Everybody’s talking about Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) lately. If you’ve been sleeping in the past few months, ICOs are a way for a company to offer crypto-assets to the public in order to raise funding, and many startups have been doing just that to raise initial capital, often instead of raising angel or VC rounds (side note 1: that’s not exactly true, but that is an article for another day).
There are many different aspects to performing a successful ICO (see SirinLabs’ recent $157.8 million ICO), but I want to take a look at the core document that is provided for the company’s investors – the white paper.
What is an ICO white paper?
A white paper is a document that details all the relevant information for anyone who is interested in purchasing a crypto-asset. White papers have existed for ages, but until recently were used mainly to detail technical data and use case investigation for technological products.
Offering a crypto-asset white paper is a tradition that started with Satoshi Nakamoto’s nine-page white paper, which was a detailed support manifesto for the original bitcoin currency. Since then, any company that issues a new crypto-asset have pitched their new offering using a white paper.
(Side note 2: like any document, white papers can be professionally written, or can be a haberdashery of crypto-slang that was purchased on Fiverr.com and is not worth the virtual paper it was published on. In this article I will only comment on the former version).
So, it’s a business plan?
Yes and no. There are many similarities between a white paper and a business plan. Mainly, they both need to convey the essence, plan, and uniqueness of the company to the reader. However, there are also many differences.
Ok, so how are white papers and business plans different?
Let’s start with the similarities. Both a business plan and a white paper must address five major aspects of the underlying business:
- The need / problem – why does anyone need another crypto-asset. How will it solve an existing problem, or make our lives better?
- The Solution – how are we solving this problem and why are we doing it with crypto-assets (or blockchain in general).
- The Team – who are we, why are we uniquely qualified to do this?
- The Market – who will be using our solution, how big is the market? How many users are there? How are they segmented?
- The Competition – what other solutions may be solving the same problem? How are we doing it better?
However, even when the two are similar, the business plan and white paper actually address different aspects of the same coin (pun semi-intended). A business plan will focus on the company and how it creates value by addressing the need in a specific market. The white paper, on the other hand, must focus on the crypto-asset, and how it will create value which may not be directly linked to the issuing company. For example, in a white paper about a coin used for car sharing, the business plan will focus on the company providing the software to enable car sharing while the white paper will need to focus on the drivers and riders and their interaction using the crypto-asset.
This is also where the similarities end. In order to convince (e.g., put their mind at ease) investors and coin purchasers that the new crypto-asset offers an amazing investment opportunity, the white paper must address several other issues, including (and this is in no way a comprehensive list):
- What is the platform the crypto-asset is using, and how is it using it? In the case of blockchain infrastructure this segment must be extremely detailed to convince readers why a new infrastructure is actually needed and how it will work better than existing infrastructure.
- How are new crypto-assets issued (mined? minted? Pre-offering)?
- How are the crypto-assets protected? What’s to prevent people from stealing/copying/duplicating crypto-assets?
- How do the asset-holders hold, sell, buy, and transfer the crypto-asset?
- What are the different use cases for the crypto-asset? How will they change and grow over time?
- How does the crypto-asset interact with other existing businesses and crypto-assets?
- Has the underlying product or service launched? If not, why not and when?
- Who are the existing miners, node-operators, or stake-holders in the underlying blockchain? What is their incentive structure?
- How many coins are there? How many are planned? What is the issuance model?
- What are the blockchain economies here – what will create new value for the crypto-asset and how?
- What is the ecosystem for users, merchants, and traders? How will it grow and expand? What is the company’s stake in making this happen?
- What are the terms of the ICO? How much is pre-allocated to the team and what for?
- What size of fund raise is needed to make this vision into a reality?
- Who are the early investors and how much was pre-sold at what terms?
- Are there any guarantee structures?
Wow, that’s a lot
Yes. And that is just the proverbial tip of the ice berg. Writing a good white paper is about providing information. The more information you have, the more the educated investor feels comfortable purchasing your crypto-asset.
However, just like a good business plan, a white paper should be readable, tell a store (albeit a more technical story), and highlight the company’s strengths and vision.
What can you do with all this information? First off, do not treat the writing of your white paper lightly. This is a serious endeavor. Do not think that by shelling out $100 on fiverr.com you will have a document that is sufficient to raise $10 million and above. Second, write your white paper (or have a professional write it for you), and make sure you are addressing all the key issues.