To describe Telegram's planned initial coin offering (ICO) as ambitious would be an understatement.
And it's not only because the provider of a popular messaging app is seeking to raise $1.2 billion, according to three people familiar with the offering, which would represent the largest crypto token sale to date.
Nor is it just because Telegram, with 200 million users, seems to be intent on bringing cryptocurrency payments to the masses.
Rather, the proposed Telegram Open Network (TON) would seek nothing short of decentralizing online communication, with a suite of services, from file sharing to anonymous browsing, purchasable with the new crypto tokens, known as grams.
"This is like Elon Musk-level ambition," Kyle Samani of Multicoin Capital, who looked at the offering, told CoinDesk. In fact, Samani said he declined to invest in the ICO precisely because of its broad scope.
"My concern as an investor is focus and diluted effort," he said, since the TON aims to disrupt the same areas as several other blockchain startups that have also recently raised funds via token sales.
Outlined in a 23-page primer on the offering obtained by CoinDesk, the TON is a blockchain protocol for the peer-to-peer movement of funds between users and to make purchases. This would interact directly with Telegram's messenger app, which was created in 2013 at VK, the Russian equivalent of Facebook.
Sources told CoinDesk that $500 million to $600 million was Telegram's goal in a presale, with the other $600 million to $700 million to be offered publicly.
The company is using the Simple Agreement for Futures Tokens (SAFT) structure, in which money is raised from accredited investors before a functioning network is built, in order to avoid running afoul of securities laws. The grams, eventually delivered to the SAFT investors, could then be resold to consumers.
Talk of the town
Telegram, which has not responded to CoinDesk's requests for comment, would, no doubt, be the most mainstream company to issue a crypto token to date, although the social messaging app Kik raised $98 million in an ICO in September.
"Many hedge fund managers are talking about the TON ICO," said BitBull Capital's Joe DiPasquale. "Telegram has owned the chat space for those in crypto, and our usage of the app is increasing due to its security and ease. It's become the platform of choice for crypto discussion, and they will have a lot of attention leading into their ICO."
Calling the presale's minimum investment of $1 million and cap on proceeds high and its one-year lockup long compared to other token sales before it, DiPasquale still continued optimistically, saying:
Other investors CoinDesk spoke with were reluctant to discuss the sale, with one citing a non-disclosure agreement required to view the primer and a technical white paper.
Rumors of the ICO plan started last week, and on Sunday a Russian-language slide deck marked "Ton_Draft" was posted on a Russian-language Telegram channel run by Fedor Skuratov, CEO of Combot, an analytics platform for the messaging app. TechCrunch was the first English language outlet to report the plan.
While the document CoinDesk received, and other investors have confirmed receiving, does not seem to be the most detailed account of the TON system (its footnotes refer to the technical white paper), the primer does provide a basic outline of what Telegram hopes to achieve with its crypto token.
In the document, the company declares:
As such, no cryptocurrency has gained truly mainstream success, yet Telegram believes, according to the paper, that a decentralized counterpart to everyday money is needed.
The primer states that the company is hoping to enable the easy exchange of micropayments among users and bots, something that's been of general interest throughout the blockchain space.
In an effort to do that, the primer explains that 5 billion grams will be generated, with 4 percent reserved for the Telegram team (with a four-year vesting period) and 44 percent to be sold during the ICO.
The remaining 52 percent will be "retained by the TON Reserve to protect the nascent cryptocurrency from speculative trading and to maintain flexibility at the early stages of the evolution of the system," the primer states.
According to a source with knowledge of the presale terms, the one-year lockup comes with a 60 percent discount.
The ICO is likely all or a part of the "three big announcements" Telegram co-founder Pavel Durov told his followers about on his public Telegram channel on New Year's Eve.
According to the primer, the sale will take place in the first quarter of 2018, with the SAFTs converting to grams in the fourth quarter.
The roadmap goes on to state that the first related product, "External Secure ID," will launch in the first quarter of 2018, with all other products to be rolled out by the first half of 2019. And the Telegram founders' control of the project will shift to a non-profit foundation by 2021.
'Tons' of competitors
While the TON's main priority is consumer payments, the primer goes into a number of services Telegram would like to build out that seem to encroach on territories, such as file sharing and privacy, already staked out by well-known and well-funded ICO issuers.
For instance, the primer outlines:
- TON Storage – "A distributed file-storage technology, accessible through the TON P2P Network and available for storing arbitrary files, with torrent-like access technology and smart contracts used to enforce availability." Throwing in torrent-like access makes this product similar to the Filecoin platform, which raised $257 million in a token sale in September, as well as projects like Storj and Sia.
- TON Proxy – "This layer can be used to create decentralized VPN services and blockchain-based TOR alternatives to achieve anonymity and protect online privacy." This sounds similar to the vision articulated by the team behind Orchid.
- TON Services – "A platform for third-party services of any kind that enables smartphone-like friendly interfaces for decentralized apps and smart contracts, as well as a World Wide Web-like decentralized browsing experience." A number of blockchain-based startups are building decentralized app marketplaces, including Coinbase, which continues to build out its Toshi marketplace; and the recently completed token sale for Sirin, which seeks to integrate decentralized applications into its blockchain-based mobile device.
The company's ICO plans must have come together quickly, according to the former chief technical officer at VK, Anton Rozenberg.
"While I was working at Telegram, cryptocurrencies, ICO, blockchain, etc were never discussed," Rozenberg, who left the company in April of last year, told CoinDesk.
Still, many remain, if nothing else, wow-ed by the expanse of the project.
Eduard Gurinovich, a Russian entrepreneur and founder of MyTime, which plans on launching an ICO in March, told CoinDesk:
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