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What the NFT? VC David Pakman dumbs down the intensifying digital collectibles frenzy

Non-fungible tokens have been around for two years, but these NFTs, one-of-one digital items on the Ethereum and other blockchains, are suddenly becoming a more popular way to collect visual art primarily, whether it’s an animated cat or an NBA clip or virtual furniture.

“Suddenly” is hardly an overstatement. According to the outlet Cointelegraph, during the second half of last year, $9 million worth of NFT goods sold to buyers; during one 24-hour window earlier this week, $60 million worth of digital goods were sold.

What’s going on? A thorough New York Times piece on the trend earlier this week likely fueled new interest, along with a separate piece in Esquire about the artist Beeple, a Wisconsin dad whose digital drawings, which he has created every single day for the last 13 years, began selling like hotcakes in December. If you need further evidence of a tipping point (and it is ample right now), consider that the work of Beeple, whose real name is Mike Winkelmann, was just made available through Christie’s. It’s the venerable auction house’s first sale of exclusively digital work.

To better understand the market and why it’s blowing up in real time, we talked this week with David Pakman, a former internet entrepreneur who joined the venture firm Venrock a dozen years ago and began tracking Bitcoin soon after, even mining the cryptocurrency at his Bay Area home beginning in 2015. (“People would come over and see racks of computers, and it was like, ‘It’s sort of hard to explain.’”)

Perhaps it’s no surprise that he also became convinced early on of the promise of NFTs, persuading Venrock to lead the $15 million Series A round for a young startup, Dapper Labs, when its primary offering was CryptoKitties, limited-edition digital cats that can be bought and bred with cryptocurrency.

While the concept baffled some at the time, Pakman has long seen the day when Dapper’s offerings will be far more extensive, and indeed, a recent Dapper deal with the NBA to sell collectible highlight clips has already attracted so much interest that Dapper is reportedly right now raising $250 million in new funding at a post-money valuation of $2 billion. While Pakman declined to confirm or correct that figure, he did answer our other questions in a chat that’s been edited here for length and clarity.

TC: David, dumb things down for us. Why is the world so gung-ho about NFTs right now?

DP: One of the biggest problems with crypto — the reason it scares so many people — is it uses all these really esoteric terms to explain very basic concepts, so let’s just keep it really simple. About 40% of humans collect things — baseball cards, shoes, artwork, wine. And there’s a whole bunch of psychological reasons why. Some people have a need to complete a set. Some people do it for investment reasons. Some people want an heirloom to pass down. But we could only collect things in the real world because digital collectibles were too easy to copy.

Then the blockchain came around and [it allowed us to] make digital collectibles immutable, with a record of who owns what that you can’t really copy. You can screenshot it, but you don’t really own the digital collectible, and you won’t be able to do anything with that screenshot. You won’t be able to to sell it or trade it. The proof is in the blockchain. So I was a believer that crypto-based collectibles could be really big and actually could be the thing that takes crypto mainstream and gets the normals into participating in crypto — and that’s exactly what’s happening now.

TC: You mentioned a lot of reasons that people collect items, but one you didn’t mention is status. Assuming that’s one’s motivation, how do you show off what you’ve amassed online? 

DP: You’re right that one of the other reasons why we collect is to show it off status, but I would actually argue it’s much easier to show off our collections in the digital world. If I’m a car collector, the only way you’re going to see my cars is to come over to the garage. Only a certain number of people can do that. But online, we can display our digital collections. NBA Top Shop, for example, makes it very easy for you to show off your moments. Everyone has a page and there’s an app that’s coming and you can just show it off to anyone in your app, and you can post it to your social networks. And it’s actually really easy to show off how big or exciting your collection is.

TC: It was back in October that Dapper rolled out these video moments, which you buy almost like a Pokemon set in that you’re buying a pack and know you’ll get something “good” but don’t know what. But while almost half it sales have come in through the last week. Why?

DP: There’s only about maybe 30,000 or 40,000 people playing right now. It’s growing 50% or 100% a day. But the growth has been completely organic. The game is actually still in beta, so we haven’t been doing any marketing other than posting some stuff on Twitter. There hasn’t been attempt to market this and get a lot of players [talking about it] because we’re still working the bugs out, and there are a lot of bugs still to be worked out.

But a couple NBA players have seen this and gotten excited about their own moments [on social media]. And there’s maybe a little bit of machismo going on where, ‘Hey, I want my moment to trade for a higher price.’ But I also think it’s the normals who are playing this. All you need to play is a credit card, and something like 65% of the people playing have never owned or traded in crypto before. So I think the thesis that crypto collectibles could be the thing that brings mainstream users into crypto is playing out before our eyes.

TC: How does Dapper get paid?

DP: We get 5% of secondary sales and 100% minus the cost of the transaction on primary sales. Of course, we have a relationship with the NBA, which collects some of that, too. But that’s the basic economics of how the system works.

TC: Does the NBA have a minimum that it has to be paid every year, and then above and beyond that it receives a cut of the action?

DP: I don’t think the company has gone public with the exact economic terms of their relationships with the NBA and the Players Association. But obviously the NBA is the IP owner, and the teams and the players have economic participation in this, which is good, because they’re the ones that are creating the intellectual property here.

But a lot of the appreciation of these moments — if you get one in a pack and you sell it for a higher price — 95% of that appreciation goes to the owner. So it’s very similar to baseball cards, but now IP owners can participate through the life of the product in the downstream economic activity of their intellectual property, which I think is super appealing whether you’re the NBA or someone like Disney, who’s been in the IP licensing business for decades.

And it’s not just major IP where this NFT space is happening. It’s individual creators, musicians, digital artists who could create a piece of digital art, make only five copies of it, and auction it off. They too can collect a little bit each time their works sell in the future.

TC: Regarding NBA Top Shot specifically, prices range massively in terms of what people are paying for the same limited-edition clip. Why?

DP: There are two reasons. One is that like scarce items, lower numbers are worth more than higher numbers, so if there’s a very particular LeBron moment, and they made 500 [copies] of them, and I own number one, and you own number 399, the marketplace is ascribing a higher value to the lower numbers, which is very typical of limited-edition collector pieces. It’s sort of a funny concept. But it is a very human concept.

The other thing is that over time there has been more and more demand to get into this game, so people are willing to pay higher and higher prices. That’s why there’s been a lot of price appreciation for these moments over time.

TC: You mentioned that some of the esoteric language around crypto scares people, but so does the fact that 20% of the world’s bitcoin is permanently inaccessible to its owners, including because of forgotten passwords. Is that a risk with these digital items, which you are essentially storing in a digital locker or wallet?

DP: It’s a complex topic,  but I will say that Dapper has tried to build this in a way where that won’t happen, where there’s effectively some type of password recovery process for people who are storing their moments in Dapper’s wallet.

You will be able to take your moments away from Dapper’s account and put it into other accounts, where you may be on your own in terms of password recovery.

TC: Why is it a complex topic?

DP: There are people who believe that even though centralized account storage is convenient for users, it’s somehow can be distrustful — that the company could de-platform you or turn your account off. And in the crypto world, there’s almost a religious ferocity about making sure that no one can de-platform you, that the things that you buy — your cryptocurrencies or your NFTs. Long term, Dapper supports that. You’ll be able to take your moments anywhere you want. But today, our customers don’t have to worry about that I-lost-my-password-and-I’ll-never-get-my-moments-again problem.

Crypto visa card company Monaco just spent millions to buy Crypto.com

Highly-prized domain name Crypto.com has been sold!

Registered in 1993 by Matt Blaze, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania who sits on the board of directors of the Tor Project, the domain has attracted a vast amount of interest as you’d expect given the explosion of crypto in recent years. However, Blaze has turned down all offers.

In January, Blaze repeated that the domain was “not for sale” and that people shouldn’t both to contact him — as The Verge noted —  however fast forward to July and he has parted with it after Monaco, a crypto project best-known for developing a crypto debit card, bought the domain in an undisclosed deal.

Experts told The Verge that Crypto.com could have attracted as much as $10 million, however Monaco CEO Kris Marszalek declined to go into the specifics.

“If it was only about money he’d have sold it a long time ago,” he told TechCrunch in an interview.

Hong Kong-based Monaco’s ICO finished in June 2017 with the company raising what was then worth $25 million in crypto. Fast forward today and Marszalek said the firm has close to $200 million on its balance sheet thanks to a surge in the valuation of cryptocurrencies like Ether, but he suggested that, more than money, the sale was about finding the right home for the domain.

“This is a very powerful identity that we are taking on. It’s representative of the entire category so it comes with a huge responsibility on us to carry the torch. We don’t take it lightly and this is one of the things that I think we conveyed successfully, that, as a company, we do have a higher purpose,” he said.

“Fundamentally, blockchain and crypto will enable [the next generation] to control their money, to control their data and to control their identity, these are the three fundamental things that weave the fabric of society. For us this is the purpose, we want to acceleration the world’s adoption of cryptocurrency,” he added.

The splashy purchase of the domain is part of a rebrand for Monaco that will see the parent company become Crypto.com and its Monaco services — which the upcoming Visa card, peer-to-peer transfer and a wallet app — become MCO, the same name as the company’s cryptocurrency.

The Monaco card itself just entered testing for a small group of users, primarily the MCO team, and Marszalek said it will be available for all customers in Singapore and Europe this summer, with a rollout for those in the U.S. likely in Q4. That’s covering a backlog of over 70,000 waiting users, but the company has sweetened the appeal of a card for new people by adding a number of perks, most notably cashback on transactions and a concierge, which vary based on the level.

At around $7 per MCO token, the commitment for a card isn’t cheap. The top of the range ‘Obsidian Black,’ which has the highest rate of cashback and perks, requires a customer to hold around $350,000 in MCO tokens. However, there’s a selection to cater to different budgets.

MCO is well-known for its card project, which has been two years in the making and it captured the attention of early crypto enthusiasts, but Marszalek said the company is cooking up other services in a bid to offer a more rounded product line. (That also explains the rebrand.) Among things to expect, he said MCO is opening to introduce lending that uses crypto as collateral, a low-rate credit service, and a robo trading investment feature.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Korean crypto exchange Bithumb says it lost over $30M following a hack

Just weeks after Korean crypto exchange Coinrail lost $40 million through an alleged hack, another in the crypto-mad country — Bithumb — has claimed hackers made off with over $30 million in cryptocurrency.

Coinrail may be one of Korea’s smaller exchanges, but Bithumb is far larger. The exchange is one of the world’s top ten ranked based on trading of Ethereum and Bitcoin Cash, and top for newly-launched EOS, according to data from Coinmarketcap.com.

In a now-deleted tweet, Bithumb said today that 35 billion won of tokens — around $31 million — were snatched. It didn’t provide details of the attack, but it did say it will cover any losses for its users. The company has temporarily frozen deposits and trading while it is in the process of “changing our wallet system” following the incident.

Days prior to the hack, Bithumb said on Twitter that it was “transferring all of asset to the cold wallet to build up the security system and upgrade” its database. It isn’t clear whether that move was triggered by the attack — in which case it happened days ago — or whether it might have been a factor that enabled it.

[Notice for the restart of service]
We are transferring all of asset to the cold wallet to build up the security system and upgrade DB. Starting from 15:00 pm(KST), we will restart our services and notice again as soon as possible. Appreciate for your support.

— Bithumb (@BithumbOfficial) June 16, 2018

A tweet sent days before Bithumb said it had been hacked

There’s often uncertainty around alleged hacks, with some in the crypto community claiming an inside job for most incidents. In this case, reports from earlier this month that Bithumb was hit by a 30 billion won tax bill from the Korean government will certainly raise suspicions. Without an independent audit or third-party report into the incident, however, it is hard to know exactly what happened.

That said, one strong takeaway, once again, is that people who buy crypto should store their tokens in their own private wallet (ideally with a hardware key for access) not on an exchange where they could be pinched by an attacker. In this case, Bithumb is big enough to cover the losses, but it isn’t always that way and securely holding tokens avoids potential for trouble.

Coinbase opens its crypto index fund to accredited U.S. investors

Fresh from revealing plans to add Ethereum Classic to its exchange, crypto giant Coinbase today announced that its cryptocurrency index fund — first revealed in Marchis open to investors in the U.S..

The company said in a blog post that it has see “overwhelming” interest from investors, and now it is reaching out to those who want to invest between $250,000 and $20 million. For now, the company said, participation is limited to the U.S. and those who are accredited investors.

That’s a pretty big caveat since crypto, by default, is open to anyone — although many ICOs tread carefully in markets like the U.S. — but Coinbase is very specifically target institutional capital, having recently added services for Wall Street-like professional investors.

The pitch is that it knows the market, its service covers the most stable assets and it won’t charge the kind of rates that existing funds do, as Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong explained on Twitter.

Investing in Coinbase Index Fund is the easiest way to get exposure to a broad range get of crypto assets.
Much cheaper than 2 and 20% charged by most crypto hedge funds, and you get new assets automatically added to the fund as they become available on Coinbase. No rebalancing. https://t.co/TyOnDuFMT9

— Brian Armstrong (@brian_armstrong) June 13, 2018

Here’s more:

Coinbase Index Fund gives investors exposure to all assets listed on our exchange, weighted by market capitalization. As we announced yesterday, the fund will be rebalanced to include Ethereum Classic, and more assets when they are listed by Coinbase in the future.

Coinbase did say that it is working to launch other funds that are “accessible to all investors and cover a broader range of digital assets” so, if you’re not an accredited U.S. investor, there might yet be opportunities for you depending on what comes next. However, given that Coinbase is striving to be SEC-compliant — and the SEC is in the middle of a major crypto investigation — it might take some time to reach the longer tail of retail investors.

Stay tuned, though, we’ll be asking questions to two key people at Coinbase over the coming months and this topic is sure to be on the menu. CTO Balaji Srinivasan will appear at our blockchain event in Zug next month, while CEO Amstrong is among the guests who will take to the stage at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco in September.

Crypto exchange Coincheck, still recovering from $400M hack, sold to online brokerage

Japanese crypto exchange Coincheck, made famously after hackers made off with more than $400 million in digital token NEM, has been acquired.

The company announced today (in Japanese) that Tokyo-based online brokerage Monex Group will buy it in full. The transaction will see Coincheck become a wholly owned subsidiary of Monex.

The deal is a reaction of the NEM hack, with Coincheck recognizing that it needs to strengthen its management system and organization as a whole. That’s in direct response to Japan’s Financial Services Agency, which requested that the exchange make changes in the wake of the January hack — which saw Coincheck reimburse affected users.

Japan is the world’s first market to regulate cryptocurrencies, and the country has given its approval to over 26 exchanges that operate there, both locally and international. The Coincheck incident seems to serve as a wakeup call, however, and authorities clamped down on six others who were told to beef up their organizations to prevent more scandals or security issues. Added that, a number of regulated exchanges have announced plans to team up to create a self-regulatory body to add further scrutiny.

Editor’s note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

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