ICO ( Initial Coin Offering)

An Initial Coin Offering, also commonly referred to as an ICO, is a fundraising mechanism in which new projects sell their underlying crypto tokens in exchange for bitcoin and ether. It’s somewhat similar to an Initial Public Offering (IPO) in which investors purchase shares of a company. ICOs are a relatively new phenomenon but have quickly become a dominant topic of discussion within the blockchain community. Many view ICO projects as unregulated securities that allow founders to raise an unjustified amount of capital, while others argue it is an innovation in the traditional venture-funding model. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has recently reached a decision regarding the status of tokens issued in the infamous DAO ICO which has forced many projects and investors to re-examine the funding models of many ICOs. The most important criteria to consider is whether or not the token passes the Howey test. If it does, it must be treated as a security and is subject to certain restrictions imposed by the SEC. ICOs are easy to structure because of technologies like the ERC20 Token Standard, which abstracts a lot of the development process necessary to create a new cryptographic asset. Most ICOs work by having investors send funds (usually bitcoin or ether) to a smart contract that stores the funds and distributes an equivalent value in the new token at a later point in time. There are few, if any, restrictions on who can participate in an ICO, assuming that the token is not, in fact, a security. And since you’re taking money from a global pool of investors, the sums raised in ICOs can be astronomical. A fundamental issue with ICOs is the fact that most of them raise money pre-product. This makes the investment extremely speculative and risky. The counter argument is that this fundraising style is particularly useful (even necessary) in order to incentivize protocol development. Before we get into a discussion over the merits of ICOs, it is important to have some historical context for how the trend started.

History of ICOs

Several projects used a crowdsale model to try and fund their development work in 2013. Ripple pre-mined 1 billion XRP tokens and sold them to willing investors in exchange for fiat currencies or bitcoin. Ethereum raised a little over $18 million in early 2014 — the largest ICO ever completed at that time. Further Reading: What Is Ripple? Further Reading: What Is Ether? The DAO was the first attempt at fundraising for a new token on Ethereum. It promised to create a decentralized organization that would fund other blockchain projects, but it was unique in that governance decisions would be made by the token holders themselves. While the DAO was successful in terms of raising money — over $150 million — an unknown attacker was able to drain millions from the organization because of technical vulnerabilities. The Ethereum Foundation decided the best course of action was to move forward with a hard fork, allowing them to claw back the stolen funds. Although the first attempt to fund a token safely on the Ethereum platform failed, blockchain developers realized that using Ethereum to launch a token was still much easier than pursuing seed rounds through the usual venture capital model. Specifically, the ERC20 standard makes it easy for developers to create their own cryptographic tokens on the Ethereum blockchain. Some argue that crowdfunding projects might be Ethereum’s “killer application” given the sheer size and frequency of ICOs. Never before have pre-product startups been able to raise this much money and in this little time. Aragon raised around $25 million in just 15 minutes, Basic Attention Token raised $35 million in only 30 seconds, and Status.im raised $270 million in a few hours. With few regulations and such ease of use, this ICO climate has come under scrutiny from many in the community as well as various regulatory bodies around the world.

Are ICOs Legal?

The short answer is maybe. Legally, ICOs have existed in an extremely gray area because arguments can be made both for and against the fact that they’re just new, unregulated financial assets. The SEC’s recent decision, however, has since managed to clear up some of that gray area. In some cases, the token is simply a utility token, meaning it gives the owner access to a specific protocol or network; thus it may not be classified as a financial security. On the other hand, if the token is an equity token, meaning that it’s only purpose is to appreciate in value, then it looks a lot more like a security. Further Reading: Is Bitcoin Legal? While many individuals purchase tokens to access the underlying platform at some future point in time, it’s difficult to refute the idea that most token purchases are for speculative investment purposes. This is easy to ascertain given the valuation figures for many projects that have yet to release a commercial product. The SEC decision may have provided some clarity to the status of utility vs security tokens; however, there are still plenty of room for testing the boundaries of legalities. For now, and until further regulatory limits are imposed, entrepreneurs will continue to take advantage of this new phenomenon.

Start ups kick start the ICO process by establishing the blockchain and set up of protocols and rules, at which point an ICO data is announced.

For the creator, the next step is to begin mining for coins that will sold during the ICO, with social media sites, Reddit and a rising number of cryptocurrency related website used as a marketing medium to attract investors ahead of the ICO data, creators looking to draw in as much interest as possible to not only raise the required funding, but also push demand and prices post ICO.

In the background, the creators will make their final checks and adjustments to ensure its smooth sailing by the time of the ICO.

For the cryptocurrency creators, they will need to join an exchange, the exchange similar to that of a stock exchange during an IPO, with investors needing to have an account with the exchange to be able to buy the new cryptocurrency with other cryptocurrencies or fiat money.

Active and up and coming ICOs can be found through various sites, with the purchase of cryptocurrencies being made through the selected exchange, with investors also able to buy directly through the creators official website.

Exchanges that are widely recommended for the purchase of new coins include BittrexKrakenPoloniexLivecoinSpaceBTCBitlish, though there are many others.

Documentation requirements vary depending upon the investor domicile, with the requirements outlined on the respective exchange’s site and creator website.

A step by step of an ICO can be summarized as follows:

Pre-Announcement: This is the marketing stage of a future project through sites frequented by cryptocurrency investors, with the creators of the project preparing a white paper, essentially an investor presentation outlining the details of the project.

Once the white paper has been circulated, the company will get a sense of whether there is investor interest in the project proposed, with the company then addressing concerns and addressing risks raised by would be investors to reach a final business model and a final version of the white paper.

Offering: This is the final version of the white paper, setting out the terms of a contract for the benefit of the investors, made on behalf of the company entering into the ICO.

The offer will outline the project details, the total amount of capital required, together with project timelines. It will also indicate the financial instrument to be sold during the ICO, normally tokens. The financial instrument will have a value assigned to it, together with the rights of the investor along with the expected period after which the company will commence returning earnings to investors, traditionally by way of dividends.

Once the offer has been signed, the ICO start date is announced and the marketing campaign moves into overdrive.

Marketing Campaign: This is a pivotal component of the ICO, with the marketing campaign key to the company being able to raise the necessary capital. Companies are generally nascent and unknown, bringing marketing agencies into the frame to make the necessary presentations, etc. The campaign will tend to last up to a month on average, target audience being institutional and some smaller investors. Participants of crowdfunding programs tend to be the main segment, investors generally more willing to back projects, with their involvement in the project considered a positive for both the investor and the company.

Once the marketing campaign comes to an end, the buying and selling of tokens commences, with the company having established an exchange for investors to acquire tokens.

The ICO: Companies generally release tokens on blockchain in two ways:

  • Collect the specific capital, outlined within the offer, and then divide and distribute the tokens to the investors based on initial investment made.
  • Alternatively, tokens are sold on cryptocurrency exchanges, which means that the tokens need to be released on a number of exchanges in advance for trading.

Once the sale has ended, the company commences on its obligations.

For the investor, it’s a case of exploring the various exchanges or social media sites that publish active and up and coming ICOs and then opening an account, acquiring the tokens, having completed the necessary due diligence on the company or project  in question.

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