Education Series: How do ICOs work


Nowhere in the crypto industry is the siren call of riches as alluring as the Initial Coin Offering (hereon referred to as an ICO). Promises of 10X or 100X gains on your investment are omnipresent. It sounds too good to be true. I will let you be the judge of that. The point of Quantalysus is to increase adoption of digital crypto assets by providing educational content so that you can make your own decisions. This space is ripe for opportunity but at the same time ripe for manipulation and scams. My hope is the more you know, the better you are at assessing opportunities and risks.

An ICO is a fundraising mechanism for companies. Similar to its equity based cousin, the Initial Public Offering (IPO), the ICO allows the public to participate in providing capital to the company. The ICO differs from the IPO in that it offers a digital tokenized asset in return instead of a stock certificate.  Classifying these tokens in the eye of regulators and tax authorities around the world are still very much in discussion. Amongst the investment community the utility of these tokens is still up for debate as well. When it comes to investing in crypto assets you can pretty much say the cement is still wet. What is clear is the ICO could be the most efficient form of capital fundraising the world has ever seen. Take for example the SingularityNet ICO. In 60 seconds this ICO raised an incredible $36M! The speed and size of raising so much money makes it an attractive alternative for companies. Conversely, tales of riches made overnight investing in the right projects are both true and false. The opportunity to join the nouveau riche is drawing new investors (or speculators as I like to say). So how did we get to this point?

The History of ICOs

In 2013, the first ICO took place with Mastercoin running a monthlong fundraiser. After it was all said and done Mastercoin had raised 5,000 Bitcoins (BTC) for an estimated sum of half a million dollars. Since then, the numbers of ICOs have escalated and the sums have grown enormously.

Ethereum launched its ICO on July 23rd, 2014. The project was founded by Vitalik Buterin, a Bitcoin developer and founder of Bitcoin Magazine. Enamored by the idea of using the blockchain to create a decentralized global computer, he set off to put his idea into practice. To get the network up and running Vitalik and his co-founders set a presale event to bootstrap the network. In exchange for Bitcoin, presale participants would receive Ethereum’s native token Ether (referred to as ETH hereon out). To deal with the legal, financial, and operational complexities of conducting the presale the Ethereum Foundation was established in Zug, Switzerland. The final result of the presale netted 31,591 BTC (worth $18,439,086 USD) in exchange for roughly 60,102,216 ETH.

First Came Currency Then Came Fundraising

Bitcoin is said to be the first useful application of blockchain technology. It enabled a cryptocurrency that was first thought to be a replacement for fiat currency but is now widely recognized as a useful store of value. Please see the History of Bitcoin post to learn more about it overall. Ethereum launched a blockchain with smart contract capability, essentially creating the opportunity to run applications natively on its blockchain. For better or worse, Ethereum smart contracts enabled one particularly attractive application: a smart contract for fundraising. It’s quite easy to create an Ethereum smart contract, in fact here’s a 20 minute guide on how to create one. In exchange for ETH the project raising an ICO will return to the contributor a set amount of their native token. With Ethereum’s ERC20 token standard, the ICO space exploded. I’d like to think the crypto universe expanded faster and faster like the Big Bang of the Universe.

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2016 Marks the Big Bang

Forty three ICOs were raised in 2016 totaling a combined $95M (excluding the hacked and refunded DAO ICO). Since then, the sums have grown exponentially. Critics will point to an ICO bubble and proponents will argue ICOs have enabled a decentralized form of fundraising for emerging technologies and startups in capital starved locales. In 2017 there were 210 ICOs raising a total of $3.9B according to Other estimates I’ve come across estimate as much as $6B was raised. Through April of 2018, $6.8B was raised with 266 ICOs, averaging an amazing $25.5M each. These sums would normally be reserved for tech startups raising a Series B round. To get even sillier, Series B companies are often battle tested in their markets. They have figured out their product-market fit and have paying customers. Their major challenge is typically to figure out how to widen their product adoption past their low hanging fruit customers. With cryptocurrencies a forked GitHub repo, a cleverly written whitepaper, a bot driven Telegram group, and a sparkly website would be more than enough to raise Series B sums of money.

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Legal Issues

Conducting and participating in ICOs are clouded with legal uncertainty. In certain countries hosting an ICO is deemed illegal. At the investor level, the KYC (Know Your Customer) and AML (Anti-Money Laundering) standards in the USA have compelled many companies hosting ICOs to exclude US citizens. Companies who wish to raise legally with US citizens have the option to file a Regulation D or Regulation A with the SEC. I cover this topic in my Education Series article on regulation. American crypto investors frustrated with exclusions due to regulation uncertainty have been driven to either pick up tokens when they first hit centralized/decentralized exchanges or stealthily participate in public pools.


Pooling is a term referring to multiple entities combining their resources. In the early days of ICOs it was easier to invest/speculate into these companies. As companies started to understand the legal risks of hosting an ICO they began to shrink their investment pool to the wealthy accredited investors and venture funds accustomed to taking risks in early stage companies. This left retail investors to combine their resources together to have an opportunity to invest in ICOs. I want to make clear I am not advising you to join a pool. There is a significant risk you are taking by participating in these groups. Firstly, pools are led by an individual or a group of individuals who are negotiating on your behalf with projects. Their goal is to sign a SAFT (Simple Agreement For Tokens). After this is signed, they will work with their pool members to contribute their funds together. Collecting funds is either done manually or into a smart contract tool such as Prima Block. Secondly, you are colluding with individuals you may not know. Think of your normal investments. Would you willingly give up your funds to someone you’ve never met and does not have a fiduciary responsibility over your funds? Thirdly, investing in ICOs is a crowded space for phishing attacks. Scammers pose as the company in several ways to cajole you of your hard earned assets.


A quick list of potential scams.

  • You receive an email from a similar looking website and they’ve asked you to send ETH to their address
  • The DNS of the website was compromised and the legitimate URL was redirected to a phishing site
  • A scammer poses as an admin and solicits funds from you privately within Telegram

Prima Block

If you’re going to pool I highly suggest you understand a tool called Prima Block. For those doing pools with ERC20 tokens Prima Block is a great tool to get familiar with. Please note that you are at risk of trusting the individual who runs the pool still. The Prima Block is not a completely trustworthy tool. You still have to trust the people you are working with. To get started, you need an ERC20 enabled wallet. Applications such as MyCrypto or MetaMask. I do not include MyEtherWallet as I’ve personally stopped using it due to a recent DNS attack. Rather than explaining how to use Prima Block here is a really dramatic music filled video of how to use it.


  1. SingularityNet ICO
  2. Mastercoin ICO
  3. Ethereum history


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