Blockchain’s Trillion Dollar Futures

Like many people who’ve been following the blockchain space for a long time, I try to learn, unlearn and revise my opinions on it. I’m going to try to capture where my views stand as of November 2018 in different posts, dedicated to very different parts of the ecosystem that could end up creating trillions in future value:

  1. Cash and store-of-value (Bitcoin is Antifragile, The Category Even More So)
  2. Web 3.0 (It’s About Values, But Values Don’t Always Win)

As we try to imagine the possible outcomes for different categories, it’s important to stay humble and beware of predictions. Black swans bite hard. But if you force me to make predictions, I’m bullish on Bitcoin, even more bullish on its category (cash and store-of-value) as a whole, and bearish about web 3.0.

Note: I deliberately avoid discussing private blockchains. They have nothing to offer over well-designed, well-built software that uses no blockchains. Between trusting parties, any use of blockchain isn’t only pointless, but also a terrible design choice (my post about web 3.0 might give you an idea about why). Suits don’t get fired for choosing private blockchains in 2018, but they most likely should.

Thanks to my friends Matthieu Courtin (Kenetic), Kenrick Drijkoningen (GGV) and Benjamin Joffe (HAX) for their thoughtful feedback & contributions.

Blockchain’s Trillion Dollar Futures: Web 3.0

Web 3.0 (also known as “the decentralized web” or simply the emerging space of decentralized networks and applications) is the crypto category that everyone should be watching in the next few years. Thousands of founders, funds and media outlets make daily claims that cash and store-of-value were just the beginning, and that just like the unsuspecting earthlings of 1995, we’re about to witness the emergence of massive, world-changing applications powered by blockchains.

It’s too early to make outlandish predictions, but it doesn’t prevent many people from making them. What I’ll try to do in this post is boil the situation down to a list of observations and key questions that I’m asking myself when thinking about the future of web 3.0.

Let’s start with some observations:

  • Blockchains are not unique enablers for any app. Unique enabler is what smartphones were for Uber. Technically, 100% of the apps that could be built with blockchain could also be built with any commercially available database
  • However, blockchains differ from regular apps by providing “unbreakable guarantees”: they are permissionless, censorship-resistant and out of the control of any single entity. They predefine roles and rules for all participants
  • Those guarantees appeal to some people because they imply openness, competition, true ownership, technocracy, freedom and free market
  • Those guarantees come at a cost for users who use blockchain products. We live in a world where many people can’t do simple foreign exchange math. As of 2018, using the decentralized web requires understanding technical concepts such as private keys, using a new set of software tools and managing an inventory of different utility tokens to consume different services. Users also have to accept the finality of disasters such as loss of private keys, and the fact that often there is no customer support phone number to call when the worst happens
  • Those guarantees also come at a cost for founders, compared to traditional tech businesses. Founders who take a radical decentralized route can’t use the world’s most advanced cloud infrastructure (AWS, for example). They can’t charge dollars for their services. They put sky high barriers in front of potential users (from obtaining utility tokens to installing special software). They sacrifice governance and the ability to iterate and change their product over time, which is a fact of life in tech startups. They have to think about liquidity and choose one blockchain to live exclusively on, because blockchains aren’t interoperable yet

The internet is where it is today because it made life convenient for users and founders. But the success of the decentralized web doesn’t seem to be about convenience as much as it’s about values. I think about web 3.0 as a version of the internet that trades convenience for better values.

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Blockchain’s Trillion Dollar Futures: Cash and store-of-value

I’ve been a believer in the cash and store-of-value category in crypto ever since I discovered Bitcoin in 2013. I made public bull cases for Bitcoin when it was at 450 USD and 4,500 USD, and my views haven’t changed much since. Bitcoin still solves the problems it was designed to solve, and it continues to be a primary choice for new dollars in crypto, suggesting that the Lindy effect is at play.

What’s new is that many experimental siblings within this category are trying to give Bitcoin a run for its money. This includes privacy coins (ZCash) claiming “taking privacy further is better”, stablecoins (Basis) claiming “price stability will change everything”, other faster-cheaper-better-performing coins (Nano) claiming “speed, cost of transfer and scalability will change everything” or design-first-coins (Eco) claiming “carefully designed networks and user experiences will change everything”.

All those fresh approaches are very interesting, but they haven’t been compelling enough to challenge bitcoin’s value and liquidity. It’s pointless to try to predict the future of Bitcoin or the rest of the category. The outcome will likely be shaped by a small number of black swan events (geopolitical, financial, regulatory or cybersecurity related).

There’s merit to the idea that Bitcoin itself is antifragile, but there’s a bigger point I love: even if something breaks Bitcoin, the cash and store-of-value category stands to evolve and even gain from it in the long term.

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Blockchain isn’t the solution to old problems

I like the story of CLS (Continuous Linked Settlement), one of the most boring and important institutions in global finance. CLS is the world leader in FX settlement. It was launched in 2002, and just like with many other important things in the world, very few people have heard about it. That’s what I like about it. Also, the story of CLS is the perfect argument for one of my favorite quotes: “the older the problem, the older the solution”.

Now let’s talk about blockchain. When you give a little kid a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Blockchain is still a hammer looking for nails. Over 2016 it has been hailed as the future of insurance, identity, exchange and property tracking– mostly by people without skin in the game (media, banks, governments and consultants). Meanwhile, founders & VC’s with skin in the game, who tackle big problems in finance, are usually not talking about blockchain and not using it. Here are some of them: m-Pesa, LTSELemonade, YueBao, LendingClub, Wealthfront. Isn’t it strange?

Technology serves us best when it solves a real problem. The financial system has huge problems: financial inclusion, friction in payments, low access to asset management, system risk from off-balance sheet derivatives… we can go on and on. Is blockchain, a database that someone invented in 2008, the solution to these problems that have existed for dozens/hundreds of years?

Let’s take an example. Can you use a blockchain to simplify and improve the settlement process in the FX market, as some articles suggest? Yes, you can. Blockchain is a database, and you can build anything with it. But would you?

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‘Blockchain’ has officially turned into an empty buzzword

We need to talk about something, fellow fintech folks: the word ‘blockchain’ has left the ground and started going completely out of control recently. It takes only a quick look at Twitter’s #blockchain page to get that.

I started suspecting when well intentioned marketing people of a large bank used it non stop in a fintech event in Hong Kong. Banks seem to be all over the blockchain right now. I doubt that this technology can solve any acute problems for HSBC or Citibank, but I get them. “Blockchain” sounds cool and they’re too rich and too threatened by Bitcoin (the asset) to ignore the technology behind it.

On another event I heard the following question from an investor: ‘I got pitched by several blockchain startups. Would you advise me to invest in them?’. Yesterday TechCrunch joined the bandwagon and announced that the blockchain might be the next disruptive technology. For serious media that wants to look deep into the future, it’s a fair title and it can invite a serious discussion (which the Bitcoin community doesn’t lack). But the content mostly glorified ‘blockchain’ as a buzzword, and that’s wrong.

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The maker crunch: is the HK tech scene doomed?

In a talk titled Inside Israel this month, I shared my company’s story and my insights on the tech scene in Israel. The next thing everybody wanted to know was what HK can learn from “the tech miracle” of Israel, a country only slightly bigger than HK in population.

It’s a good question, because the scene in HK is still hardly impressive compared to that of Tel Aviv, or London or Singapore (yes, Singapore). The government and local entrepreneurs have plenty of pride and good will. Some people say that HK will eventually explode. I understand where the argument comes from. After all, startup scenes are magic. The success factors (risk tolerance, talent, capital, ideas and heroes) get built up slowly and reinforce each other. Once they reach a tipping point, the scene catches fire and sustains itself in a big party. But I have a feeling that HK lacks some big things if it wants to catch up with the fully burning ecosystem in Tel Aviv or the catching-fire scene in Singapore. Let me present the most obvious one, in my opinion. Let’s look at some facts:

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