, such as accessing a service) rather than unregulated securities – but the Faustian bargain between instant-millionaire token sellers and token holders flipping coins on secondary markets and pumping prices through Telegram-coordinated action was undeniable. Financial authorities around the world started taking notice.
In August 2017, Goldman Sachs and CB Insights released a report saying ICOs had overtaken venture capital as a source of seed and early-stage investment in internet companies. By January 2018, cryptocurrency exchanges would list more than 1,500 tokens, and a report by VC firm Fabric Ventures would estimate the amount of ICO-raised capital in 2017 at $5.6 billion. Suddenly, the world was awash in crypto-tokens, and everyone was wondering what on Earth was happening.
Brock Pierce is standing on a plywood stage in a wood-floored auditorium at The Brewery, an event venue in East London. Outside, it is a crisp September day; inside, the air reeks of wood varnish. Pierce doesn’t seem to care: about 100 people are watching him. Pierce is short, slight, very blond. His voice is raspy, his smile is Hollywood-good – you might recognise it from Disney films The Mighty Ducks and First Kid, in which Pierce starred as a child actor in the 90s. He has aged well: now 37, he could still be cast in a teen drama and get away with it.
A blockchain investor and chairman of the Bitcoin Foundation, Minnesota-born Pierce has been in cryptocurrency since 2012. In 2013, he co-founded Mastercoin, a company which some say pioneered ICOs. He claims to be involved in about 150 projects in the space, and to have bought one million Ether when the currency was launched in 2014, at nearly 20p per unit; as of January 2018, Ether’s price is around £600, which would give them a value of at least £600 million. (Pierce would not comment on his exact net worth.)
On the stage with Pierce are two executives for block.one, a startup for which Pierce is an investor and head of strategy. Block.one’s token is called EOS, which has its own logo, the Chestahedron – a trapezoidal shape whose structure resembles the human heart. Under his zipped-down hoodie, Pierce is wearing a reflective Chestahedron pendant.
It is the end of the presentation: Q&A time. Somebody asks a question about a white-hot issue: are tokens – many of which are being auctioned, traded on exchanges and speculated on exactly the way securities are – actually securities? Should people who issue these potential securities be worried about financial regulators in the US, where unlicensed securities are illegal? Ask any lawyer in the industry and their answer will be “it depends on the token”. Pierce has a different take: rather than tiptoeing around securities laws by branding their tokens as utilities, companies should issue them as securities, on purpose. “Most tokens are not going to be utility tokens, they’re going to be security tokens,” he says. “Because investors want rights, want royalties, want dividends, all these things that securities laws give.”
Pierce is leading by example, he says. In April 2017, his then VC firm, Blockchain Capital, raised a $10 million venture fund, registered in the Cayman Islands, by selling “BCAP tokens”. The tokens were issued through a Singapore vehicle and were off-limits to all US citizens except for accredited investors, as per American securities law.
BCAP tokens were touted as digital securities. But, according to Blockchain Capital’s documents, BCAP has no distribution or dividend rights (unless Blockchain Capital decides to buy them back), no voting rights and no liquidation rights if the fund goes bust. Pierce explains that BCAP tokens’ main edge is that they are liquid, unlike equities in a conventional fund which are usually frozen for years. “Selling your tokens is how you make money. You bought them for one dollar each and you can sell them for two, five or ten times that,” Pierce says. “This is the future of venture capital.” (Pierce left Blockchain Capital in 2017; but he is still a partner.)
Before coming to London, Pierce had delivered keynotes in Cologne, Rome, Frankfurt and Kiev. Regular people are perplexed about tokens, and Pierce is here to dissipate their bemusement. He has survived a bubble before: after quitting his acting career in 1999, he became a vice-president of Santa Monica-based DEN, a textbook dot-com fiasco which produced films for an internet audience. The venture crashed after under-age actors alleged that Pierce and other executives had sexually abused them. Pierce, who denied the allegations, was arrested in Spain and eventually released without charge (DEN’s CEO Marc Collins-Rector pleaded guilty).
In 2001, Pierce launched Internet Gaming Entertainment (IGE), a venture that made him an authority in selling virtual goods for legal tender. IGE catered to gamers playing massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft. These featured “gold” as an in-game currency – gamers earned and spent it on objects for their characters. IGE used thousands of low-paid Chinese workers to play the game for hours on end to “farm” the gold, which was resold to western gamers for dollars. The practice was legally dubious – and it infuriated gaming companies and upright gamers, who thought it was cheating.
While CEO of IGE, in 2005, Pierce met Steve Bannon. Back then, the recently ex-chairman of Breitbart News and former chief strategist to US president Donald Trump, was a film producer with a past as an investment banker. Bannon joined the board in 2005, and the following year he helped secure a $60 million investment led by his previous employer, Goldman Sachs.
“Steve Bannon was my right-hand man. He didn’t like me to say it, but he was on my payroll,” Pierce says. According to Pierce, they share a formidable drive and an almost preternatural aversion to sleep. (Pierce says he sleeps only 45 minutes a day.) “In the ten years I’ve known Bannon, there was not one time I texted him that I didn’t immediately get a response, at any time of the day or the night.” He says they are still in touch.
Bannon eventually replaced Pierce at the helm of IGE in 2007, and – as lawsuits from gamers and gaming companies piled up – he decided to steer it towards a different core business: gaming forums.
Shortly after that, Pierce discovered cryptocurrency. “[As IGE’s founder] I had been the largest proprietary trader in digital currency in the world for many, many years. That obviously led me to bitcoin and cryptocurrency,” he says. “I went from online video games to the real world. My entire life I have been doing the same thing.”
Pierce is leaning against the wall of Chiswell Street Dining Rooms, an upscale restaurant a one-minute walk from The Brewery. It is lunchtime and there are some 20 people in the room, all of them block.one staff or friends of Pierce. Pierce is scolding a bearded youth wearing an EOS T-shirt. The next morning, the man is flying to Macau to attend the ICO launch of a token which is used to fund a casino allegedly backed by Triad gangster “Broken Tooth” Wan Kuok-koi. The team behind the new token is paying for his flight and accommodation, eager to show that “blockchain influencers” like their ICO.
“You’re mingling with very bad people,” Pierce splurts. He warns the man if he’s not careful he may get killed. Pierce grabs a glass of Shiraz (“Liquid lunch”) as he talks and moves with a manic energy. It is not only about “democratising VC”, or the probable demise of the New York Stock Exchange, he says – it’s about tearing down the whole idea of corporations and replacing it with decentralised, open-source, token-powered “tribes”.
“Being a customer of a tribe would require tokens. By having tokens you are not only a customer, you are a shareholder,” he says, banging his fist on a table. “When you are a customer and a shareholder you also want to be a contributor. So now every customer will start contributing to their corporation, to their tribe. Everything they do as tribe members benefits everybody, and themselves. And they won’t want to be paid for that.”
In other words, Pierce thinks tokens are the building blocks for future voluntary, selfless communities. His favoured model for those tribes is Burning Man, a clothing-optional festival in the Nevada desert which tech executives flock to every summer. Burning Man is famed for its large-scale art installations, its philosophy of self-reliance and self-expression, and the use of recreational drugs.
Burning Man featured in all Pierce’s speeches that I heard. That, he says, is because a trip to the gathering in 2006 radically converted him from a money-grabbing shark to a philanthropist. “I saw what humankind could be. I saw a world where everything was right.” In 2016, he married Crystal Rose – who recently ICOed her company, Sensay – at Burning Man. The bride, groom and guests all dressed up as unicorns.
Pierce is vague on how the Burning Man ethos can be parlayed into a business plan. Onstage, he summarises the festival’s values with PowerPoint slides of inspirational words such as “Dream”, “Love”, “Earth” and “Believe”. When choosing whether to support a project, he tells me, he does not ask the founders what they want to do, but what they believe in.
“I only help the superheroes, I don’t help the villains,” Pierce says. “But there’s cockroaches everywhere now, funding villains all the time.”
His desire to change the “old world” with a cocktail of decentralisation and Nevada frolicking is why Pierce is pouring money into almost every ICO. “I’m in everything,” he says. (He also invests substantially in property, saying he is “building entire cities”. One of them seems to be in Puerto Rico).
Pierce isn’t in it for the money, he explains, but to bring about a new way of life, one that will make the planet a little more like Burning Man. He keeps thumbing his “family crest”: a small pendant in the form of two unicorns locking horns under a flaming man-shaped effigy – the Burning Man. A waiter brings over another bottle of Shiraz, called “Luddite Wine”. Pierce nods approvingly. “I don’t care about money,” he says. “If I need money, I just make a token.”
ICOs are monumental marketing efforts. Their websites are glitzy, brimming with facile sci-fi rhetoric, and featuring anxiety-inducing countdown timers (“one hour to the token sale”). Some publicity stunts are blatant: Floyd Mayweather Jr, Paris Hilton, Jamie Foxx, Luis Suárez and The Game are among the celebrities who have promoted token sales on social media. (An Instagram post featured Mayweather Jr on a private jet, wads of $100 bills before him, with the caption “I am gonna make a $hit t$n of money on August 2 on the Stox.com ICO.”) In at least one case the endorsement was paid for in tokens.
Other market strategies are subtler and capitalise on the backing of high-profile personalities in the industry. Discounted tokens are usually offered in “pre-sales” to VCs and high-net-worth individuals. “As an advisor, you can sometimes even get free tokens in a personal capacity,” says Max Mersch, an investment analyst at London-based funds OpenOcean and Fabric Ventures.
ICOs are also known for the parties. A company called Karma celebrated the launch of its token with a jamboree on a rooftop in Los Angeles, complete with dancers in bikinis and pellucid angel wings. A boat party in Kiev featured young women in skimpy schoolgirl uniforms, the name of a new token emblazoned on their breasts. In South Korea, ICO launches are sometimes compared to giant megachurch masses.
It’s the evening of the event at The Brewery, and EOS is having a more low-key party at Sushi Samba, the Japanese-Brazilian-Peruvian fusion sushi bar on the top floor of the Heron Tower in the City of London.
About 60 people crowd in, cocktails in hand. Tireless barmen juggle bottles under a fake cherry tree studded with red fairy lights. There are EOS-branded balloons, and a large banner reading “EOS Dawn” hangs under a gleaming Chestahedron.
EOS could well become the highest-netting ICO ever: launched in June 2017, and scheduled to go on for 341 days, by day 197 (time of publication), it had crossed $1 billion. Not one penny of that will actually go to fund EOS’ open-source code for a planned new blockchain, which is still in development.
“We had all the money we needed to build the software,” block.one CEO Brendan Blumer told me. “All the money that comes from the token sale will be block.one’s profit.”
In October, Blumer said block.one would invest $1 billion in projects running on the EOS platform, if and when it is launched— which is not guaranteed: block.one itself is not planning to launch a platform, leaving it to enthusiasts to create EOS-powered networks. It is unclear whether EOS tokens will have any application on a hypothetical community-launched platform: if you go by the legalese on the EOS website, tokens “do not have any rights, uses, purpose, attributes, functionalities or features”.
Block.one – which is also based in the Cayman Islands – declared it would not invest in the sale to avoid interfering with the auction and distorting the token’s price. The restriction did not apply to individual block.one members like Blumer or Pierce.
At Sushi Samba, Pierce has not yet arrived, but almost all the men from this afternoon’s lunch are here. They are dressed like many Pierce-clones: hoodies, EOS T-shirts, Chestahedron pendants, black boots.
Most of them sport beards. Some partygoers jokingly murmur the word cult. The music gets louder. Francoise Sinclair, one of Pierce’s two assistants, dances with a glass of wine in her hand. She stares at London through the tower’s large windows. “London is very different from the Burning Man,” she shouts above the music. She explains that she joined Pierce’s team after realising that blockchain technology could help people connect in revolutionary ways. “I think that, thanks to the blockchain, we could become part of a collective consciousness,” she says.
Pierce never arrives. His other assistant, Stephen Morris – a British former mining executive – took him to a dinner at the Addison Club organised by conservative magazine The Spectator. Guests included Lynton Crosby, the Conservative party’s political strategist, according to Morris. The day after, Pierce and his team will fly to Milan, then London again, then Ibiza for the closing parties season, then Barcelona, then back to California and finally, to Gibraltar, to preside over a conference Pierce runs together with Mike Costache, president of Karma (of the angel-dancers party), former Miss Universe Romania organiser, and friend of Donald J Trump. They were both invited to attend Trump’s inauguration in January 2017. Pierce wore a “Make Bitcoin Great Again” hat.
WTF is an ICO?” has become a popular headline since the current crypto-frenzy started. But the question should be: “WTF is a token?”
The answer will determine the fate of token sales. Tokens could be utilities (think of Bitcoin, which was invented as a payment protocol). Or they could be securities – things whose primary function is being investment vehicles with some expectation of profit. Despite the lexical gymnastics coin-peddlers engage in, some tokens are definitely securities. In July 2017, the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) declared that the DAO’s tokens were securities, and that many other tokens, depending on their individual features, were likely to be securities too. It recommended caution to investors, due to the risk of fraud and the near-impossibility to recover money if that happened. Token-issuing companies started forbidding their ICOs to US individuals, unless they were accredited investors – high-net-worth individuals able to partake under SEC regulations. (Some Americans use internet proxies to circumvent the prohibition.)
In early September 2017, China banned ICOs, labelling them illegal fundraising. South Korea followed suit shortly after. “There was a phase in Korea, when it could happen that ICOs were pitched on the phone, without even a white paper [being released],” says Yiseul Cho, an investor at Blockchain Partners Korea.
Then, in mid-September 2017, Britain’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) issued a carefully worded statement, saying some tokens may be securities – but that would be decided case by case. Like the SEC, it warned investors about potential frauds, and contrasted white papers with proper financial prospectuses.
“Reading the prospectus of an IPO is one of the most miserable things for a lawyer,” says Raoul Lumb, a solicitor expert in technology at legal firm Simons Muirhead & Burton. “If anything, just for the pain of reading all the footnotes. In ICO white papers often there are no footnotes at all.’’
Lumb said that the anonymity granted by cryptocurrency – which means that token-buyers’ identities are unknown – is vulnerable to front running, a kind of insider trading. Other experts have pointed out that the price of tokens might be kept artificially high by people with a stake in the token-issuing company, who could secretly funnel thousands of Ether into the sale. “The regulator can’t let this new rival to VC private equity go on totally unregulated. It’s likely that, within a year, they will take care of this and introduce new regulations,” Lumb says.
Some jurisdictions, such as some regions of Switzerland, the Isle of Man and Gibraltar, have been welcoming to this new fundraising model. Gibraltar is even working on a token-sale platform in partnership with its stock exchange.
“Having a harmonised international response is going to be challenging, and it’s going to take a long time,” says Imogen Garner, a partner at law firm Norton Rose Fulbright. “We’ll probably see fragmentation in the medium term.”
Some observers think ICOs have less to fear from regulation than they have from their own self-contradictions. Jamie Burke, CEO and founder of British token-focused venture fund Outlier Ventures, believes in ICOs as a way to help open-source developers make a profit, but he is also worried things could go wrong quickly. “A lot of projects won’t get finished,” Burke says. “There is often no incentive for the team to finish them, and just too much money. There will be a lot of ‘zombie companies’ soon.” As the price of Bitcoin and Ether skyrockets, founders might find it more convenient to latch onto their ever-more-valuable cryptocurrency stash rather than use it to build their project.
Outlier only invests in companies that already have a finished product when they launch an ICO, and Burke is even making contingency plans in case things turn ugly. “At Outlier we always keep enough fiat money to go on for one year in case cryptocurrency crashes,” he says. “If some of the big token-sale projects go south, everybody’s going to think we’re all crooks. When I see people in crypto driving Lamborghinis like there’s no tomorrow, I think it’s in bad taste. They only have magic money.”
Just as King Felipe of Spain thundered against the Catalan secessionists on TV, DOVU’s website suffered a DDOS attack, which took it down for eight hours. The team eventually managed to put it back up, but some damage was already done. “Probably the hackers were launching [their] ICO, and they wanted to deflect attention from us,” Watkins tells me. “Some people never came back, but we probably ended up with people who really wanted the token [instead of speculating].”
It was late October, two weeks after the launch in Barcelona, and DOVU had concluded its sale, raising about £4.5 million. Watkins, Smit and Mileva were presenting at an event at a Marriott hotel just outside Monaco. The rest of the team, in Britain, was taking care of the final details before delivering the tokens to the buyers’ wallets. After that, DOVU would start building its product. Watkins was optimistic: he thought the company would release “something that works” within three months, although – as with every ICO – they had no deadline to meet.
At that moment, the crypterati were watching in horror as high-profile ICO Tezos embarked on a public internecine war. The project’s founders had posted an attack on the head of the Swiss foundation they had put in charge of managing its $232 million trove. The founders accused the foundation director of using the ICO funds for his own benefit; the director described it as a “character assassination”. The question now was: would Tezos ever deliver its product or would it implode? Could this be the end of the ICO funfair?
But the Sun, the wind, the white yachts moored in front of the hotel were too good to be wasted on fretting. The event was followed by a cocktail- party-cum-ICO-pitch next to the yachts. The glasses were gungy, the sushi sub-par, the pitches boring – but Watkins managed to strike up some fruitful conversations. “A Russian guy proposed we exchange some of our DOV tokens with his tokens. It’s a sort of circular thing. Should I do it?” he asked.
The event organisers called some cabs and took people to a restaurant in central Monaco, La Maison du Caviar. There was no caviar; the dinner was preceded by a pitch for a token called MonacoCoin. Watkins, Mileva and Smit sat between a guy who was launching a token to disrupt cancer screening and an entrepreneur in the midst of an ICO for a project blending AI, cybersecurity and the blockchain.
The DOVU team left after dessert. But when in Monaco, you cannot not go to a casino. They plumped for one called Fairmont: standard- issue red and gold carpet, unsmiling croupiers shouting in French. “They sell tokens here,” Watkins said, placing $100 in chips at the roulette table.
Watkins placed a bet on the red, and won. Again, on the red – and again, he won. Then he lost. He shrugged.
“Nobody really wins, ever,” he said. “It’s all about losing over a longer period of time.”