Cryptocurrency & Blockchain Business

Blockchain’s big show: The good, the bad, and the ugly of Consensus 2018

The world’s biggest and gawdiest blockchain conference takes place every year in New York City, congregating thousands of delegates from across the cryptosphere to mingle under one ritzy hotel roof. Consensus underscores all that’s inspiring, frustrating, depressing, and ridiculous about the rapidly shifting blockchain industry. If you couldn’t make it, here are a few insights. Now, enjoy the $2,000 you saved on your ticket!

The good

Elder statespeople. Consensus attracted many of blockchain’s elder statespeople, those entrepreneurs who toiled and evangelized before fame and lamborghinis were involved. It’s easy to forget them and their projects amidst the din of boisterous newcomers (“we’ll do 100 billion transactions a second with no fees, just you wait!”), but the old guard is still innovating aggressively and without much fanfare. For example, blockchain pioneer Sasha Ivanov of Waves made his first ever trip to the U.S. for Consensus. Criminally, his presentation was shoved into a quiet side room and lasted all of 10 minutes, but he won new fans. After Ivanov touted Waves’ position as the world’s fastest blockchain and second biggest ICO platform, which now supports smart contracts, my neighbor turned to me and gasped, “How did I miss this project?”

Everyone gets a job. If you’re looking for a job in blockchain, blockchain companies are looking for you. Exhibitors ferociously hawked their open positions with fliers, balloons, and onsite recruiters. The event’s organizer, CoinDesk, launched a Career Center, and my friends at ChronoBank announced that its blockchain-based hiring portal, LaborX, will launch this week. I asked LiskCEO and elder statesman Max Kordek what advice he’d give to someone trying to break into the space. He laughed. “First, email [email protected], because we can’t hire fast enough,” he said, “Second, don’t worry about blockchain-specific experience; you can learn that on the job. Third, get involved with your favorite projects. Unlike traditional tech companies, blockchain companies are very welcoming if you want to host meetups or become an ambassador.”

Creative marketing. Blockchain marketing tends toward copy-and-paste. That’s why it was refreshing to see companies push the creative envelope. For example, identity platform Civic set up a beer vending machine that verified age via blockchain. (Sadly, better quality alcohol was free at Consensus, but it’s the thought that counts!) Ledger showcased a diamond-encrusted version of its hardware wallet. And secure messaging platform Mainframe, perhaps my favorite blockchain startup of the show, literally airdropped its token by filling balloons with coins and floating them over attendees’ heads.

Colorful (and inspiring) characters. Crypto events are the most diverse in tech. Varied accents intermingle in every hallway, and anarchists hold court with capitalists. You’ll never meet so many interesting characters in your life. Take Waqar Zaka. Zaka is one of the biggest TV stars in Pakistan, hosting the country’s equivalent of Fear Factor and America’s Got Talent. He’s also a war hero, traveling to troubled parts of the world like Syria and Myanmar to educate refugees on cryptocurrency. For all the hype of the blockchain “banking the unbanked,” it was inspiring to meet people on the ground who are actually doing that.

The bad

Traffic congestion. “Even Bitcoin is faster than this!” quipped one attendee. The line to get into Consensus was a concert mosh pit. If you arrived early, you waited one hour. Stragglers waited two. Wouldn’t it be great if a blockchain conference used, you know, blockchain to fix its ticketing? Consensus wouldn’t have to look far, either; it hosted the launch of Blockparty, an excellent ticketing startup.

Made in the U.S., headquartered in Malta. In the early days, the blockchain industry was driven by dreamers and technologists. Now it’s driven by regulators. That’s due to the SEC, whose vague pronouncements and aggressive subpoenas are driving the best crypto companies to headquarter in foreign lands and forego investment dollars from U.S. citizens. I spoke to elder statesman Erik Voorhees of ShapeShift and Prism about that trend. As an American founder, he doesn’t mince words. “Every time a startup receives a subpoena, even if they did nothing wrong, that’s a quarter million dollars in legal fees,” he said. “Startups have to spend a third of their resources, measured by time, money, and attention, just to manage regulations.” No coincidence, ShapeShift, like most of the crypto startups at Consensus, is headquartered abroad.

Moral murkiness. Imagine meeting an exciting exhibitor at Consensus. You’re pumped and trust them because their booth is substantial and their advertising is ubiquitous. Later, the grapevine tells you that that company is “probably a scam.” Probably? Why don’t we know for certain? Investigating crypto companies is a Herculean task, and there aren’t many people equipped or incentivized to do it. No one wants to risk calling out a company over “probably” either, so they persist.

The ugly

Decadent after-parties. Kudos to Ripple for winning the after-party game this year by hiring Snoop Dogg to perform. It was a grand and memorable spectacle, but let’s remember that 2018 has been bad for our industry. Regulations have tightened, scams have hit us hard, public skepticism has rocketed, and market caps have dropped precipitously. “We’re down 80%, let’s make it rain!” isn’t a good look to burnt investors.

The roadshow. Blockchain conferences like Consensus are exhausting, so say a prayer to those founders who go to one every week. Many, like Mainframe’s Mick Hagen, lamented the “roadshow mentality” that’s developed over the last year, where entrepreneurs are expected to conference their way to success with endless presentations, exhibitions, and networking events. Said another founder, “Vitalik Buterin didn’t build Ethereum by going to 100 events a year, so why are we?”

One more thing

ChainLink sighting. A few months ago, I wrote about hype vs. anti-hype companies in the crypto world. That article mentioned ChainLink as a project that’s utterly indifferent to self-promotion. I bumped into one of their employees at Consensus and, wouldn’t you know it, the word “ChainLink” was entirely absent from his badge. Mythic!

Adam Ghahramani is cofounder of bison.gg, an esports blockchain startup, and adviser to thevinx.network, tokenizing wine futures. He is a frequent contributor to VentureBeat. Find him at adamagb.com.

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