The Decentralized Startups
If someone were to ask what the most successful startups of this decade are, the answer would likely be Snap (market cap $22bn). Uber and Airbnb might also be on the list although those companies were launched in the prior decade (2009 and 2008 respectively).
But what might be missed is the massive success of the decentralized startups, most notably Bitcoin (BTC) and Ethereum (ETH) this decade.
Look at these charts:
During this decade BTC has gone from essentially zero to about $1000/share which is a market cap of $16.3bn.
If anything, ETH is an even more impressive story. In less than two years (Ethereum was initially released in July 2015), it has gone from zero to a market cap of $3.4bn.
And anyone located anywhere in the world can invest in these decentralized startups and profit from them, unlike the traditional startups.
Obviously, there is no way to know where we go from here. Does ETH go to $100 or $5? Does BTC hard fork and cause the price to crash?
But of course the same is true of Snap, Uber, and Airbnb. Past performance is no guarantee of future success.
And it is also true that using traditional valuation methods (DCF, etc) on these decentralized startups is really hard. One of USV’s investors (LPs in the industry vernacular) asked me how to value a digital asset. It’s a great question and one we are working hard to understand. We don’t know the answer to it yet, to be honest.
But this much I know. There’s a new game in startup land. A new way to do things. And it is working for a lot of people who are playing that game right now.
Interesting to look at the core protocols themselves as the startups. I guess it makes perfect sense, they’re the genesis upon which all others rely.Talk about having dysfunctional management teams though.Perhaps instant liquidity and real-time price info actually limiting factor rather than enabling one though. Forces short term thinking.
It’s also a trial by fire.
I deliberately stopped looking at daily prices. This post showed me it at dropped $250 in the last few days. Makes things quite stressful
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) made history on Friday by disapproving the Bats BZX Exchange filing to list and trade shares of the Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust. The shares, representing 0.01 BTC, would have tracked the price of bitcoins on the Gemini Exchange. The digital-asset exchange is owned and operated by the Gemini Trust Company, which would have owned the equivalent share value in bitcoins.The Commission believes that the significant markets for bitcoin are unregulated, which means they are unlikely to approve any US based exchange-traded product using bitcoin as the underlying asset. There was a 25% drop from the high that day, which was a brief new all-time high of $1319.50 on the $BLX.
You get to see the sausage making earlier from sure. As I said before, for some of these companies, it’s like being public from Day 1. But I don’t think it forces short term thinking necessarily. The serious ones want a long future, although there will be many failures for sure.
When the price jumps everyday and you can smell instant profit it’s harder to stay focused on the long term
Some speculation fever funds a lot of stuff.
Dysfunctional management teams!!I think Vitalik is worth watching though. He learns from his mistakes
Since the crytpocurrencies often have public offerings early on their pipeline and trajectory is completely different than historical startups. The amount of capital needed to prove a product market fit can come from that offering.When’s a good time to invest? Who is most skilled at picking winners? You can review the currencies rules for yourself and make a decision which is great, and you still need trust in the team behind the work (forks/scams/how they handle vulnerabilities). Do we have any studies done that show earnings across an index fund of cryptocurrencies? Maybe different mixtures too.Dash is on an amazing run. I’ve watched it over the past month or two and am kicking myself for not grabbing some, instead of passively observing.
Liquidity has always been a driving factor in capital markets.
I have been living in this world for the past 3 years. Not just by being involved with several of these companies, but also as someone whose work nature is very decentralized. So this trend applies at the personal level too. Many of the employees and contractors in these companies are autonomous and global. For example, Ethereum’s core team is spread around the world, and so is its ecosystem, literally. There isn’t one location that holds any significant concentration of manpower. And it started like since Day 1.
Decentralization has its roots not in crowd sourced but in open sourced development of course.Where each piece of code can be adopted and reused at will wherever and built on.Development wise a proven entity.Market and brand wise, not so at all.I’ve always been puzzled why something so powerful and potentially important could be so underwhelming, strategically, brand and market wise.Maybe that is the reason.
I’ve always been puzzled why something so powerful and potentially important could be so underwhelming, strategically, brand and market wise.This is a fascinating question actually and goes to the root of how people are motivated and rewarded.You have thousands of people doing thousands if not hundreds of thousands of projects all over the world. In that group something takes hold because enough people believe in it to spend significant time and then others are convinced as well (to spend or waste) their time. Because there is some intrinsic reward in doing so. Have been following this long enough to know the reward is not money most likely or at least it doesn’t play the major role.In these groups since nobody is king or maybe because no body works for the king you are not going to have the power to force those participants to act in a way that would allow you to commercialize or even go in that direction. You will have people and companies though that form and commercialize. (Redhat with linux for example).
Maybe because it is a completely different model from the traditional one (enterprises, etc.) and so is still evolving its own things. Also may be worthwhile to question the implicit assumptions in the puzzle.
Because it’s software and that is the same way open source software is developed. As opposed proprietary software at a building on Microsoft’s campus in Redmond.
I’m still struggling to understand how a system can be argued decentralized but have a powerlaw distribution of miners?
Btc mining distribution is not ideal , that’s why they were revolting recently. Pendulum will swing to true decentralization IMO.
Do we need proof of stake for that to happen?
Not necessarily. We need a healthy community that is collegial as the original intent was.That said, in a POS, miners are replaced by bonded validators who have stakes.
listen to ^this guy.
yes, POS does not have the economy of scale problem of POW regarding centralization. More important – it is just way more efficient. I POW honst actor need to constantly outspend a potential attacker. In POS you can just make attacking way more expensive than honest validation.
that’s a great succinct explanation of the benefits of PoS
delegated POS. there are problems with it (squabbles, toys out of prams, et.c.) but it can be the ‘glue’ that sticks an ecosystem together.
Love hearing this. Feels like a trend that will continue to grow and it may help solve the limited pool of fluent developers in this area.
Please elaborate on how these are startups?I see what you’re trying to get at but these are at their core frameworks for implementation of information technology techniques, that happen to have an asset pricing element to them due to the need for an incentivization structure. It would be like calling “Machine Learning” in and of itself a startup.I don’t mean to nitpick; just want to understand more your reasoning for calling these “startups.”
I can see your point. But there are many definitions of the word ‘startup’ and it’s reasonable to come up with a new phrase ‘decentralized startups’ to describe ‘btc’ and ‘eth’. (Actually it’s not new but it was new to me.)More important though is the issue of what constitutes success. And is it only measured at a point in time? (Of course not although it’s not 100 years either..)From an investing perspective both Snap, Bit, Eth, Airbnb, Uber have been massive successes. Assuming that you bought and sold at the right time. (If you haven’t sold you simply have paper profits which can’t buy you love.)Fred is an investor. So not putting thoughts into his head but it’s clear that that is the angle that he probably is referring to.
If the gains are on paper, success is notional and only at a point in time. It can be measured in a more definitive way, only if the gains are liquidated into cash.
if liquidated to cash at this stage the ecosystem crashes. the valuations are on the margin. what % of ETH could be sold at a market cap of $3.5 bn? a tiny %.
Yes that’s very true. I was attempting to answer the question raised by LE of “what constitutes success for any one investor and if it is measured at a point in time?”
Airbnb is a platform/network where listings are published and guests and hosts interact with them. Airbnb, a single company, controls the platform/network. There are engineers working on Airbnb, there are users, and there are use cases; the $33B market cap includes the entire ecosystem.Ethereum is a platform/network where smart contracts are published and users interact with them. No single company controls the platform/network. There are engineers working on Ethereum, there are users, and there are use cases; the $3.5B market cap includes the entire ecosystem.
I’ve seen estimates that there are just 1 million accounts “worldwide” that hold nontrivial amounts of bitcoin.
So you need to be careful to not confuse bitcoin and ethereum. Ethereum has far more upside potential. It’s basically a giant shared computer where we all agree on the results of contracts which anyone can code.
http://continuations.com/po…USV is a bit obsessed with blockchain, and they’re right to be.
It a metaphor. Maybe not a great one. But I am trying to make a point by using it
Unlike BTC and ETH, Machine learning is not an asset that can be bought or sold by itself. From the standpoint of someone with money to invest (say a LP or even a VC fund), these digital currencies are another tool in your portfolio strategy to get a return. You may decide to make investments in it either directly or indirectly through startups that provide services and platforms around these currencies.
Decentralization is the future of the world. In Part 2 of my FQXi easy I have a simple proof why central control fails. If you find the essay interesting please rate it. http://fqxi.org/community/f…
Alternative version in /parentheses of this sentence from the post -“And anyone located anywhere in the world can invest (/trade) in these decentralized startups (/thinly traded and volatile cryptocurrencies) and profit (/either profit or lose money) from them…”.Bitcoin and Ethereum are not startups.I don’t understand what market cap of Bitcoin means (I understand the math, I don’t understand how that is market cap).
I could understand if this conflation was made by a journalist, but without explanation this blog post has a lot of holes.
I am trying be be provocative
According to Forbes, 95% of bitcoin trading is a done in China in an attempt to get around the laws of exporting the reminiscing. This effectively means that 95% of the activity is illegal.
Tough space to interpret because of what many would call “bugs” are actually “features” that are inherent in these systems. One that I’m particularly fascinated with is decentralization & how that intersects with governance.
I like to see institutional leadership: https://www.finextra.com/ne…
A little disingenuous don’t you think since both of these startups are at what look to me to be bubble peaks. I know you want this decentralized thing to work but its not human nature. People feel more comfortable when someone is in charge and looking after the store. All I can say to be nice is, I hope you’ve made money on it.
I have not made a dime because I have not sold any of the digital assets I own and I have no intention of doing so. I’m a true believer. Full stop.
Want one? https://uploads.disquscdn.c…
Well, I really do wish you luck with it. I hope you do make a nice return. And since I’ve made my point on the blockchain/bitcoin thing and I get it, I’ll comment on other things…
$mart.. dimes are overrated. Thanks for $upporting Ð://movemint
Ethereum seed investment USD return is presently 148x and when placed in the context of “Time to Unicorn Valuation” it’s #3, behind Magic Leap and Snap. Unlike Bitcoin, Ethereum has a non-zero starting valuation of $22.7MM based on the 2014 crowdsale financing and preallocation.Additionally, these six things make valuing a protocol like Ethereum difficult:1) total addressable market as it is traditionally defined is larger than anything we’ve ever seen and could be limitless,2) it is even harder to arrive at market opportunity and probabilistic penetration (new services, infrastructure + market share from incumbents),3) the rate of development in the open source context can’t be benchmarked against known development resources, its growth is linked to network effects or lack thereof and endowment funding (a value of preallocation dedicated to development),4) decentralized governance is untested at scale and could be more/less effective (i.e. present state of BTC), 5) owning Ether does not represent equity ownership but the right to utilize the network (so as you mention DCF, Earnings Multiples, etc don’t work – at least not until Proof of Stake becomes part of the calculus). Also, see “Cryptoeconomics is Hard: Market Cap” edition (https://blog.coinfund.io/cr…6) public and global access to the investment opportunity could increase chances of success by increasing network effects but may psychologically lead to overvaluation and high volatilityIn summary, the key value driver is speculation on future demand for the network’s services and adoption as the backbone to Web 3.0 which includes trustless transaction services. https://twitter.com/flextho…
Not really. You are applying traditional ROI thinking to a disruptive platform that represents actually a paradigm shift in software development. This is a new frontier really. Did Columbus have an ROI when he went on to discover America? I doubt it.
Perhaps Ferdinand and Isabella did?
Can you call a cryptocurrency a “startup” in the classic definition of startup? Not sure I buy it. If someone asked me how I valued BTC or Ether, I’d point to a few market based prices with the caveat that the market isn’t liquid. However, since participants know it there should be some sort of liquidity premium built in.
It was and is a provocative statement. A metaphor. Intentionally used to make a point and talk my book
Agree, and should get people to think differently about crypto. I am in your camp and see it as extremely disruptive.
I think you have to look at these much the way you would look at derivative bets. Focus on a selection heuristic more than a BS valuation function.
Ok. Thank you. I’m going to take that insight and run with it
I would guess that your selection rule would be quite different from mine. I’m an armchair speculator with my own lunch money. You’re a famous venture investor allocating big money (relative to nascent 20bn market). Personally I don’t have the resources to add any value to the ecosystem for the tokens I buy. If I had more meaningful capital to use, I would want to invest simultaneously in the tokens as well as employ the core developers, and have a kitty to spend on exchange listing contracts etc. In the big leagues I guess you’d also need a management budget that would go largely to security costs for the precious but loss-prone tokens.
I hope you continue to share your insights over time in developing new valuation methodology for digital assets. It’s such an active space and yet, the math used is very nebulous and somewhat, universally hubris.Although: Snap’s valuation is amazing (as a multiple of sales); I’m a believer – I don’t find it difficult envisioning $22B in sales over 3-5 years. But they are unique, an exception to the rule because their platform captures so much future value – huge economic shift engendered by generation Y/Z on a global scale.
I agree. This is what I discovered a few years back when I looked at coinmarketcap. Here was a lot of small companies and teams focused on trying to build new digital infrastructures and payment systems. But the most wonderful thing about them is that anyone can own a little bit and you can invest any amount of money into one of them.
CONTRIBUTORS:OFF TOPIC ALERT:Charles Edward Anderson “Chuck” Berry (October 18, 1926 – March 18, 2017) was an American guitarist, singer and songwriter and one of the pioneers of rock and roll music. With songs such as “Maybellene” (1955), “Roll Over Beethoven” (1956), “Rock and Roll Music” (1957) and “Johnny B. Goode” (1958), Berry refined and developed rhythm and blues into the major elements that made rock and roll distinctive.RIP Chuck BerrySource: Wikipedia
He built the core protocol for rock and roll. God bless Chuck Berry
CONTRIBUTORS:OFF TOPIC ALERT:New York City’s own Jimmy Breslin (Queens) the Pulitzer Prize winning Jouranalist dies.New Yorkers remember the letter the Son of Sam wrote to Jimmy? The surgeon of President Kennedy he interviewed. (Read it in grade school ten years later)http://www.newsday.com/news…
William Mougayar:Do you consider BTC or ETH startups which will be contradictory to your previous writings. Fred did clarify he was using the term as a metaphor.We are seeking your thoughts on the topic……
name checks out!
The more you’re involved in this space, the more you hear about USV being involved in things behind the scenes.
A great article. I was one of the crowd funders (in a small way) behind Ethereum. I don’t know really how to value it either, but I often use the following proxy as a way of explaining what it might be worth:Imagine I described a software company with 10,000 committed engineers and whose product was being used by nearly all of the Fortune 500 companies. What might that company be worth? And with the announcement of the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance a few weeks ago, we’ve only gotten started…
isn’t that Microsoft?
Interestingly as a “decentralized startup”, Bitcoin suffers from a tragedy of the commons. VCs have invested in applications at the edge but who finances core development? The network has stagnated and is now in risk of splitting over governance disputes.Ethereum has managed to keep growing and innovating, but at the cost of a high degree of centralization in its development team which, de facto, exercises a great deal of control over the network.For these networks to grow and remain decentralized, they need decentralized governance such as the one we’re building in Tezos.
I don’t think you need decentralized governance so much as you need other people who could theoretically take over core development. Basically no one is forced to agree to a hard fork. We can see this with ETC. I think that was a stupid split but I could see something like that happening if the centralized governance goes astray. The question is will there be another set of developers who can take on the project, because ETC is pretty much going to die on the vine because of lack of dev resource at some point.
Snap is making a product, Bitcoin and Ethereum are building a new market.
1. I propose a different metaphor – “ecosystem index”, rather than startup valuation (which focus on the “company” itself).Every public blockchain is essentially trying to build a eco around it. (which is HARD). Its value is ultimately combination of:* Actual dApp usage & tx volumes * Dev community & funding (VC + crowdsale)* Store of value + speculationetc.Hence its market cap is more like an aggregated index of all these factors.2. While its hard to put absolute numbers – we could instead focus on ratios and growth rate: e.g.- Does it really make sense that Ethereum is 1/10th of Bitcoin? One must be over-valued or another under valued.- Stable currency seem a huge shared service among dApps. Could it penetrate at least 50% of Ethereum eco? – If we assume strong anonymity is important generally (e.g. Signal & Telegram growth), Could Monero be at least 1/5th of Bitcoin?3. Some higher level protocols tokens are quite *possible* to value (as much as you can value any startup), unlike just chains that competes for the status of dominant crypto currency or smart contract platform.Imagine a Decentralized Uber protocol that takes 1% commission and disburse to all its DAO token holders. The variable remains are – user base / growth, 3rd party use, speed of protocol / ux iteration, network effect, then factor in possible commission model change from governance, competition from other similar protocol / forks etc. Lots of similarity to traditional startups.
This begs an important question: there is a conspicuously large difference in the apparent social value of Snap, Uber, and Airbnb, as compared to the given crypto tokens. You yourself have explicitly stated that the latter has yet to even come close to actually delivering.It seems there are two ways out of this- Token prices are a rational appraisals of expected future social value of their networks, and it is extraordinarily large.- Unlike stocks, market capitalization is a poor guide to expected social value when it comes to tokens.I think there are quite a few reasons to suspect b) is the leading hypothesis.1) token prices appear to move much faster, in either direction, then any long term rational appraisal would support.2) there are quite a lot of tokens which have risen just as much as BTC & ETH, like say DASH or Auroracoin, where people are much less comfortable celebrating them as anything fundamental.3) the actual pricing mechanism is very different, and for tokens, it seems much more guided by non-fundamental speculation(a) stocks are a registered claim on future cash flows, governance rights, etc. Tokens have no registered claim, and the value derives entirely from expectation of future price.(b)(large) stocks are traded in sophisticated private markets, or highly regulated public markets, and advertising, soliciting or selling such instruments is also very regulated. Tokens are traded by large numbers of unsophisticated small investors, on a set of largely unregulated markets, and marketed through a large number of channels of varying quality and honesty.
on price, it’s all ‘alchemy’ dude, ‘alchemy’. the transmutation of strings of code to gold by soothsayers and their acolytes. there will be blood.on your charts, i see a previous btc $1000 spike. care to offer up a rational explanation, and why it no longer applies?You seem a little bit too excited for a VC.
Great point @fredwilson:disqus. I have never seen anyone word Bitcoin as a startup. But of course it is. I feel this is something that should be talked about more often. There will be many more decentralized startups within the coming years.Sitting here at ground zero I am privy to seeing a lot of the potential for this widely growing space. I suspect that within 5 years we will see a new decentralized startup that will be in the top 5 of startup valuation and probably quite a few others with really high valuations. Hopefully the ups and downs along the way will help determine a true valuation of these companies.I also believe that there will be a need for segmentation of these startups when valuing them. Decentralized protocol layer startups and more traditional startups that are simply decentralized are two segmentation examples.
It’s important to mention here that we have two version of Ethereum blockchains: Ethereum by EF (ETH) and Ethereum Classic (ETC).First one is lead by company Ethereum Foundation and Vitalik Buterin who was an original author of the idea. At some point they started making changes to blockchain state without user consent. Because they were disagree with some of transactions in the chain.Part of the community was disagree with that, because it breaks blockchain principles, and also in terms of blockchain it’s called a «51% attack» executed by a powerful centralized authority.As a result Ethereum Classic was born. It has been maintained by a distributed community, with a lot of volunteers who believes in tech. Now it has at least 3 teams working full time on core ETC technologies, such as nodes, protocol improvements, wallets, tools for 3rd party developers and so on.So now we have two compatible chains, one with a centralized authority (ETH) and another decentralized (ETC)
ETC has no future, because it’s too idealistic for it to see any usage in the real world.The ETH community did the right thing with the hard fork. And it’s going to reap its rewards now.
what do you mean by “too idealistic” there?
The arguments against the hard fork was that it was “wrong” to have humans interrupt the pure process of the algorithm (god forbid!) even in cases of fraud/malice where the potential for a few bad apples to take the whole system down was there. That doesn’t really give anyone any confidence going forward, especially if they’re looking to use it for more serious purposes. (i.e. high volume trades)ETH isn’t really going to be “decentralized” like a lot of people think, since the people using the thing will still be affiliated with big companies and traditional banks. But it can still do wonders for increasing transparency and efficiency, which is a net gain for everyone in the long run, I think.
“One of USV’s investors (LPs in the industry vernacular) asked me how to value a digital asset.”What is the TAM for a cryptocurrency? Money is one half of every transaction, then there’s also the potential to replace antiquated stores of value like gold. And don’t forget that you need to use the cryptocurrency to pay miners if you want to make a transaction on the blockchain. So add in the TAM for blockchain use-cases. The valuation gets pretty big, pretty quickly. That’s how I think about it, anyways. I also think only one of these cryptocurrencies will be the dominant leader, the way TCP/IP is the dominant protocol for moving packets around the internet. So ether and bitcoin (and all the other altcoins) will not coexist for long. One will win – the rest will fail or remain marginal in significance. There will be many blockchains, but only one cryptocurrency. https://lightco.in/2016/02/…
I was part of the pre-sale before everything happened.Pretty happy with my investment, to say the least. :)I can see the comparisons there — ETH has all of the marks of a successful startup, I think. And the fact that people don’t really understand how it works is actually a good thing, at least if you’re an early adopter.
What I wonder is how will public markets reward companies who adopt blockchain technology for at least some of their business, similar to how network orchestrators were rewarded in the past (https://hbr.org/2014/11/wha….
Thank you for your post. This is very cool when the shares of startups rise from zero to thousands of dollars per share. Unfortunately, all start-ups can’t rise to this level. It’s really cool. But not many startup founders have a technical background and are able to write the program themselves. I want to recommend an article https://softwaredevelopment… for people who want to create their own startup but do not have a technical background.
What I wonder is how will public markets reward companies who adopt blockchain technology for at least some of their business, similar to how network orchestrators were rewarded in the past (https://hbr.org/2014/11/wha….
Fred, I have such immense respect for you and all that you’ve done since your days at Flat Iron Partners, both as one of the better startup investors and a wonderful philanthropist, but when I read a post like this I want to tear my hair out. Bitcoin and Ethereum are neither startups nor decentralized. They are protocols and they are decentralized enough, or perhaps best said, that they are on decentralization spectrum, but not decentralized in the absolute. Both count on the goodwill and generosity of developers that do god’s work out of a passion, but they are not startups in any sense of the word.The speculative money that has gone into most ICOs is all about people looking/hoping that get rich or that lightning will strike twice (if they made money on bitcoin or ether). I’m enthusiastic by what Polychain is trying to accomplish but they’re hard pressed to provide examples that fit their espoused intentions. In HFT language, we call what they do “front running”, the ICOs they’re jumping on call it “pre-order” (aka. buying positions before an ICO…hmmm ;). It’s unlikely we will see them hold positions for very long IMHO. Anyway, if you have Bitcoin I totally concur w/the buy & hold model there, the issues that are and will continue to plague the other platforms however feel pretty monumental and I don’t see how they survive as open protocols for long. Having said that, given the number of ICOs that are deriving their tokens using Ethereum’s ERC20 token, I’m even more hard pressed to see what value they are truly bringing to market. Perhaps I’m wrong, only time will tell.