The North America Bitcoin Conference Trip Recap: A Student’s Perspective on the Crypto Craze
12 members from Wolverine Crypto Trading had the chance to attend the largest event in crypto history: The North America Bitcoin Conference gathered over 4000 people from across the world in Miami last weekend.
This was our first time attending a major crypto event, and it was definitely an eye-opening experience. Here’s my insights and takeaways from the trip:
1. It should be called The North American ICO Pitchfest
As someone who just got into this space in November, my motivation to attend this conference was to learn more about the technology and resulting applications. Instead, the conference’s primary purpose seemed to be connecting investors with ICO (initial coin offering) companies. 70–80% of the content was either explicit ICO pitches or “let me tell you about this new thing we’re doing, and btw we have an ICO pre-sale.”
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this…my expectations were just off. Most people I met at the conference were not developers, rather investors and salespeople. For them it was the perfect venue. Given that over 4000 people paid to attend, clearly the organizers had tapped into something big. However, when your event is titled The North America Bitcoin Conference and most speakers don’t even talk about bitcoin (or the hot topics relevant to the currency)…that’s a little off-putting.
2. Blockchain/crypto has diversified beyond traditional geographic power centers and created a vibrant community
A majority of the tech power in the world is concentrated in 5 geographic areas. Finance is even more exclusive — with New York and London hosting the majority of wealth. If the attendance at this conference is any sign, crypto has transcended these geographic boundaries. The potential for large-scale disruptive impact offered by blockchain tech, combined with the recent speculative hype, has attracted investors and entrepreneurs from every corner of the globe. In fact, I met a couple of attendees who were moving their entire families from their native countries to live in Zurich, Singapore and Dubai for work. Why? The aforementioned countries have friendly crypto tax policies. Incredible!
As a new entrant, it was also fascinating to observe the idiosyncrasies of the vibrant crypto community. The community had its own set of heroes — Vitalik Buterin, The Winkleveii , Charlie Shrem, FluffyPony— and villains — any traditional tech or finance company. There were common themes: “we must take back our money” or “take back our data.” And almost all attendees used Telegram — an encrypted messaging application — to communicate (fitting given the community’s value of privacy and the fact that Telegram is having its own ICO).
3. The diversity of blockchain applications was impressive…but for many, their practicality was questionable
There was a blockchain application for everything at this conference. The usual contenders finance, supply chain, healthcare, were all well represented. In addition there were companies that integrated blockchain with art, digital advertising, telecom…and even beauty salons. You name the industry and there was an company ready to provide a “disruptive and innovative blockchain solution” (and also ask for your money).
“If you don’t have blockchain in your business, you’re stuck in 2017”
Yet, it was hard not to be skeptical. Many business models seemed to have nothing to do with blockchain, yet still wanted to do an ICO. When we asked the question “why does x need a blockchain solution” we sometimes got responses like “if you don’t have blockchain in your business you’re stuck in 2017” or “in the future everything will be on the blockchain.” Some of these businesses were clearly just living off the hype. Obviously these were extreme cases, but if college students with little experience in the field felt skeptical, then how were these companies getting experienced professionals to join them?
4. There was some recognition of regulation and risk
In the past the general public has viewed crypto enthusiasts as naive — both for investing in volatile coins, and for believing that digital currencies could skirt government regulation. TNABC’s programming and the chatter amongst attendees, reflected a more mature view of the indusdtry
With regards to regulation, the general belief now seemed to be “it’s gonna happen anyway, so might as well be prepared for it.” For this reason the organizers included a panel on regulation which gathered expert lawyers in the field. In addition, there were a couple other speakers who touched on aspects of money-transmitting and securities laws that could incriminate crypto companies.
With regards to risk, there were varying opinions on the “bubbliness” of the industry. As always, the most bullish attendees ignored that criticism entirely, but there were a large number who were taking and advising caution when it came to investing in certain altcoins and ICOs. The most interesting opinion came from Charlie Shrem, a bitcoin pioneer. Charlie believed that the comparison to a bubble wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. To paraphrase his thoughts:
“If there is a bubble which bursts, it will wipe away most companies, but at least 2/15 will succeed. The dotcom bubble had the same effect…but it also produced giants like Google” — Charlie Shrem
In other words, a bubble might just have the filtering effect that this industry desperately needs. Some food for thought!
5. The power of communication (and the lack thereof)
For ICO prospects TNABC is the biggest stage. The viability of their businesses came down to whether they could generate enough interest and investment in Miami. Each company gets 12–15 mins to stand up in front of 3500 people (and countless more watching online) to pitch. The reality of such a time-constrained setting is that it isn’t the best idea, the best technical implementation, or the best white paper that wins the day. The most compelling pitches were the ones that told a story, had articulate presenters, and visually appealing slides. The rest was often an afterthought.
There were a couple pitches which had all 3 components, and received a great response from the audience. But more than a few were disappointing. We saw size 12 font on slides, presenters stuttering through the pitch, not making eye contact with the audience and worst of all…just littering their talk with buzzwords instead of explaining their value proposition. These presentations were so bad that it would make any business school professor cringe. Given the stakes at hand, how could you not spend more time perfecting the pitch?
- TNABC highlights the excitement around ICOs. However, the crypto world still needs to find a way to balance encouraging outside investment with discouraging fraudulent ICOs.
- The blockchain community has attracted a diverse pool of investors and entrepreneurs; democratizing access in a way that would make Satoshi proud. But with regards to gender diversity, there is still a long way to go. A fact that that the conference organizers accepted themselves.
- Crpyto-enthusiasts recognize that some regulation is necessary for the industry to gain credibility.
- They are also aware that the space might develop into a bubble…but a bubble bursting might have a positive effect in the long run.
- This conference has confirmed an opinion that I articulated in my previous post:
“Aside from the speculation frenzy, if bitcoin (and by extension most other blockchain applications) were to go away, the world wouldn’t change for most of us. As compared to our existing payment system in developed countries, bitcoin is slower, more expensive, less scalable, and not very well understood. In reality, cryptocurrencies only have had a tangible impact on those who can’t rely on existing financial institutions.”
I couldn’t see myself investing in most ICOs at the conference because they were only useful to customers in well-off countries; they were essentially trying to solve problems that didn’t exist. The few projects that I am bullish about focused on emerging markets. Those countries are where I foresee the true disruptive impact of blockchain.
I’d like to thank Wolverine Crypto Trading for organizing this trip, the Stephen M. Ross School of Business for their support and funding, as well as Keynote (the conference organizers) for sponsoring our tickets.
Disclaimer: At the time of writing, the author has no investments in cryptocurrencies or ICOs.