Last month marked a milestone of sorts for Michael Terpin. BitAngels, the first “serious” angel network in bitcoin, celebrated its second birthday.
Things are markedly different since the group’s first impromptu meeting at the Bitcoin Foundation’s Bitcoin 2013 conference. After sending out a Reddit invite with the goal of six or seven people showing up, Terpin and co-founders David Johnston and Sam Yilmaz had 35 attend (60 joined within a week).
“The spirit of discovery and camaraderie from those early days was magical and unforgettable,” said Terpin. “When we did our first set of fundings with bitcoin it was lower, $100. But compared to $5 that time a year earlier it seemed like it was on the rise.”
Today, over 500 investors make up BitAngels’ decentralised global network. Those first discussions in crowded Mexican restaurants have made way for big budget conferences and monthly online presentations which Terpin describes as a “Who’s Who” of bitcoin and blockchain companies. By January 2014, the group had invested over $7m in a dozen bitcoin startups including Blueseed, CoinTerra and GoCoin. From anecdotal evidence, Terpin estimates this total is now in the mid 20s.
With most deals negotiated outside its sessions, BitAngels is part social club, part due diligence service for its members. Now, under Terpin’s leadership, it plans to become a matchmaker, with a ‘city network’ that aims to foster entrepreneurship on a local level. Johnston and Yilmaz, meanwhile, have spun off into ‘crypto 2.0’ projects with Dapps fund.
So far, six BitAngels chapters including London, San Francisco, Tel Aviv and New York are down to hold quarterly meetings where startups and angels can meet face-to-face.
Besides angels and founding teams meeting in person, this new initiative is important, Terpin said, to pump new blood into the bitcoin ecosystem.
It’s not that deals aren’t happening, or that companies aren’t good enough, but that bitcoin’s price drop has divided ranks. Some investors have abandoned the bitcoin sector altogether, while others have chosen to buckle in for the “long road ahead”.
“With the price going down there’s not this huge demand for people saying ‘this is the perfect time to get in’. If [bitcoin] hit $400 next week you’d have a lot of interest … but there’s an equivalent fear that it’s going down to double digits. I’ve heard that several times.”
The long-term bitcoin holders that make up the core BitAngels demographic are less likely to part with their funds now than at the currency’s peak, or when the market appeared more stable. The quality of startups pitching to the group remains high, Terpin said, but only 15% of people tuning into its monthly calls would be considered “serious” investors.
To boost these numbers, the group is reaching out to other angels who haven’t yet invested in blockchain technology. An agreement with the world’s largest angel group, Keiretsu Forum, will see BitAngels present bitcoin deals to some of its 1,500 members. The initiative will start in the locations with the greatest “synergy” to its new city network, he said.
Rather than speculating on price, Terpin thinks these tech-savvy individuals may help build out bitcoin’s utility into use cases beyond payments.
“I’m committed to growing the group in ways that are even more relevant today, which I believe must include reaching out to people who were not involved in bitcoin’s earliest days,” he added.
Then and now
“Two years ago it was a given that investing in companies was riskier than just buying bitcoin because it pretty much always went up – but now that’s certainly the minority view.”
Now, BitAngels’ competition is fierce. As Terpin admits, “we’re not the only game in town anymore”. Companies like Tally Capital (Xapo, BitFury, BitPay), Pantera (Ripple Labs, 21, BitPesa) and Barry Silbert’s newly-formed Digital Currency Group are laser focused on fostering crypto-talent.
Silicon Valley accelerator Boost VC, helmed by fourth-generation venture capitalist Adam Draper, announced its first ‘tribe‘ of bitcoin startups in November, pledging to fund a total of 100 bitcoin companies by 2017.
The abundance of seed capital that these initiatives have brought to the ecosystem, sprinkling $50,000 here and there, has had a knock-on effect Terpin terms the “Y combinator effect”.
“Everybody who raised a seed round wants an A and not everyone is worthy of it,” he said, noting that this issue affects all companies in tech, not just bitcoin.
“You’re not able to get something funded with a scratched out idea, you’re not able to get a second round without really showing some traction.”
When bitcoin marketplace Buttercoin shuttered just four months after launching with at least $1.3m from high-profile VCs, including Google Ventures and Y Combinator, its CEO blamed a lack of interest in smaller bitcoin deals.
Terpin disagrees, adding that the general consensus was that Buttercoin spent too much time “courting investors” over users.
The void between seed and A rounds in bitcoin won’t stop great companies getting funded, he said, citing Shapeshift as an example. For the Circles and Coinbases of the world, if you are hitting targets and have top tier investors on board, it seems like the B rounds are the easiest ones these days, he said.
Michael Terpin first fell into angel investing in the 1990s when tech startups he liked couldn’t afford the fees at his PR firm, The Terpin Group.
While some of these companies failed, Terpin had “a few good exits” from these early deals and bridge loans, including dot-com Xoom – then the fourth highest IPO of all time.
With over 100 angel investments now under his belt, the PR guru says he doesn’t regret the time and money spent on projects that went nowhere, but the billion-dollar firms that slipped through his net two decades ago.
“Two of the best-known companies in tech I turned down working with when they offered stock instead of cash. Both are $100bn companies today.”
But beyond B rounds, which of these startups has what it takes to be bitcoin’s first unicorn? This is a question Terpin considers as a partner at the AngelList Bitcoin Syndicate, part of top angel Gil Penchina’s Flight.vc. If he thinks the answer is no, he said, it’s simply a case of moving on to the next deal.
“We’re looking for revenue growth and a really big market where they’ve already got traction to be a leader. If you’re putting in something in a $5–10m valuation, what’s your path to a $100–200m exit?”
Terpin said the answer was “absolutely in the wallet and exchange space”, with the general consensus in the community that due to its funding and traction Coinbase is leading the pack.
Terpin himself is also launching a new Idea Lab-style incubator in Las Vegas, bCommerce Labs, alongside Jim Blasko. Its first startup will be unveiled at CE Week later this month.
“I don’t know that there will be a blockchain frenzy in a couple of years, but I think there will be good blockchain companies that are recognised by investors in the public markets certainly in the next three to five years. I’d like to start building some of those in Las Vegas.”
Long road ahead image via Shutterstock.