My Four Years in Crypto

It’s four years since I began my career in Blockchain, crypto and digital assets. (I can’t claim to be an early adopter, although this blog first mentioned Bitcoin in 2013.) My knowledge on the topic was quite rudimentary at the time, and it was like jumping in at the deep end when I joined the small team at Brave New Coin. Apart from the 3 co-founders, there were 3 other core team members already on-board, so I was lucky 7.

My professional career has mainly been in law, publishing and financial services, plus a range of consulting, contract and freelance roles across various sectors. My point of entry into crypto was my experience with Standard & Poor’s and Thomson Reuters in market data, indices, analytics, content, research and portfolio tools – the basis of Brave New Coin’s business, and therefore an appropriate fit with my experience and skills set.

In the past four years, I have been privileged to witness at close hand the market exuberance of 2017 (fuelled by the ICO phenomenon and the incredible bull market), the regulatory backlash of 2018, the crypto winter of 2018-19, and the stop-start messages coming from regulators, markets, institutional investors, central banks and major corporations.

Getting to grips with some of the technical and other idiosyncrasies has been a steep learning curve – but I have tried to adopt a dual approach to expanding my own understanding. First, focus on the major components before getting to far into the weeds on any particular area of technical detail; second, create a personal framework of analogous concepts, and identify practical metaphors that you can also easily explain to others – self-education is critical to personal survival, but sharing knowledge is the path to wider adoption.

It’s also important to maintain an anchor based on your original point of entry – not only does that become a constant point of reference, it also enables you to build areas of personal expertise and domain knowledge. So, while many early proponents and adopters were drawn to crypto because of their underlying belief in Libertarianism, or their fascination with cryptography, or their distrust of centralised banking systems, my own points of reference continue to be around financial services (asset origination, tokenisation, digital wealth management), market data (indices, industry standards, benchmarks), regulations and analytics. While I am an advocate for Blockchain technology, I am not a hardcore technologist, but I realise that it will take time for issues such as scaling, interoperability and mass adoption to be fully resolved.

At the very least, a great deal of that market experience (especially driven by the decentralized, project-intensive and ICO-related activity of 2016-18) has demonstrated the following truths about Blockchain technolgy:

1. This is a new model of capital formation – just as companies no longer have a monopoly on human capital, banks and traditional intermediaries no longer have a monopoly on raising financial capital

2. This is a new means of asset creation, wealth distribution and market access – backed by Blockchain solutions, crypto is the first asset class that was retail first, in a distributed/decentralized bottom-up approach to issuance

3.This is a new platform for commerce – whether via tokenomics, network incentives, value transfer, smart contracts or programmed scarcity

4. This represents a paradigm shift in governance models – via the use of decentralized, autonomous, trustless, consensus and incentive-based operating structures and decision-making systems

5. This introduces new principles of distribution – assets are consumed closer to the source of value creation (fewer intermediaries and rent seekers)

6. But, it is not (and should never be) the solution for everything

Given what is happening at the moment around the COVID 19 pandemic, Blockchain, crypto and digital assets will prove to be perfect solutions to a number of problems such as: establishing the provenance of medicines; identity verification; managing supply chain logistics; enabling the distribution of assets; computing power for scientific modelling and testing; and providing alternatives to cash.

Next week: Social Distancing in Victorian Melbourne…

 

Startup Vic’s Impact Pitch Night

Last month’s Startup Vic’s Pitch Night focused on Impact investing. Hosted by Startup Vic and the Giant Leap Fund (part of the Impact Investment Group), it was held at the Goods Shed with support from Stone & Chalk, Weploy, Pawa, Pak360, Waste Ninja and Marketing Entourage. The MC on the night was Mike Davis of the Humans of Purpose podcast, with an opening address by The Hon, Martin Pakula, Victorian Minister of Jobs, Innovation and Trade. The Minister made some announcements regarding the establishment of Angel Networks in Victoria.Given that Impact investment is demonstrating a propensity to generate better returns, this is a topic of growing interest alongside ethical investing, corporate social responsibility and the move towards ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) reporting.

The Judging Panel was drawn from Work180, YourGrocer, Australian Impact Investments and Impact Investment Group.

Pitches in the order they presented (websites embedded in the names) were:

The Neighbourhood Effect

With the goal of making the transition to green living easier, this startup has been featured here before. It comprises an app-based solution and uses behavioural science to map a user’s carbon footprint. It also uses gamification to make recommendations linked to location and lifestyle preferences.

Generating revenue from referral fees and subscriptions, the team are targeting energy retailers and banking services among the first commercial partners, and have already attracted $100k via paid pilots and Crowdfunding. The judges sought clarity on what exactly the product “does”, and how localised the solutions can be.

Gecko Traxx

Unusually for these regular pitch nights, this is a tangible, manufactured product – a solution for portable and affordable off-road access for wheelchair users. It takes the form of an accessory attached to the existing wheels – expanding the surface area and increasing traction. With a James Dyson national design award, and as a member of the University of Melbourne Accelerator Prgram for 2019, the team already have15 re-sellers lined up. With a proposed retail price of $599 (and costing $95 to manufacture) the device is NDIS eligible, making it more accessible.

The judges were keen to understand the addressable market as opposed to the profile and size of the actual user base – for example, does the device appeal to users of both motorised and self-propelled wheelchairs? How does it fit in with other categories of assisted mobility products and devices? Had the team considered crowdfunding? What is the startup’s status as a NFP? What is the marketing plan?

Sempo

This startup offers a solution for inclusive payments and savings for the 1.7bn people in emerging markets who remain unbanked. Using Blockchain technology, Sempo claims to be backed by a global reserve token pegged to multiple local currencies – but it wasn’t clear which assets comprise the treasury ecosystem.

Part of the use case is to get cash to victims in crisis quickly without the associated NGO costs. With 4% transaction fees (as opposed to the typical 20% incurred by other soluitons) Sempo seeks to avoid regulatory controversy since it is not claiming to be an unofficial local currency.

Typical transaction costs comprise a 1-3% exchange fee, and a 0-1% transfer fee. Part of the solution is to grow local, in-market capacity, particularly for remittance services. With an AfterPay investor on board, the founders are seeking a $2m seed round. The initial focus is on the Pacific region, a major impediment are the compliance and regulatory costs – in meeting both the in-country and original jurisdiction obligations.

One use case is giving refugee access to bank accounts – when asked about KYC obligations, the founders responded that they can code KYC into the Blockchain without the need for “formal” KYC.

Bring Me Home

This startup makes surplus food accessible and affordable to everyone – utilising fresh food that is unsold in shops, cafes and restaurants. According to the founders, globally, one third of all food is wasted – if this represented a country, it would rank 3rd after the US and China in terms of carbon emissions.

Structured around a commission-based app, users become advocates. The market segments are B2C (consumers and SMEs) and B2B (food production, manufacturing and wholesale distribution). Seeking a $1m seed round, the founders are also running a crowdfunding campaign.

There are specific versions of the app for vendors to help them manage their inventory and schedule their daily listings in advance. Peak demand is between 2pm and 6pm, and after 8pm – underlining the need for vendors to get their offers uploaded in a timely fashion.

The app is starting to see some significant retention – of the 12,000 users, 75% are in Victoria, with half in Melbourne. 15% are deemed returning customers, of which 45% represent repeat business. Currently, the service is in 126 venues across Melbourne.

The judges asked how the business can ensure they are dealing with true surplus supply, and not just creating artificial demand. In response, the founders stressed that vendors need to map to their usual “full display”, rather then offering “made on demand” products.

The People’s Choice award went to Bring Me Home, while the Judges made Sempo the overall winner.

Next week: Musical Memories – Of Time and Place

Recent Notes from Europe

Over the past few weeks I have been travelling in Europe – Switzerland, Croatia and Italy. It was a great trip, and prompted a few observations along the way. Here are some key recollections.

First, after making a number of trips by train, bus and boat, it reinforced the sense that in Europe, public transport is seen as an essential service and not just a means of last resort (you know, that notion we sometimes experience elsewhere that suggests “only losers take the bus”). As a result, public transport is generally clean, safe, efficient, punctual and largely affordable. One counterpoint is that as a temporary visitor, accessing and paying for tickets such as multi-day / multi-system travel passes is not always straightforward.

Second, despite the close proximity of the three countries I visited, I had to use different fiat currencies in each location – and in the case of Croatia, although it is a member of the EU, the Euro is not always accepted and it maintains a separate currency (the Kuna) that is not easy to exchange outside the country. And when you get cash out of an ATM, it’s mostly in denominations of HRK200 – but local shops hate having to change large notes. Plus, there are still instances where plastic money is not accepted.

Third, visiting the extensive national art collections in Zurich (the Kunsthaus) and Milan (the Museo Del Novecento) was a great opportunity to see works by significant twentieth century artists beyond the Dadaists and Futurists respectively – including many works that rarely travel abroad.

Fourth, for all my reservations about organised religion, you can’t deny that a key legacy of European Christianity is church architecture, and the associated patronage of the arts. The Duomo in Milan even affords visitors the opportunity to walk along the roof terraces to get closer to the decorative flying buttresses and mini-spires topped with hundreds of statues.

Finally, along with all the excellent food I was lucky enough to order in restaurants, the trip was a great opportunity to sample local and regional wines, especially while in Switzerland and Croatia. We just don’t see that much of these in Australia, for obvious reasons. Plus, the global phenomenon of craft beer is still alive and well, all adding to the gastronomic experience.

Next week: Recent Notes from Hong Kong