Watching the current price madness is scary. Bitcoin is falling and rising in $500 increments with regularity and Ethereum and its attendant ICOs are in a seeming freefall with a few “dead cat bounces” to keep things lively. What this signals is not that crypto is dead, however. It signals that the early, elated period of trading whose milestones including the launch of Coinbase and the growth of a vibrant (if often shady) professional ecosystem is over.
Crypto still runs on hype. Gemini announcing a stablecoin, the World Economic Forum saying something hopeful, someone else saying something less hopeful – all of these things and more are helping define the current market. However, something else is happening behind the scenes that is far more important.
As I’ve written before, the socialization and general acceptance of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurial pursuits is a very recent thing. In the old days – circa 2000 – building your own business was considered somehow sordid. Chancers who gave it a go were considered get-rich-quick schemers and worth of little more than derision.
As the dot-com market exploded, however, building your own business wasn’t so wacky. But to do it required the imprimaturs and resources of major corporations – Microsoft, Sun, HP, Sybase, etc. – or a connection to academia – Google, Netscape, Yahoo, etc. You didn’t just quit school, buy a laptop, and start Snapchat.
It took a full decade of steady change to make the revolutionary thought that school wasn’t so great and that money was available for all good ideas to take hold. And take hold it did. We owe the success of TechCrunch and Disrupt to that idea and I’ve always said that TC was career pornography for the cubicle dweller, a guilty pleasure for folks who knew there was something better out there and, with the right prodding, they knew they could achieve it.
So in looking at the crypto markets currently we must look at the dot-com markets circa 1999. Massive infrastructure changes, some brought about by Y2K, had computerized nearly every industry. GenXers born in the late 70s and early 80s were in the marketplace of ideas with an understanding of the Internet the oldsters at the helm of media, research, and banking didn’t have. It was a massive wealth transfer from the middle managers who pushed paper since 1950 to the dot-com CEOs who pushed bits with native ease.
Fast forward to today and we see much of the same thing. Blockchain natives boast about having been interest in bitcoin since 2014. Oldsters at banks realize they should get in on things sooner than later and price manipulation is rampant simply because it is easy. The projects we see now are the Kozmo.com of the blockchain era, pie-in-the-sky dream projects that are sucking up millions in funding and will produce little in real terms. But for every hundred Kozmos there is one Amazon.
And that’s what you have to look for.
Will nearly every ICO launched in the last few years fail? Yes. Does it matter?
The market is currently eating its young. Early investors made (and probably lost) millions on early ICOs but the resulting noise has created an environment where the best and brightest technical minds are faced with not only creating a technical product but also maintaining a monetary system. There is no need for a smart founder to have to worry about token price but here we are. Most technical CEOs step aside or call for outside help after their IPO, a fact that points to the complexity of managing shareholder expectations. But what happens when your shareholders are 16-year-olds with a lot of Ethereum in a Discord channel? What happens when little Malta becomes the de facto launching spot for token sales and you’re based in Nebraska? What happens when the SEC, FINRA, and Attorneys General from here to Beijing start investigating your hobby?
Basically your hobby stops becoming a hobby. Crypto and blockchain has weaponized nerds in an unprecedented way. In the past if you were a Linux developer or knew a few things about hardware you could build a business and make a little money. Now you can build an empire and make a lot of money.
Crypto is falling because the people in it for the short term are leaving. Long term players – the Amazons of the space – have yet to be identified. Ultimately we are going to face a compression in the ICO and, for a while, it’s going to be a lot harder to build an ICO. But give it a few years – once the various financial authorities get around to reading the Satoshi white paper – and you’ll see a sea change. Coverage will change. Services will change. And the way you raise money will change.
VC used to be about a team and a dream. Now it’s about a team, $1 million in monthly revenue, and a dream. The risk takers are gone. The dentists from Omaha who once visited accelerator demo days and wrote $25,000 checks for new apps are too shy to leave their offices. The flashy VCs from Sand Hill have to keep Uber and Airbnb’s plates spinning until they can cash out. VC is dead for the small entrepreneur.
Which is why the ICO is so important and this is why the ICO is such a mess right now. Because everybody sees the value but nobody – not the SEC, not the investors, not the founders – can understand how to do it right. There is no SAFE note for crypto. There are no serious accelerators. And all of the big names in crypto are either goldbugs, weirdos, or Redditors. No one has tamed the Wild West.
And when they do expect a whole new crop of Amazons, Ubers, and Oracles. Because the technology changes quickly when there’s money, talent, and a way to marry the two in which everyone wins.