Over the past year, I have been diligently following the rampant rise of conversation surrounding cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum. And while I wasn't much of a Nostradamus back in 2009 when Bitcoin first stepped on the scene, even a decade later I am quickly realizing that cryptocurrencies are still very much in their infancy. Sure, plenty of people have already made a nice chunk of change off their early bets on Bitcoin, but its now-rival Ethereum is proving that there is still a long way to go.
One of the most fascinating parts about cryptocurrency investment is what you can actually do with the currency once you have it. Since we're not quite at the point yet where cryptocurrency can buy you everyday items like paper towels or a sandwich at your local deli, entrepreneurs and investors are using their coins and tokens to invest in startups through what are called ICOs: initial coin offerings.
An ICO is exactly what it sounds like, and operates the same as an IPO (initial public offering), except you can only invest by using cryptocurrencies. According to fellow Inc columnist and cryptocurrency thought leader, Brian D. Evans, "An initial coin offering is made when a company wants to fund itself through cryptocurrency. People can 'back' the ICO by contributing other cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin or, more commonly, Ether (the name for Ethereum's coins/tokens). It is basically a crowdfunding campaign that instead of using Kickstarter, uses the Ethereal platform's smart contracts to allow people to exchange other cryptocurrency for the new native coins."
Before you go questioning whether or not these ICOs are actually moving the needle, you should know that an early estimate cited Status, a mobile app to send, receive, and store Ether just raised more than $100 million through its ICO.
This is part of what makes Ethereum so enticing for investors--the fact that not only is the technology itself superior to Bitcoin, but that many other startups are building their own technologies on the Ethereum blockchain technology and then executing ICOs through the investment of Ether.
For example, Agrello is a smart contract startup based right across the gulf from European tech hub, Helsinki, Finland, that is about to hold an ICO, with the accepted purchase methods being both Bitcoin and Ethereum. Agrello is utilizing the blockchain technology that has Ethereum investors so bullish to write agreements that are then translated to Agrello's smart agreement markup language and reflected in a public blockchain--think legally binding documents, written in natural language, that can then be created and shared between two parties, all facilitated with the help of AI.
What startups like Agrello (and other companies utilizing blockchain technology) are proving is that there are huge opportunities to bridge gaps that would otherwise be impossible. In the traditional sense, it's very difficult to create legally binding contracts without the everyday disruptions that come with the legal world. But in utilizing blockchain technology and AI, Agrello is able to navigate both the legal world and the non-coding end user to create a smart contract. And as time goes on, contract templates are vetted and provided by a community of lawyers and paralegals who are then compensated in Agrello tokens.
These are all very early signs that the Internet is about to enter into a whole new era, and one that is built on extensive sharing, collaboration, and the trading of cryptocurrencies.
The real question everyone has been asking lately, however, is whether Ethereum will surpass Bitcoin as the leader of cryptocurrency. Speculators are calling it "the flippening," wherein Bitcoin's price will fall and Ethereum's will rise to a jaw-dropping peak. But while there is plenty of opportunity in the buying and selling of cryptocurrencies themselves, ICOs are revealing that there is just as much opportunity (if not more) in buying cryptocurrencies for the sake of investing early in extremely forward-thinking companies looking to utilize blockchain technology.
Either way, if you are an entrepreneur and/or investor looking for the "next big thing," I highly encourage you to do a few hours of deep reading on cryptocurrency. It is such unchartered territory, and one ripe for disruption.