ICOs were supposed to be IPOs without the Wall Street middlemen and Washington meddling. Now they’re looking a bit less revolutionary.
Initial coin offerings have raised $18 billion for blockchain startups this year, almost five times last year’s total, according to CoinSchedule. But unlike 2017, this is increasingly due to blockbuster sales that targeted accredited (read: wealthy) investors instead of just anyone with an internet connection. Telegram raised $1.7 billion that way, reportedly prompting it to scrap a public sale. Among the 10 largest ICOs this year ranked by CoinSchedule are Tatatu’s $575 million sale and Basis’s $133 million one – all conducted through private rounds.
As regulatory scrutiny intensifies, many startups are finding it simply easier to raise money from private investors, whose interest in digital assets has also grown. This has made cryptocurrencies a little less like the Wild West and more like traditional venture investing – a trend that, depending on who you ask, either means the business is growing up or selling out.
“The space went from three things to think about to 30 things to think about, and those 30 things are very analogous to traditional finance,” said Lex Sokolin, global director of fintech strategy at Autonomous Research in London.
ICOs started out as a way for blockchain startups to raise funding by selling tokens that can later be used for their services. Initially, what founders did was build a website, upload a white paper detailing the project, tout it on social media and collect the funds in the form of Bitcoin or Ethereum. As the ICO market boomed along with Bitcoin’s staggering rally last year, that got more complicated.
First, regulators worldwide became more vigilant about policing fraud in ICOs and the evasion of registration requirements for securities offerings, which they say many token sales resemble. This means many ICO issuers who want to comply opt to pay lawyers to navigate the regulatory minefield, making a public sale much more expensive. A compliant and far easier way to sell tokens is just to offer them to accredited investors, which in the U.S. can be exempt from registration.
At the same time, the ICO boom also drew increasing attention from institutional investors including venture capitalists, family offices and crypto hedge funds, making it easier to raise enough funds just by tapping that pool. About 18 percent of funds raised in ICOs this year were exclusively through private sales, and 37 percent of offerings also conducted private pre-sales, CoinSchedule data show.
“If you can raise money in the private sale, today it’s the best kind of ROI [return on investment] for the company because it comes with the least uncertainty and the least risk for regulations,” said Uriel Peled, co-founder of Tel Aviv-based Orbs, which raised $120 million in a private sale this year through strategic investors, private equity and venture capital.
Including fees for legal, marketing and advisory services, Autonomous’s Sokolin estimates, a successful public coin sale could cost $1 million to $3 million. Excluding Telegram, ICOs raised on average $30.7 million this year through June, according to CoinDesk data.
Of course, an ICO is not entirely like an IPO, and for many, a public sale has the benefit of distributing the token among the masses and drumming up publicity – though many startups have also found that you can achieve that through other means. As private sales have ballooned, token giveaways sometimes known as airdrops have also proliferated. Tatatu is giving away $50 million worth of tokens, while Orbs is paying selected developers to use its platform.
Some startups conduct both private and public offerings. Dragon, which seeks to introduce blockchain into the gaming industry, said it raised $408 million in a private sale and another $12 million in a public one.
There are some projects that can still launch a successful public sale, though few now stand atop the charts. One counter-example is EOS, possibly this year’s largest sale with $4 billion raised.
“We’ve seen an increasing bifurcation between high-quality projects and low-quality ones,” said Andy Bromberg, chief executive officer of CoinList, which helps companies raise money through ICOs. Good projects are turning more to private investors, while bad ones are finding it harder to raise money, he said.
All this might suggest ICOs have lost some of their grassroots allure, but perhaps their innovation is the technology – turning illiquid assets into tradeable tokens – rather than upending a system where venture funding is dominated by institutions and wealthy individuals. Fraud, regulatory actions and a slump in the cryptocurrency market earlier this year have also made it clear that pouring your savings into tokens is probably not the best idea for the average retail investor.
“The narrative of democratization has hit quite a few snags – no question about it,” said Sokolin at Autonomous. “But I still think you have an outcome now after all the software and networks are in place that is very different from the way the world was before.”
– With assistance from Ben Bain.