Back to Basics for Blockchain Tokens?

CoinDesk's Noelle Acheson discusses recent trends around initial coin offerings (ICOs) – and how the game seems to be changing.

AccessTimeIconJun 5, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 11, 2021 at 1:24 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconJun 5, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. UTCUpdated Sep 11, 2021 at 1:24 p.m. UTC
AccessTimeIconJun 5, 2017 at 10:00 a.m. UTCUpdated Sep 11, 2021 at 1:24 p.m. UTC

Finally, there’s something that virtually the whole cryptocurrency sector can agree on: digital tokens are hot.

Several recent token issuances have sold out in minutes or even less – and many more are in the pipeline. And while the potential is intriguing, especially for some use cases, the current enthusiasm is disconcerting, leading many observers to dust off the word 'bubble'.

How long this can go on for is unclear. But recent deals reveal what could be the beginning of an encouraging trend away from a focus on easy financing and toward one that prioritizes utility.

When the initial coin offering (ICO) craze started, it was hailed as a more democratic way to raise funds for startups. It allowed blockchain-based businesses to bypass the traditional venture capital (VC) and bank lending routes by realizing a type of crowdfunding that gave participants the right to use the service and/or participate in future profits.

The more that people wanted to use the service or believed in its profitability, the higher the price of the token would rise.

At least, that's the theory.

The runaway success of some issuances encouraged speculators to bet that others would have a similar success, and when institutional investors started to get involved, the relative scarcity of tokens compared to the amount of funds looking for high-return opportunities pushed the prices up even further. The fundamentals of the underlying projects seemed to dwindle in significance, and firms with no revenue model or even working product found it relatively easy to raise funds.

Ecosystem shift

However, the recent news around three unusual digital token issuers reveals a shift in priorities, as all of them already have working products and VC funding. So, rather than seeing token sales as an alternative to more rigorous financing methods, all seem to focus on a more fundamental characteristic – the incentivisation of an ecosystem.

Last week, messenger app Kik announced that it was planning a blockchain-based token sale for June. Its main purpose is to encourage its 15 million monthly users to transact more within the app. The company has already raised $120m in venture capital funding, and has been operating for seven years. Replacing VCs as a source of funds does not sound like the main objective.

Also last week, blockchain startup Blockstack released a decentralized browser aimed at making apps more easily accessible, and revealed plans for a type of coin issue to power the network. Again, it doesn’t seem to be about bypassing the VCs – Blockstack has already raised over $5m in capital from high-profile institutional investors.

The ICO of internet browser Brave, completed earlier this week, distributed a chunk of utility tokens (created to incentivize use of its new ad-serving platform) to investors. It raised $35m, which dwarfs the initial VC financing of $4.5m and makes it the highest-grossing ICO to date. More unusual is the speed (it was sold out in under 30 seconds) and the concentration – all tokens went to a group of about 130 investors.

Bigger picture

While that may seem in contradiction with the principle of 'democratizing investment', it does serve to highlight the problematic consequences of too much hype.

This increased awareness could encourage a redesign of upcoming issuances, triggering a period of self-regulation by the sector to ensure fair distribution and practical application. For instance, limits could be placed on the amount of coins that can be issued to investors rather than users, as well as the amount any one investor can purchase. This would provide the sector with a much-needed return to basics, and should be of interest to startups, enterprises and regulators alike.

Blockchain-based tokens provide an ingenious way to fuse practicality and buy-in. And once the speculative fervor dies down, they can revert to the original purpose of incentivizing development and testing adoption, with limited risk and without violating any securities laws.

Effectively, they can go back to kickstarting the initial bootstrap phase of a product. This should sound familiar – it’s the same premise that bitcoin was founded on.

Stacking blocks image via Shutterstock

Disclosure: CoinDesk is a subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which has an ownership stake in Blockstack and Brave. 

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