An Initial Coin Offering, or ICO, is the process of crowdfunding a new cryptocurrency project. Sometimes referred to as a token sale, the cryptocurrency project receives money to finance their operations while, in return, individuals who invested receive a portion of the project’s tokens. Initial coin offerings generally last between a few weeks and a month.
The term initial coin offering (ICO) is borrowed from finance and upgraded to conceptualize the initial sale of cryptocurrency or blockchain powered tokens.
There are different types of ICOs. Some may resemble crowdfunding campaigns, and others may resemble stock exchange style IPOs. However, an ICO is unique in the mechanisms it uses to reach the market, and the nature of what it offers.
ICOs exist mainly to raise funds, but also to jump-start the sale of the service that the creators want to market, or to jump start the use of a new cryptocurrency. Initial coin offerings help blur the line between investment and consumption, because most of the times, the investor becomes a consumer of the service that the ICO offers.
On the other hand, it is the best way to get people acquainted with a blockchain project. Users can then take their tokens or cryptocurrency and use them within the eco-system that the blockchain project created. Often times, the initial coin offering allows people to buy tokens or cryptocurrency at a discount, but this is not always true. The price of the token or cryptocurrency is governed by pure demand and supply once it is released. Prices may drop below initial coin offering levels.
In broad terms, cryptocurrency creators design their blockchains, protocols and rules under which their cryptocurrencies and networks will operate. Then they set a date for the initial coin offering. In most cases, they will start mining for coins to sell during the ICO. The next challenge is to get a critical mass of people to be ready to buy the coins on that date and start using them. In the meantime and up until that date, cryptocurrency creators make the final adjustments to their blockchains – which hopefully they have already checked and debugged thoroughly by the time they sell their project to the public.
Cryptocurrency creators also need exchanges to take up their cryptocurrency. These exchanges serve as brokers, and play a role similar to that of the stock exchange during an IPO. Then when the countdown to the ICO reaches zero, people who have an account at these exchanges are able to buy the new cryptocurrency with other cryptocurrencies or with fiat money.
Those who are familiar with IPOs – Initial Public Offerings – will see many similarities between the ICO and the IPO. Both processes are different nonetheless, but comparing them will help readers understand how an initial coin offering works. In order to go ahead with the comparison, let’s define IPO first.
According to Investopedia, an IPO is “the first time that a stock of a private company is offered to the public”. Furthermore, IPOs are “often issued by smaller, younger companies seeking capital to expand, but they can also be done by large privately owned companies looking to become publicly traded”.
Some investors may shy away from ICOs as much as they shy away from crowdfunding efforts. This is due to the similarities between both of the mechanisms in terms of the risk. Nevertheless, crowdfunding of projects on sites like Kickstarter may not be taken to be as risky as an ICO. Yet there are a few other similarities between crowdfunding and initial coin offerings. In essence, an ICO is the crowdfunding tool of the blockchain world. The aim basically is to get investors to fund the development of a given blockchain project. In order to do that, they are offered a piece of the pie which is also the product of the blockchain. Just like with crowdfunding, which often offers investors a unit of whichever product that company seeks to produce, an ICO offers tokens or currency for the new blockchain project to its investors.
This is exactly where the similarities between crowdfunding and ICOs end. It is important to understand that most crowdfunded projects are centralized, in the sense that funds flow from the investor to the owner, but the owner keeps control over the project. In most cases an initial coin offering has funds flowing from investors to blockchain project developers, while at the same time tokens or cryptocurrency flow back to the investors in exchange. This almost always guarantees loss of control by the developers in favor of the investors, while making the investor an active stakeholder of the project to a certain degree.
Many ICOs work indeed as pump and dump schemes. Certain people create a lot of hype around a given altcoin or token that is about to launch, they buy it while it is cheap and then let the hype carry the prices over to a point at which they sell their stake suddenly. This can generate huge crashes, wiping out considerable amounts of capital in the process. Furthermore, there are scammers that disguise their scams as an ICO in order to simply take people’s money. There is no ironclad vetting mechanism out there, nor there is any regulatory body taking care of the interests of investors. This doesn’t mean that every ICO is a pump and dump scheme or a scam, but anyone interested in crowdfunding a new token or cryptocurrency should explore in detail what they are investing in.
There are many people who would regard the advent of bitcoin as a process that did not follow any of the aforementioned characteristics of an ICO. That is partially true, but in essence, for bitcoin to become safe, it had to undergo some kind of crowdfunding effort. Early adopters who started mining in essence, were investing in the bitcoin project. Many would say that investing electricity in mining for bitcoin, was the way to launch bitcoin’s initial coin offering, since investors would pay for electricity in order to secure the network, and in return they would get a reward. That reward halves after every time 210,000 blocks are mined, and mining becomes more difficult as more miners join the network, creating that diminishing scale of return initial coin offerings nowadays try to recreate through their funding schemes. Taking the halving of mining rewards as ICO rounds, would complete the parallel between today’s ICO and the way bitcoin came to be widely adopted.
Most people would agree that the creation, launch and adoption of bitcoin (or even Litecoin) will never be recreated for another cryptocurrency or blockchain project. This means that most ICOs will necessarily have to pre-mine part of their coins in order to launch their project. There are some exceptions like Zcash. This cryptocurrency was not pre-mined for its initial coin offering, but that affected its price afterwards. Since the demand for the coin was high but the supply was low due to the absence of pre-mining, price skyrocketed to $5,292 USD per coin just one day after the initial coin offering. Zcash price subsequently crashed.
Although cryptocurrency purists would like to see more ICOs mimic the way bitcoin launched, there is value in having a certain degree of pre-mining before the cryptocurrency launches. In any case the creators will always have the first mover advantage, and will likely have a sizeable stash of coins stowed away. Even Satoshi Nakamoto is known to have 1 million bitcoin, so any exercise in limiting the amount cryptocurrency creators can keep, is pointless. Nevertheless some developers promise to “burn” part of the pre-mined coins once they launch an ICO. This is an effort in self-regulation that might make a given project more appealing. Users will then be able to corroborate that the coins were “burned” or disappeared through various verification mechanisms.