What is An Initial Coin Offering?

ICO is the abbreviation of Initial Coin Offering. It means that someone offers investors some units of a new cryptocurrency or crypto-token in exchange against cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum. Since 2013 ICOs are often used to fund the development of new cryptocurrencies. The pre-created token can be easily sold and traded on all cryptocurrency exchanges if there is demand for them.

With the success of Ethereum ICO are more and more used to fund the development of a crypto project by releasing token which is somehow integrated into the project. With this turn, ICO has become a tool that could revolutionize not just currency but the whole financial system. ICO token could become the securities and shares of tomorrow.

What is an Initial Coin Offering fundraising

Short History of Initial Coin Offering? – ICO

Maybe the first cryptocurrency distributed by an ICO was Ripple. In early 2013 Ripple Labs started to develop the Ripple called payment system and created around 100 billion XRP token. The company sold these token to fund the development of the Ripple platform.

Later in 2013, Mastercoin promised to create a layer on top of Bitcoin to execute smart contracts and tokenize Bitcoin transactions. The developer sold some million Mastercoin token against Bitcoin and received around $1mio.

Several other cryptocurrencies have been funded with ICO, for example, Lisk, which sold its coins for around $5mio in early 2016. Most prominent however is Ethereum. In mid-2014 the Ethereum Foundation sold ETH against 0.0005 Bitcoin each. With this, they receive nearly $20mio, which has become one of the largest crowdfunding ever and serves as the capital base for the development of Ethereum.

As Ethereum itself unleashed the power of smart contracts, it opened the door for a new generation of Initial Coin Offering.

Ethereum – The Initial Coin Offering?- ICO Crowdfunding Machine

One of the easiest application of Ethereum’s smart contract system is to create a simple token which can be transacted on the Ethereum blockchain instead of Ether. This kind of contract was standardized with ERC20. It made Ethereum host of such a wide scope of ICO that you can safely say that Ethereum found its Killer App as a distributed platform for crowdfunding and fundraising.

Ethereum infographics

The most prominent demonstration of the potential of Ethereum’s smart contracts has been The DAO. The distributed investment company was fuelled with Ether worth $100m. The investors received in exchange against Ether Dao Token which had their own market price and enabled the holder to participate in the governance of the DAO. After it was hacked, the DAO however failed.

The concept of funding projects with a token on Ethereum became the blueprint for a new and highly successful generation of crowdfunding projects. If you already tried out, you know that investing in token on top of Ethereum is charmingly easy: You transfer ETH, paste the contract in your wallet – and, tata: The token appear in your account and you are free to transfer them as you want.

Examples for successful Initial coin offering on Ethereum are:

  • Augur
  • Melonport
  • Golem
  • ICONOMI
  • Singular DTV
  • First Blood
  • Digix DAO.

There are dozens of ICO every month which explore new and creative ways to connect the application with the token and to leverage smart contracts to add more features to these tokens.

The potential of this trend is immense. ICO enables every individual and every company to easily release freely tradable tokens to raise funds. It could be used to completely reconstruct the financial system of shares, securities and so on. It decentralized not just money, but stock creation and trade.

If you want to assess Ethereum’s market capitalization you should not only look at the market cap of Ether itself but also on the value of the token, which adds something like $300 Million to Ethereum’s $4 Billion market cap.

Legality

The legal state of ICO is mostly undefined. Ideally, the token is sold not as a financial asset but as a digital good like many other things. This is why ICO is often called “crowd sale”. In this case, in the most jurisdiction, the funding with an ICO is not regulated, which makes it extremely easy and paperless, given a lawyer experienced with the issue is on board.

The legal state of ICO

However, some jurisdictions seem to be aware of ICO and tend to regulate them similar to the sale of shares and securities. The spectacular implosion of the DAO did a good job in kindle regulators attention. So while ICO currently mostly happen in a gray area, in the future they most likely will be regulated. This could bear some financial and legal risks for investors. Also, the cost and effort to comply with regulation could reduce the advantages of ICO compared with traditional means of funding.

Evolution of ICOs

ICOs are a mix between a donation and an investment. Owing to a number of scams in the industry, the community has adopted self-governing best practices and principles with respect to ICOs. Platforms like Koinify (now closed) promised due-diligence of projects before listing them, and releasing the money to the project team conditional upon realizing some pre-defined goals. Community members also demanded that projects use multi-signature wallets to enhance safety. 

Some ICOs use a single public Bitcoin address to raise funds, which is bad for privacy, but is good for a community audit of the health of the ICO and the money raised. 
Several ICOs use existing cryptocurrency protocols to create their tokens on top of them. This helps simplify the token-creation process. The most notable such protocols today include NXT, Counterparty, Bitshares, and Mastercoin. Waves, which itself was developed through an ICO (raising over $16 million) (7) is also developing a token platform.

Evolution of ICOs

Some well-known cryptocurrencies that were developed through an ICO include: NXT, Mastercoin, Bitshares, Ethereum, Maidsafecoin, NEM, Synereo, Factom, DigixDAO, Lisk, and Waves.

How They Work

ICOs are typically announced on various cryptocurrency forums, notably on Bitcointalk. The announcement thread contains key information about the project, such a whitepaper (if present), project goals, timelines for ICO and project development, team involved, previous experience of the team members, notable features of the project, and other ICO details.

Funds are typically collected in Bitcoin, either via a global, public address (in which case the participants need to send Bitcoin from an address they control the private key for), or by creating accounts of each participant and providing them with a unique Bitcoin address. Best practices dictate that all funds ultimately be held in a multi-sig address that is made public.

The specific dynamics of an ICO may vary. They typically include a few weeks of raising money, at least, and try to raise as much as there is demand. Occasionally, some ICOs will instead cap the total amount raised (such as DigixDAO which capped the total fundraising at around $5.5 million). A small percentage of tokens are usually reserved for early promotion bounties, such as forum signature campaigns or social media and newsletter campaigns.

Once the ICO is completed and the project launched, the ICO tokens get listed of cryptocurrency exchanges to trade against other cryptocurrencies. The largest exchange by volume today is Poloniex. The price usually reflects the overall cryptocurrency market sentiment, project-specific news, and the addition of new features.

Are ICOs like IPOs?

ICOs have been compared to Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) of corporations. There are some notable similarities – both of them are used to sell a stake and raise money, and both have investors who see the potential and risk their capital in order to make a potential profit.

However, there are significant differences as well. ICOs are mostly supported by early enthusiasts and not professional investors. In that respect, they are similar to ‘kickstarter campaigns’, but with the backers having a financial stake in the project. ICOs are also not regulated or registered with any government organization and there are usually no investor protections other than what is built into the platform itself.

ICO vs. IPO

Most ICOs today are marketed as ‘software presale tokens’ akin to giving early access to an online game to early supporters. In order to try to avoid legal requirements that come with any form of a security sale, many ICOs today use language such as ‘crowdsale’ or ‘donation’ instead of ICOs. They also use legal disclaimers and language to the participants that this isn’t a securities sale. It is unclear whether this is sufficient for global jurisdictions to treat it differently from a securities sale. To date, the matter hasn’t been litigated in a court of law.

The first indication that a government agency was looking into ICOs came in mid-2016. This was in response to The DAO, a crowd-funded vehicle on the Ethereum smart contract being attacked and drained of funds. The SEC (the government agency responsible for protecting investors and capital markets in the United States) is said to be looking into The DAO.