Financial Heavyweights Size Up the Crypto Market
Over the past year, cryptocurrencies have emerged as a legitimate global asset class.
It has taken the retail investing world by storm. Individuals around the world have become captivated by the concept of independent money (and its profit potential).
Bitcoin has been around the longest and has gone through multiple adoption booms. Each time the base of holders gets bigger and awareness spreads.
Now I believe crypto is about to take off again as institutional investors – pension funds, wealth managers, hedge funds, insurance companies and other firms that manage large amounts of capital – move in.
These institutions are beginning to see the light on crypto. And they represent a majority of the world’s capital.
According to a report from the World Bank, institutional investors based in OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries had nearly $100 trillion of assets under management as of 2013.
Here’s some recent evidence… In late April, Reuters published a survey of its professional investors (institutions) on whether they plan to start investing in crypto. The results were even better than I expected.
One in five financial institutions is considering trading cryptocurrencies within the next 12 months…
Among those respondents who said they were willing to trade cryptocurrencies like bitcoin, the best known of the digital coins, 70% said they were planning to start trading in the next three to six months, the survey showed.
So 20% of institutions are planning to start investing in crypto within the next year. Of those, 70% plan on launching their offerings in the next three to six months. That’s simply amazing, and it never would have happened a year ago.
The (Institutional) Case for Crypto
Bitcoin is attractive because its performance is not correlated to stocks, commodities or fiat currency. As long as the network of people using it as a “store of value” is growing, the price will grow too.
Bitcoin is a hedge against financial black swan events, just as gold is. Countries with high inflation, such as Venezuela and Argentina, are where we see this acutely.
Like gold, bitcoin is scarce (there will only ever be 21 million bitcoins). Advanced cryptography ensures that coins cannot be counterfeited.
But unlike gold, bitcoin and other cryptos can be transferred and stored electronically (without a middleman). This makes value transfer extremely efficient.
Another way to look at it is that bitcoin is a perfect speculative asset for now and will evolve into a more stable asset over time.
Bitcoin will almost certainly be the first crypto that institutions focus on. It already is, in many ways, since a large number of hedge funds hold it. This remains a major reason we recommend holding 50% of your crypto portfolio in bitcoin.
However, I believe some institutions will immediately recognize the importance of diversifying into altcoins. I believe all of our coins are well-positioned for this development.
If institutions do begin to move into crypto, it could boost prices of high-quality cryptos for years to come. Eventually, central banks may even switch a portion of their reserves to crypto.
How big could the crypto market get? As big as gold, to start.
All the gold above ground is worth approximately $8 trillion.
Today the total crypto market is worth around $420 billion, as tracked by CoinMarketCap. That includes big coins like bitcoin ($158 billion) and Ethereum ($67 billion). It also includes smaller coins like our pick Litecoin, which has an $8.5 billion market cap.
With the addition of new cryptocurrencies, stablecoins (cryptos designed to eliminate the high volatility associated with most coins), crypto bonds and crypto equities, I believe crypto could easily be worth more than gold in five years.
The upside on crypto is incredibly high.
The upside is high enough that we’re willing to take the risks involved. On the government regulation front, there’s been no major news.
We’re still in regulatory limbo, but the U.S. government is likely to issue some initial regulations or guidelines within the next year.
We don’t know what that will look like when it happens. Crypto exchanges will likely have to register with relevant authorities and audit regularly (they can afford it). Exchanges may delist coins that are considered to be violating securities laws.
Fortunately, I created our portfolio based on the knowledge that some sort of regulation would be inevitable.
I believe our coins are very safe compared with the competition. I don’t think they will do anything to coins that follow the bitcoin model.
If we voice our concerns to lawmakers and push hard, I believe we can get good regulation around crypto. That will help solidify the industry’s legitimacy and grease the wheels for the institutional crypto boom.
I’ll be following up on this important topic soon. I’m going to see if we can use our membership base (of 40,000-plus now!) to push for fair crypto laws that don’t hamper financial innovation. ■
Q&A With Howard Marks, Co-Founder and CEO of StartEngine
As chairman of Activision Studios, Howard Marks built one of the largest and most successful game studios in the industry, selling millions of games.
He then founded Acclaim Games, a publisher of online games that is now part of The Walt Disney Company.
In 2011, he founded StartEngine, the first startup accelerator in Los Angeles with the goal of helping to make Los Angeles a technology city.
When he realized how difficult it was for entrepreneurs to raise capital from venture capitalists, he pivoted into crowdfunding. StartEngine Crowdfunding became a reality in 2014.
Andy Gordon: Hi, Howard. We’ve done this before. Thanks for coming back and sharing with our members what you’ve been up to.
Howard Marks: Thanks, Andy. I think transparency is so important in crypto investing.
You and Adam do a great job of keeping your members informed. We’re like-minded. I welcome the opportunity.
Andy: I appreciate that. Let’s get right to it. What’s exciting you these days?
Howard: What we’re doing at StartEngine. It’s pretty groundbreaking. I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished.
We’re growing rapidly, but that’s the least of it. It’s not growth at all cost. I call it “thoughtful growth.” I wanted to avoid the problems that come with fast growth.
Andy: And did you?
Howard: I think so. We don’t suffer from inefficient customer acquisition, chaotic onboarding, overpromising or other maladies associated with out-of-control growth.
We’re speeding along at a nice pace… but it’s a fine balance and has to be done with thought and maturity. We’ve stayed true to our mission, which is providing capital to entrepreneurs in a legally compliant way. The entrepreneurs who raise on our site are the real winners.
Andy: Let’s back up a step. Our members would be interested in how a successful businessman became interested in helping others access capital.
Howard: No problem. From my experience as a mentor and angel investor, I saw the flaws embedded in the venture capital (VC) model close-up. Entrepreneurs seek VC funding because it can offer them large sums of money.
I get it. That’s all well and good, but the VC model begins to break down from this point. Venture capitalists don’t have the time to really help and advise startups.
Listen, Andy, this is no knock against them. I’m not insulting their intelligence. They’re simply too spread out. It’s hard to give advice unless you’re deeply involved in the company you’re advising.
I know the feeling… what it’s like to want to help but not have the detailed knowledge of a company’s day-to-day operations to do so. I shouldn’t be asked in the first place. And if I’m asked, I shouldn’t be listened to.
Andy: That’s quite an admission, Howard. Not many angel investors would put that out there.
Howard: I’m probably more the exception than the rule. I realized that there was something wrong here. I wanted to give entrepreneurs a choice outside of VC funding. That’s how StartEngine found its purpose.
Andy: And it’s going well?
Howard: Yes, very well. We have our first quarter financials due soon. By the time your members read this, we’ll have the preliminary (unaudited) version available on our site. You can view it here.
At the moment, I can’t say much about the last quarter except that we’re very pleased. Last year we helped 80 companies raise money.
This year, we’re aiming to do 300 to 400 raises. We might be able to do as many as 500. No portal has done crowdfunding on this scale before. It’s a big number.
Andy: Let’s talk more about last year. A good year for crypto and initial coin offerings (ICOs), no? Huge growth. Do you think the growth was too fast?
Howard: No doubt 2017 saw extraordinary growth. Bitcoin rose more than 1,200%, and it was a laggard. Other coins, like Ripple, rose much faster. Ripple shot up more than 35,000%.
By the way, now, after a bit of a retreat, crypto coins are once again moving up the charts.
What does it all add up to? Two things.
No. 1, last year proved raising money through ICOs works. Prior to 2017, it was a big unknown. No. 2, the market’s retreat doesn’t change the fundamentals of the ICO marketplace. The technology keeps moving forward.
The probabilities of success and failure of individual ICOs are the same too. But one thing has changed. And it’s big. The companies now know they need to do a regulated ICO or risk the wrath of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). This is the big lesson of 2017-2018 so far.
Andy: Not only a big lesson but a very hard one too, right?
Howard: The very definition of hard-won knowledge. These fledgling companies thought they were impervious to the legal reach of the SEC. For so long, it was a lot of blather.
The SEC – we know now with its recent deluge of subpoenas – wasn’t playing along with this cavalier attitude but was taking it very seriously.
It took a long time, but finally a fresh and more realistic consensus has formed. Now altcoin companies get it. They’re taking the SEC seriously.
Andy: It sounds like you blame the companies that ICO’d more than the SEC.
Howard: I’m not going to demonize the SEC. It believes crypto is the future… but only if you follow the rules! ICOs need to fall in line and follow decades-old and proven securities law.
Andy: Okay, so where do you see ICO fundraising going from here?
Howard: While many entrepreneurs last year went the ICO route, many more were on the sidelines waiting to see how things would turn out. Now there’s more clarity. And they realize they need to raise via crowdfunding under an exemption from registration.
Andy: Not all ICOs, surely?
Howard: No, of course not, but an increasing number. The key here is to offer investors and fundraisers liquidity. Without liquidity, the ICOs don’t have a market.
Without a market, altcoins aren’t nearly as attractive. Without the attraction that a liquid market provides, upside is constrained.
Andy: There are exchanges out there that offer trading.
Howard: How secure are they? How legal are they? How user-friendly are they? I want investors to be able to trade their coins quickly, easily and legally. We’re launching a secondary marketplace, and we’re doing it in-house. We’ve already figured out how to get confirmation of transactions in less than 10 minutes.
Andy: That’s really big news, Howard.
Howard: We got lucky. The trading platform is based on distributed blockchain technology using Ethereum.
The blockchain is giving us a way to execute the transaction (trading, in other words) and also the proof once it’s done (called settlement).
Andy: Wait a minute… you’re developing all this yourself?
Howard: To tell you the truth, we had to. We were stuck in the middle. We didn’t want to license current tech.
It doesn’t do the job very well. And we couldn’t find partners that embraced what we were doing.
Part of the problem was the blockchain industry was too deep in developing next-generation technology. When it’s ready in a couple of years probably, it’s going to be awesome.
We didn’t have the luxury of waiting that long. So instead we hired three full-time programmers/coders. They’ve been great. We plan on hiring three more this year.
Andy: It sounds like you’re committed to going down this road.
Howard: There’s no going back now. But why should we want to? We anticipate that our alternative trading system (ATS) will fill a gaping hole.
And we’ll be building our own blockchain wallet to track all the trades made on the platform.
Somebody had to take leadership on this. We now have our own transfer agent. So why not us?
Andy: Tell me more about these ATSs.
Howard: You can put assets on an ATS and then trade and settle them on the blockchain. One of the first SEC-regulated ones is Overstock’s tZero.
It will be putting unregistered properties in developing countries on an ATS, which will serve as a digital capital market.
I would guess that about a dozen crypto exchange companies have filed for an ATS. It can take a year to get approval.
Andy: So we shouldn’t be expecting a deluge of these systems coming our way soon.
Howard: I would wager one or two will emerge by the end of this year.
Still, they’ll be the start of something big and critical to the viability of the ICO space.
The ICO paradigm works only if capital issuance is underpinned by an ecosystem that provides high levels of security, liquidity, transparency, non-manipulation and convenience.
Andy: Not much to ask.
Howard: Okay, then while I’m at it, let me also add compatibility and interoperability.
I see the day when the vast majority of ATSs will be integrated into a web of ATSs. A buyer or seller will be able to hop from one to the other. Silos won’t exist.
Andy: Do you have a timeline for all this?
Howard: We should be seeing a network of marketplaces injecting liquidity into previously nonliquid assets around 2019.
Andy: Really? Just a year away?
Howard: Revolutions, once they get going, are hard to stop. 2019 should also see market makers set pricing that will be displayed on ATSs, like how we currently follow what the Nasdaq does.
I believe 99% of companies will be listing on these ATSs. Thousands of companies. Thousands of other assets.
Investors will have the opportunity to invest in liquid markets they never could have accessed before. This is a real revolution.
Andy: Revolutions are usually stopped well before they can build up meaningful momentum by the very forces they wish to diminish or do away with.Isn’t your view a little Pollyanna-ish?
Howard: My wide-eyed years are far behind me, Andy. I’ve given this a lot of thought. Assuming you’re referring to the big banks, believe me, I’ve taken them into account.
True, big banks have the most to lose. On the other hand, they’re NOT interested in small companies that want to raise money.
This is more of a “Blue Ocean” opportunity that avoids being a direct hit on big banks like Goldman Sachs. Whoever is a nonmember of the banking club – especially the unbanked and underbanked – will finally have their financial needs addressed.
Andy: And how does StartEngine fit into the picture you paint?
Howard: We currently help companies raise money from the issuance of shares and the issuance of tokens.
They’re quite distinct activities at the moment. At some point – and sooner than you think – I think everything will come together as a unified whole… all done on blockchain-supported platforms.
We’ll continue to be at the forefront of these changes… prodding it to where we think it will confer the most benefits to entrepreneurs and investors.
Andy: It seems a ways off from where we are now… with all the uncertainty over how rules will be enforced.
Howard: Merging crypto with regulations is exactly what we need to get where we need to go. I’m encouraged. It’s a hugely positive development.
Andy: Thank you, Howard. Very enlightening, as usual.
Note From Andy: We recommended StartEngine last December. Its raise hasn’t closed yet, so there’s still time to invest. You can put in as little as $500 or anything over that.
For those who missed our original recommendation or need a refresher, you can find it here.
For those who wish to check out StartEngine’s investment page on its own portal, click here. You can make an investment by clicking on the green “Invest Now” button on that page. Be sure to read the offering circular before you invest. ■
“It might be the most underreported wave of new millionaires in history.”
– Adam Sharp, Angel Investor
A high school kid starts off with a few dollars and is now worth $1.09 million…
A former U.S. Marine is now worth at least $30 million…
A lifelong libertarian is now worth an estimated $52 million…
And (if you’re bold) you could be next…
To learn more, click here. Or call 800.514.5876 and mention priority code GSUIU500 to take advantage of this special offer.
May Portfolio Update
May Startup Portfolio Update
“Imagine a company with 2,700 locations asking you to help them attract more customers,” VirZOOM founder and CEO Eric Janszen recently told me. “You’d be interested, wouldn’t you?”
That’s why VirZOOM, a virtual reality startup, has pivoted from creating a network of vSports centers to working with partners like the YMCA.
Eric said, “The YMCA and many other cluboperators compete with each other intensely to bring in new members. We can really give their marketing efforts some much-needed sizzle.”
Eric wants to create virtual sports tournaments with sponsorship provided by heavyweights like Acer, Microsoft, Red Bull and Adidas.
Already VirZOOM is up and running at YMCAs in Melbourne, Australia; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Cupertino, California.
Another partner is high-end chain company Pure Fitness. It has locations in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Over the past few months, VirZOOM has engaged dozens of Life Fitness account reps and managers. VirZOOM is being demonstrated and sold at either Life Fitness sales offices or distributors in Japan, Brazil, Russia, Hong Kong, Australia, China and the U.S. The next big VirZOOM Life Fitness kickoff is Life Fitness in Tokyo and Osaka in June.
As the Life Fitness marketing plan goes into effect, the big kahuna appearing on VirZOOM’s radar is Chinese company Huawei – the largest telecommunications equipment manufacturer in the world.
According to Eric, Huawei, with its 5,000 sports stores, believes virtual sports will be huge.
VirZOOM has about 25 deals totaling $1.79 million in the pipeline. By the end of this year, it expects to sell 200 units a month.
The company is beginning to take off. “It’s a great time to do our next fundraise,” Eric said.
The company is considering a Series A raise (which follows the seed round). We’ll pass on the details as soon as we hear more from Eric.
For more details on VirZOOM, check out our original recommendation.
Electric bike company EVELO made a series of changes in 2017.
The product. The marketing. And the personnel.
First, the product…
EVELO has tailored its bikes for the majority of its customers, who are older (over 45) and ride bikes mostly for recreational purposes.
Its bikes are now lighter, sleeker, and easier to mount and dismount.
EVELO still has its Ambassador program through which customers who own and regularly use EVELO bikes can share their experiences with others and offer test rides.
It’s also reached out to specialty electric bike shops. Beginning this year, they will offer EVELO’s bike models and buy bikes from EVELO as the orders come in.
No stocking. And the prices are the same as those offered on EVELO’s website, so there’s no conflict between online and offline sales.
The company also hired a chief financial officer who immediately brought its costs down, with expenses in the first quarter of 2018 significantly dropping year over year.
Importantly, this will bring more revenue to the bottom line and push EVELO closer to profitability.
The company brought in $2.8 million in revenue in 2017, an increase over the $2.5 million it had the previous year.
EVELO co-founder Boris Mordkovich says the company could grow faster if it were willing to increase spending. But he prefers taking the slow-growth route. By doing so, he doesn’t have to worry about raising funds or running out of cash.
For more details on EVELO, check out our original recommendation.
WhereBy.Us is a new kind of media company that connects local explorers and influencers in the cities it operates in. It puts out daily e-letter and social content.
And most importantly, it helps people find engagement. As I noted in my original recommendation, “The company’s biggest revenue streams do not come from engaging its local communities, but from leveraging that engagement with its corporate, government and nonprofit clients.”
This year, Portland and Orlando have been added to the company’s list (which originally included just Miami and Seattle).
WhereBy.Us has hundreds of other cities in its sights. Founder and CEO Chris Sopher says thatthe company plans to be in 10 cities by the end of the year.
In the meantime, the company has made its platform even easier for customers to use. For example, customers can now quickly place ads in its newsletters and e-letters.
By the way, more than 30% of revenues (up from 10% last year) now come from its automated newsletter placement service. The advertising service lets customers buy ad campaigns in the company’s local newsletters and load all the creative content themselves.
Another example… its newsletter builder has cut the time needed to put together a newsletter in half. WhereBy.Us’ drive to achieve greater efficiencies also extends to major campaigns for its creative clients. The company is working on making them easier to replicate, with consistent costs and margins across projects.
Rather than singular one-shot endeavors, it wants these projects to conform to more of a recurring model.
And with an eye on the future, it hired a user experience director to ramp up the data side of its business. It will be tracking subscriber behavior and capturing copious amounts of subscriber data. Its goal? To personalize its advertising campaigns.
Its revenue in the first quarter of this year was $280,000. For the second quarter, it wants to ramp revenue up to $400,000.
So far, Chris said, it’s on track to do so.
To learn more about WhereBy.Us, check out our original recommendation.
8tracks, an internet radio company, has had to make some hard decisions in the last year.
Its biggest problem? Its ads didn’t cover its royalty fees. So it dropped the ads, limited free listening to one hour a day and encouraged users to convert to ad-free and subscription-based paid memberships.
Then good things happened. Its costs went way down. The company has successfully pared down from 23 employees to eight. And its paid members went way up in 2017: from 1,300 to 25,000.
It brought in $1 million last year, which was less than in previous years. Reducing its free audience reduced revenues – but it put 8tracks back on the path to long-term profitability.
Still, as CEO David Porter told me, imposing listening limits was “pretty tragic.” So, with an enlarged base of paid members, 8tracks lifted the listening cap – igniting, in David’s words, “the first stage of renewed growth.”
The response so far has been very positive. I went on 8tracks’ Twitter feed to see what kind of response its latest move engendered.
I saw dozens of happy quotes welcoming the change, including “Unlimited free streaming is back on 8tracks, hallelujah.”
In January, with a much lower cost structure, 8tracks was a mere $17,000 in the red. Now it’s entering a renewed period of growth.
David will be the first one to tell you he’s had to make a lot of tough decisions. Now he feels good about the company’s prospects – better than he has in a long time.
To learn more about 8tracks, see our original recommendation. ■
Our cryptocurrency recommendations include bitcoin, Litecoin, Ethereum and New Economy Movement (NEM). Let’s take a look at them one at a time.
Bitcoin (“King of Cryptocurrencies”)
Bitcoin was the original cryptocurrency to come on the scene. It’s also the biggest. With a market cap of nearly $160 billion, it’s more than 2.5 times the size of Ethereum, the second-largest crypto.
The total market cap of all cryptos is around $420 billion.
A year ago, bitcoin’s share was well over 50%. Now it’s way under. That means that while bitcoin’s price has gone up around 800% since the beginning of last year, other cryptos’ prices have gone up even more.
This is how we look at bitcoin and cryptocurrencies’ habit of making big swings…
When bitcoin goes down, the majority of other coins follow at pretty much the same pace.
But when bitcoin goes up, it’s more complicated…
The market follows, but some coins do better than others. And some coins do better than bitcoin itself.
But its size and its “king” status still make bitcoin the crypto coin to watch. So it’s nice to see it has been rallying recently.
It hit a low of $6,200 on February 6. It’s now (as I write) around $9,000.
That’s still way off its highs of nearly $20,000 back in mid-December. But the important thing is it’s now moving in the right direction.
Here’s what you need to understand about bitcoin…
While bitcoin’s price may be jumpy, the fundamentals backing it are making steady progress.
The bitcoin blockchain still attracts BY FAR the most developers and coders in the world. They number in the thousands. They’re constantly working to make bitcoin better and faster.
Right now, bitcoin is slow. The bitcoin blockchain can process only seven transactions per second… “slightly” behind Visa’s 56,000-per-second rate.
It’s bitcoin’s main challenge. Everybody knows it.
And a lot of very smart people are doing something about it.
Bitcoin’s best shot at overcoming its slowness is something called the “Lightning Network.”
Let me briefly explain how the technology works…
Say, for instance, that I wanted you to pay me for each minute you spent on our First Stage Investor website. We would open up a “Lightning” channel, and as the minutes rolled by, payments would be made from your wallet to mine.
When you left the website, we would close the channel and settle the net amount on the bitcoin blockchain.
Because the transactions were just between you and me, they wouldn’t need to be broadcast to the whole network. And no miners would be involved. So transactions would be quick and fees would be low.
But improved speed and lower fees do come at a cost…
Without the blockchain behind it, the Lightning Network is not quite as secure. It’s likely that the Lightning Network will be used mostly for smaller transactions. The bigger ones will still be done on the original layer.
The network is far from ready. In March, startup Lightning Labs announced the beta launch of its Lightning Network.
While the release is aimed at developers and “advanced users,” it’s still a big step. And for bitcoin believers, it keeps the “king” relevant.
One believer is Jack Dorsey, co-founder and CEO of Twitter, and founder and CEO of Square. He remains bullish on bitcoin, saying that…
The world ultimately will have a single currency; the internet will have a single currency. I personally believe that it will be bitcoin.
Jack admits that bitcoin has scaling problems. But he says those things will go away as newer technologies are built off of blockchain and make it more approachable.
It’s no coincidence that Jack invested in Lightning Labs’ recent funding round.
Litecoin is rebounding nicely, rising along with the greater crypto market. Its turnaround has also been aided by TenX.
What is TenX?
It’s a platform that allows users to spend their cryptocurrencies from a single wallet in real time. Its goal is to act like a normal currency with zero fees and no prior local currency conversions.
TenX recently announced a partnership with Litecoin to release a Litecoin-backed debit card. Not long after, one of Korea’s oldest exchanges, Korbit, announced it added Litecoin to the list of coins that trade on the platform. Korbit’s daily volume amounts to about $30 million. Litecoin’s share is less than 2%, but it will surely grow.
This is all great news for Litecoin.
New Ethereum blockchain-based projects are announced almost every day.
It certainly lends credence to statements like the one venture capitalist Chris Dixon recently made. Chris, by the way, is a partner at one of the top three venture capital firms in the world, Andreessen Horowitz. He’s also one of my favorite bloggers.
He said, “Ethereum is the most important technology of the decade.” He cites two big reasons…
- “The technology itself is just profound and it takes the blockchain concept to its fullest potential… and creates this giant wave of innovation.”
- “It showed you could get another blockchain [other than bitcoin] to real scale… get the miners going, get the developers going.”
It should come as no surprise that Andreessen Horowitz was the lead investor in the viral Ethereum app CryptoKitties.
CryptoKitties allows users to buy, collect, breed and exchange unique digital cats built on Ethereum-based tokens. It became so popular that users clogged up the Ethereum network and delayed token sales. Think breedable Beanie Babies.
On the face of it, this may seem silly, but it’s anything but. Native digital assets sitting on the blockchain have huge mass adoption potential. The people behind CryptoKitties believe “The world in the future will involve reputation-based identity powered by the blockchain.”
I was speaking to Richard Burton the other day. He’s the founder of blockchain software startup Balance, a holding in our portfolio.
Among the things he said was this gem: “Ethereum has tons of goodwill and 100,000 nerds working on some form of Ethereum technology. It can’t NOT succeed.”
Big news: Binance began trading NEM with its own Binance Coin as well as with bitcoin and Ethereum. Binance is the world’s biggest cryptocurrency exchange by traded daily volume. It processes more than $2 billion worth of coins a day.
This is a promising sign that NEM is continuing to expand its footprint. ■