Initial coin offerings are all the rage. Dozens of companies have raised nearly $1.5 billion using the novel fundraising mechanism this year. Celebrities from Floyd Mayweather to Paris Hilton have jumped about the hype train. But don’t feel bad if you’re still wondering: exactly what the hell is definitely an ICO?
The acronym probably sounds familiar, and that’s on purpose-an ICO truly does work similarly with an initial public offering. As an alternative to offering shares in the company, though, a firm is instead offering digital assets called “tokens.”
A token sale is like a crowdfunding campaign, except it uses the technology behind Bitcoin to confirm transactions. Oh, and tokens aren’t just stand-ins for stock-they are often set up so that rather than a share of any company, holders get services, like cloud storage area, for example. Below, we run down the more popular then ever practice of launching an ICO and its potential to upset business as you may know it.
Let’s start out with vtcoin, typically the most popular token system. Bitcoin as well as other digital currencies are based on blockchains-cryptographic ledgers that record every transaction completed using Bitcoin tokens (see “Why Bitcoin May Be Much More Than a Currency”). Individual computers worldwide, connected online, verify each transaction using open-source software. Some of those computers, called miners, compete to solve a computationally intensive cryptographic puzzle and earn the opportunity to add “blocks” of verified transactions to the chain. With regard to their work, the miners get tokens-bitcoins-in exchange.
Blockchains need miners to run, and tokens will be the economic incentive to mine. Some tokens are designed on the top of new versions of Bitcoin’s blockchain which were modified for some reason-these include Litecoin and ZCash. Ethereum, a popular blockchain for companies launching ICOs, is really a newer, separate technology from Bitcoin, whose token is called Ether. It’s even possible to build new tokens along with Ethereum’s blockchain.
But advocates of blockchain technology say the effectiveness of tokens goes past merely inventing new currencies from thin air. Bitcoin eliminates the necessity for a reliable central authority to mediate the exchange of worth-a charge card company or even a central bank, say. In theory, which can be achieved for other items, too.
Take cloud storage, by way of example. Several companies are building blockchains to facilitate the peer-to-peer selling and buying of storage space, one that may challenge conventional providers like Dropbox and Amazon. The tokens in this case are definitely the method of payment for storage. A blockchain verifies the transactions between buyers and sellers and functions as a record with their legitimacy. Exactly how this works is dependent upon the project. In Filecoin, which broke records last month by raising more than $250 million with an ICO, miners would earn tokens by supplying storage or retrieving stored data for users.
One of the first ICOs to make a big splash happened in May 2016 with all the Decentralized Autonomous Organization-aka, the DAO-that has been essentially a decentralized venture fund built on Ethereum. Investors can use the DAO’s tokens to cast votes regarding how to disburse funds, as well as any profits were supposed to return to the stakeholders. Unfortunately for everyone involved, a hacker exploited a vulnerability in Ethereum’s design to steal tens of huge amounts of money in digital currency (see “$80 Million Hack Shows the risks of Programmable Money”).
Some individuals think ICOs can lead to new, exotic methods for building a company. In case a cloud storage outfit like Filecoin were to suddenly skyrocket in popularity, as an example, it might enrich anyone who holds or mines the token, instead of a set band of the company’s executives and employees. This may be a “decentralized” enterprise, says Peter Van Valkenburgh, director of research at Coin Center, a nonprofit research and advocacy group centered on policy issues surrounding blockchain technology.
Someone needs to build the blockchain, issue the tokens, and keep some software, though. To kickstart a brand new operation, entrepreneurs can pre-allocate tokens for themselves in addition to their developers. And they also can use ICOs to market tokens to individuals considering while using new service whenever it launches, or even in speculating as to the future importance of the service. If the value of the tokens increases, everybody wins.
With the hype around Bitcoin as well as other cryptocurrencies, demand is very high for several of the tokens hitting the market lately. A little sampling from the projects that vtco1n raised millions via ICOs recently features a Browser aimed at eliminating intermediaries in digital advertising, a decentralized prediction market, and a blockchain-based marketplace for insurers and insurance brokers.
Still, the future of the token marketplace is very uncertain, because government regulators remain trying to figure out how to address it. Complicating things is some tokens are definitely more much like the basis of traditional buyer-seller relationships, like Filecoin, while some, like the DAO tokens, seem similar to stocks. In July, the United states Securities and Exchange Commission said that DAO tokens were indeed securities, which any tokens that function like securities is going to be regulated consequently. A week ago, the SEC warned investors to watch out for ICO scams. This week, China went thus far as to ban ICOs, and also other governments could follow suit.
The scene does seem ripe for swindles and vaporware. Lots of the companies launching ICOs haven’t produced anything greater than a technical whitepaper describing an idea that may not pan out.
But Van Valkenburgh argues that it’s okay in case the ICO boom is a bubble. Regardless of the silliness of your dot-com era, he says, from it came “funding and excitement and human capital development that ultimately generated the large wave of Internet innovation” we enjoy today.