This post is meant to be a simple, brief survey of the block chain, from the point of view of an investor in the space. For someone who has read widely on all aspects of Bitcoin, this will feel rudimentary, but my goal here is to explain the idea of the block chain’s potential to a ore lay business audience. It will lack technical depth and instead focus on business applications that are likely to be created in the next few years.
Post #1: The Business Of The Block Chain (A Survey)
Over this summer and spring, I’m going to write more about Bitcoin and the block chain, specifically from the vantage point of founders who are working in the space right now and those investors who are interested in products that could arrive on the market in the next 2-5 years. The first post in this series was more of a preface, which you can read here. This post and the subsequent ones will presume some basic knowledge of the block chain. One of the best primers I’ve found (and please suggest more in the comments) is by Antonis Polemitis, which you can read here.
Back to the block chain. After reading as much as I can, and after talking to many smart folks in the space, I’ve come to a few conclusions: (1) The block chain as a computer science innovation is for real; and (2) there are 101+ business applications that can be rewritten by harnessing its attributes; but (3) it is very early days and right now, most of the best minds working in this space are focused on payments and stored value.
Put another way, it is very early for the block chain, which is a bad thing for a momentum or inflection investor, but a great thing for an investor who believes in the power of the block chain and wants to lay down an early, early bet. (If you are working on the block chain right now, please do get in touch with me.)
So, what can the block chain do, theoretically? Too much to list here. “A 101 things,” is my standard answer. This is a primer on a few areas, and then I plan to dig into each one with more detail in the summer. Regardless, I’ll offer some ideas as examples of new business processes that excite me specifically, in no particular order:
Many of the smart folks working in the space cited the idea of “smart contracts” as the one area which posses the most widely-applicable aspect of what can be “on-chain.” A smart contract acts as a specific protocol which helps parties create, validate, and enforce contracts without the need of expensive human overhead costs. Contracts that become interesting when “smart” could be DRM, derivatives, P2P commerce, and other business processes. All this said, there are some folks working on block chain-related ideas that, at least today, do not seem to be solving a big problem. Of course, it is early days, so who knows. (Earlier in the year, Naval and Balaji posted on Appcoins, which poses thoughts for how block chains could change the financial side of starting a business.)
Proof Of Work
The block chain can be leveraged to verify, attribute, timestamp, and prove, irrefutably, that work has been done at a specific point in time with specific characteristics. These record-keeping capabilities could open the door to a more transparent form of governance. This has been referred to as the public ledger. Today, we hold people and entities accountable to the fact that we can point to something that shows commitment or promise — in the future, work verified by the chain would be theoretically immune to disagreement (but I’m sure there will be “Chain Deniers”). Just like in smart contracts, there are a few companies working in the space, but not many.
This is the space that is currently in play and has real players most of us recognize by name, such as BitPay, Coinbase, and Circle, among others, which are leading the way to bring Bitcoin to the masses and financial mainstream. Someone will win this space and they will all also provide their own APIs to empower other developers to build on the block chain, but it remains to be seen if independent developers will want to use their APIs versus building on a neutral platform like Chain, which is sort of like an AWS for the block chain.
An Important Caveat
A good percentage of block chain enthusiasts I spoke with cautioned against a mentality of “Block Chain For X,” in the same way we all do this with “Uber For X.” They believed this will also generate very bad ideas that either don’t make sense in practice or that look cool but don’t really solve a big problem. While some of these solutions will be technically feasible with the block chain, they said to expect a period of crappy ideas before someone or a group of folks hits it big. And when they mean big, they mean trillion dollar market big. With that caution kept in mind, however, everyone admittedly is very bullish on the block chain. Today, it is early. Outside of a few teams, I have yet to see it. I would love to see it, and I’m sure I’m not seeing it all. Finally, there are of course many other use cases, but these seemed to be the big ones that resonated with everyone I spoke with, and underneath them, undoubtedly lie fascinating new ideas.