The Bitcoin Crunch

Remember “The Series A Crunch”? Well, I think an offshoot of this will manifest itself across what feels like almost 500 Bitcoin related companies. I, myself – I am a Bitcoin believer and Bitcoin junkie. Yet, despite that optimism, I am continuously floored by just how many Bitcoin startups are out there. I don’t know who is funding them or how they’re making money to survive the typical cycles needed to make Series A investing, which I’ve recently heard defined as “when pros invest and set the terms.” (As a disclaimer, please note I’ve invested in 7-8 early-stage Bitcoin-related startups. I am a long-term believer.)

So, based on that, I’ll try to briefly summarize my thinking: A year ago, some of the world’s best investors placed their bets on a small handful of Bitcoin startups. Many of these companies centered their offering around payment and exchange of Bitcoin. A few months ago in 2014, there was more talk of storage of Bitcoin. And most recently, in the summer of 2014, there’s more talk about companies offering more robust access to the block chain itself, or building out chain-powered apps around ideas such as derivatives and other types of smart contracts.

Reflecting over the last 20 months, I am shocked by the number of Bitcoin startups I’ve seen. It may be more than photo-sharing apps now. Most of them, of course, sadly have no traction whatsoever. Many of them are tended to by people who haven’t been toiling away with the protocol for years. They are solutions chasing a problem. Given the landscape, here’s my view on what will happen to Bitcoin startups moving forward.:

  1. There was an arms race to acquire early Bitcoin accounts and wallets, and a small handful of companies dominate that space. It’s unlikely someone can just enter the space now (though there is a caveat) and do anything meaningful.
  2. The successful Bitcoin teams I’ve found had at least one founder who grew up hacking around with crytocurrency and the Bitcoin protocol. There are many folks entering the Bitcoin space in a “fast friendly” way and those people are likely to lack the proper context of what the technology can really do in order to build something innovative.
  3. Companies which get good seed funding generally consist of stellar teams, are working on consumer adoption issues (like building a mobile app), are building more merchant tools to get suppliers interested in Bitcoin, and are leveraging the Bitcoin platform to bring developers and larger companies into the mix.

The risks associated with these developments (or predictions!) are three-fold:

First, there are some great investors who do not conceive of Bitcoin as anything beyond a currency, or ones that do not believe the environment will be welcoming to these companies (for legal or regulatory concerns). This has constricted the number of larger venture capital firms that can invest in the category (for now), which means Bitcoin startups who graduate to the level of institutional investor may either find a smaller market for their equity and/or some of them may be conflicted out of participating given the eventual consolidation of talent and product ideas that will undoubtedly occur as the ecosystem matures.

Second, all of this means many of the startups which purport to be Bitcoin-related won’t meet the thresholds required to graduate to the level of real institutional venture capital. This is what I refer to as “The Bitcoin Crunch.”

Third, I think this is all healthy and natural, and starts to separate the winning solutions from the mediocre. I’m a believer in Bitcoin both as a unit of exchange as well as a platform for people to build all sorts of new applications, including ones that never use bitcoins themselves. It will take time, though. I do believe something will tip all of this over at some point — it could be an entrepreneur who cracks the code on tying Bitcoin to consumers’ mobile phones, or the group of developers that partner with a company like Amazon or Google to build the next generation of distributed computing architecture on top of the protocol. I have no idea what it will be and when it will happen, but I do believe it will.

Haystack is written by Semil Shah, and is published under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Copyright © 2017 Semil Shah.

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.”— Epicurus