I am not an expert on cryptocurrency, but I can tell you this much: Neither are most of the people at the Consensus conference at the Hilton Midtown this week.
There’s another thing. The crypto gold rush is not entirely global. Not yet. Most of the serious money players and developers come from a handful of nations—the U.S., China, Russia, Japan, South Korea and Israel. European money is flowing into projects, with wealth managers putting money into crypto funds. Latin America hasn’t really discovered the blockchain, though Brazil has hopped on the bandwagon and will be the leader there.
It’s Blockchain Week in New York. Blame the traffic on the rain, and those guys with badges around their necks.
Startups are touting their next genius idea—a new real estate project, a new mining app, a new coin pegged to the euro. These are the people I met there. This is what they are dreaming about, how they hope to make it happen and what they think about their rivals.
Names have been changed to protect the innocent.
“If Mockba goes to the party, I’m not going to the party,” one tech reporter tells me about a Russian founder I have never met. I ask him why he wouldn’t go to one of the myriad parties being thrown in Manhattan this week. He used choice words and dropped F-bombs. “I spent a half hour listening to this joker try to sell me on his project and how he was going to raise $200 million.”
I get it. One Russian the other week told me he was hoping to raise a few hundred million in an initial coin offering, based on a fintech company he was only just building. Worth noting, Russian messaging app Telegram raised about a billion dollars recently from accredited investors. Telegram has been around for years and has an actual product, but makes no money.
We’re at the Baccarat bar—an interview set up by a foreign PR rep for off-record sources and on-record sources who do not live here. It’s Russian style, with baccarat crystal chandeliers, and a crystal candleholder on the table keeping the flame. The cocktail waitress tells me someone stole their candleholder from this very table just the other day. “We put it on her tab. She got mad and said she didn’t take it. Then we told her we had her on camera.” I look up … there are cameras everywhere
The three people I am sitting with are basically conspiring against the global financial system and working to build a cashless society. They are raising millions for startups issuing new currencies. There’s the Emirati. There’s the Russian. And there’s a Japanese woman. She finds out I write for Forbes. She wants to take selfies with me. We will call her Jane. She’s a fundraiser. She puts hungry startups in front of gambling Japanese. She has learned, perhaps unconciously, that the easiest way to make money is to sell people on the idea that you can help them realize their dreams. Jane claims she raised over $40 million in a year by herself, and that it was easier than she imagined, and that prior to discovering this new beat, she was a struggling actress in Los Angeles.
The Emirati is leaning over the table, speaking almost in a whisper. He has gold cufflings. I say, “So it’s like black bags full of money flown around in private jets. Only you put it on this thing called a blockchain.” Yes, the Emirati says about his particular project, “though I would never say it’s exactly like that.”
On Monday, the first day of the Coindesk-organized forum, there is a guy in a tie-dyed hoodie standing on the street corner complaining about losing money in some blockchain platform called NEM. He claims to have lost the equivalent of around $1.4 million in their cryptocurrency. That’s got to suck.
Three Lamborghinis pull up to the curb outside the Hilton, almost as if they were rubbing it in his face. One has Montana plates. The other one has Florida plates. The drive of the Montana-registered Lambo revs his engine curbside, marking his territory. It could be rented out by one of those people someone like Jane raised $20 million for, for some dating app for escorts or some such thing.
Inside, the line snakes, hundreds of people deep. A Hilton employee dressed in black tells me he has never seen a single event so crowded at the hotel.
At the event, a media company under your name on your Consensus registration badge makes you a man-magnet. It’s best just to be nice. Some come up to you like they know you. They are from all over the world. They do everything, though most of the things they do you have never heard of or understand why someone or some industry would want it. But that is why you are not a millionaire and they are—or will be, I guess.
I meet a crypto-fund manager from LA. He is just dressed in a T-shirt and jeans and a gold chain. We talk off the record. He’s advising a new Brazilian cryptocurrency exchange. I tell him Foxbit is here. He’s never heard of them. Don’t worry, I tell him. Neither have I. But they have over 35% of Brazil’s cryptocurrency exchange market, which, I was told by them, grew fourfold in about 12 months. “That’s why we are going there,” the LA money man says.
Another guy bum rushes me before going down an escalator. Inkd, a news aggregator. He’s telling me all about it.
During lunch, Telegram gets bashed. They’re bleeding like $100 million a year. Pavel Durov, the founder, is a great marketer. If he and Vladimir Putin got along, he would be a great advocate for Russians in new tech. But he is not that man, so Russians are often doomed to feign non-Russian citizenship or are stuck in Russia, because as we know from headlines day in and day out, every Russian is “close to Putin.”
For moneymakers, it is clear that the safe trade is the arbitrage trade: buy one bitcoin on one exchange that costs 2 points less than another, sell it on the more expensive exchange. Boom. Whole businesses are being built on capitalizing on the inefficiencies in the market. The Japanese and Koreans, of course, are the masters at this.
Tuesday night was Ripple night, officially known as the XRP Community Night. Snoop Dogg is backstage waiting to come on, and there is a cloud of smoke hovering around, a thick Indonesia fog.
Another California fund manager is talking to me. He’s been here before and knows the drill. “Snoop will come out and give his blunt to people standing in the front row,” he says. Then the conspiracy: “There’s a Ripple investor who had a lot of money. He went to Mexico on vacation, and he died. They claim suicide. I don’t believe it,” he says, telling me someone should look into it.
There is a split at Consensus and within the blockchain/crypto crowd as a whole. It is between the IBM corporate types and the hoodie developers who live their life on their laptops and smartphones. It is between the practical moneymakers and the anarcho-libertarians.
We have seen this kind of battle before and we know who wins.
XRP is advertising for a borderless society. It’s plastered on a cement beam by the Snoop stage at Industria on Washington Street downtown. But it’s not the George Soros open-borders kind. It’s the tech developer kind—the Emirati in Dubai, Jane on a plane, the Russians in Palo Alto with the Americans and the Indians. And, like moving a jpg from your Web browser to your desktop, able to move money—be it $100 or $1 million—from a crypto bank account in Malta to one in Singapore. That’s their open-border agenda to some degree.
The California fund manager was right. Snoop is smoking weed again. He gives it to the crowd. The foreigners (I only assume that) are making heavy metal signs with their hands. I don’t get that one. Is that a hip-hop thing now?
A New Jersey PR rep for new cryptocurrency startups reminds me to watch out for these characters. “You can’t always believe these guys,” he says, though I don’t know where he got the idea that I did or would. More than half of the time I have no clue what they are even trying to tell me. Mostly it is me telling them what I think their product is rather than them telling me what it is. It’s the only way I can understand it. And I really don’t know if they are just going along with me because it sounds good and they think they might get some press, or if I’m really smarter than I think I am and have nailed it.
See if you can figure this one out …
There is a company presenting at Consensus called Decenturion. They were raising money to buy land and were issuing passports. You will somehow be paid to live there in their new crypto coin. The passport is a gimmick. But there is pile of them issued already and a crowd around the tall Ukrainian woman taking the pictures. Okay, so I am not smarter than I think I am because I got one. I’ll probably be spammed from now to eternity by a 20-something-year-old millionaire who will sell my Gmail account to Romanian hackers.
“The crypto guys are crazy,” the Jersey man says. “Some are idiot savants. Honestly, I think they’re on acid.”
Back on the street corner outside of the Hilton, the NEM guy looks like a poor soul on the streets of New York, just another poor man who lost everything here. Instead of the state owing him something, he thinks some crypto startup owes him restitution. Maybe NEM does. But I cannot talk to him today. There he is, lying still on the sidewalk, asleep. Someone give this guy a real coin, please. And an umbrella. It looks like a hard rain is going to fall.
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