Every gold rush has enriched as many innkeepers and shovel-makers as it has miners, and the current rush around cryptocurrencies is no exception. Behind the seemingly relentless growth in prices, name recognition, and exposure are a coterie of intermediaries who have seen their own businesses explode alongside.
Take Wachsman PR, a media-relations agency that focuses exclusively on blockchain-related companies. Founded in 2015 as a one-man shop, it now has 30 employees and represents some of the biggest businesses in the space, including crypto broker Bitcoin Suisse AG and coins dash and lisk. “Most people don’t have an appreciation for what putting on an ICO actually requires,” founder David Wachsman says. “The truth is that raising from Sand Hill Road [Silicon Valley], where you present a business plan and show some traction … [is] very different from ‘We need to find a way of telling everyone why our technology is going to be hyperpopular, why it’s really necessary, and not just for a specific geography.’”
Cryptocurrency’s decentralized, Kickstarter-esque funding model makes media coverage from legitimate publications even more important than for regular tech, and has led to problems in the past. Strange Brew Strategies, which did communications for the record-breaking Tezos ICO, for example, was later found to have greatly exaggerated the progress and adoption of the technology in pitching articles to Reuters. Allegations of fraud and misinformation are now forming the basis of a class-action lawsuit by investors against the company.
As a result, Wachsman ends up performing the sort of due diligence that would traditionally fall upon a venture-capitalist investor. Account supervisors at the firm read white papers, vet founders, and set expectations. For those companies that they do represent, they prefer to be paid in tokens rather than cash, making them a stakeholder as well as a consultant.
While would-be crypto entrepreneurs avail themselves of the services of PR and communications firms, middlemen have also sprung up on the buy side, driven by the rise of institutional investors. Nikil Viswanathan and Joseph Lau, best known for the messaging app Down to Lunch, which allows users to broadcast to nearby friends that they are “down to … ” and was briefly the top-ranking free iPhone app, are working on a data platform to help people make better investment decisions, à la Bloomberg. “If the blockchain is about to be the third major shift in technology, then now is the ’95–’97 of the internet, meaning the time when Amazon was built, the time when Google was built. Now is the time when you can lay down a lot of really fundamental infrastructure,” Viswanathan says. The team has approached building the product from a consumer-tech perspective, sitting down with the top hedge funds investing in crypto and understanding what they need. Beyond the initial answer — which is “everything!” — they’ve identified a number of relevant data sources, including many that simply don’t exist for old-school financial instruments. Given the volatility of crypto, in which prices can crash or spike on a tweet, this information is tradable, and the DTL guys, even as they wax rhapsodic about being the next AWS, are pretty clear on who their initial customers are — hedge funds, those purveyors of Other People’s Money.
Chromatic Capital is one of the many new crypto-focused funds that have been founded in the last six months, based out of San Francisco and helmed by two 20-somethings, Grant Hummer and James Fickel. Hummer and Fickel met in 2012 at a coding boot camp in Chicago; two years later, having both left their finance jobs to move to San Francisco, they learned about a new technology called ethereum. “There was such an enthusiastic community around it — developers, really old-school cypherpunks … supersmart people who were super passionate about building this platform … We just saw the potential in this Turing complete blockchain platform where you could do trustless computation.” They invested in November of 2015 and managed to hold on through ethereum’s wild ride, and are now raising an $110 million fund, of which $50 million will be from their ethereum holdings. Their main pitch, of course, is their own prescience. “Once institutional money comes into the space, we will be well-positioned to shepherd it properly,” Hummer says. Unlike many other investors, he’s bearish on bitcoin itself. He believes that its politics and murky technical road map are prohibitive to status as a currency for world commerce. As a result, his fund is looking to invest more in basic layer protocols like ethereum and cosmos.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about all of these teams is their proof of how wide open the crypto space still is. Hummer and Fickel do not have previous experience in running a hedge fund. Viswanathan and Lau have previous experience building infrastructure and products but not in finance. But none of this seems to be much of an impediment in terms of finding customers, seeing as everyone else is even newer. Chromatic Capital has already raised half of the $60 million they’re looking to take from outside investors; Viswanathan and Lau have signed a raft of contracts. Wachsman is as selective as a prestigious start-up accelerator. “Since the space is so new, you can get up to speed and start creating new and useful technology really quickly,” Viswanathan says. “And that’s what makes it so exciting and so fun.”