When I was raising investment for my startup, a venture capitalist said to me, “Ashwini, I think you’re going to raise a few million dollars.And your company — it’s going to sell for 50 to 70 million. You’re going to be really excited. Your early investors are going to be really excited. And I’m going to be really upset. So I’m not going to invest in this deal.”
I remember just being dumbstruck. Who would be unhappy with putting four or five million dollars into a company and having it sell for 50 to 70 million?
I was a first-time founder. I didn’t have a wealthy network of individuals to turn to for investment, so I went to venture capitalists the most common form of investor in a technology company. But I’d never taken the time to understand what was motivating that VC to invest.
I believe we’re living in a golden era of entrepreneurship. There is more opportunity to build companies than ever before. But the financial systems designed to fund that innovation, venture capital, they haven’t evolved in the past 20 to 30 years. Venture capital was designed to pour large sums of money into a small number of companies that can sell for over a billion dollars. It was not designed to sprinkle capital across many companies that have the potential to succeed but for less, like my own. That limits the number of ideas that get funded, the number of companies that are created and who can actually receive that funding to grow.
And I think it inspires a tough question: What’s our goal with entrepreneurship? If our goal is to create a tiny number of billion-dollar companies, let’s stick with venture capital, it’s working. But if our goal is to inspire innovation and empower more people to build companies of all sizes, we need a new way to fund those ideas. We need a more flexible system that doesn’t squeeze entrepreneurs and investors into one rigid financial outcome. We need to democratize access to capital.
In the summer of 2017, I went out to San Francisco, to join a tech accelerator with 30 other companies. The accelerator was supposed to teach us how to raise venture capital. But when I got out there, the startup community was buzzing about ICOs, or Initial Coin Offerings. For the first time, ICOs had raised more money for young startups than venture capital had.
It was the first week of the program. Tequila Friday. And the founders couldn’t stop talking. “I’m going to raise an ICO.” “I’m going to raise an ICO.” Until one guy goes, “How cool if we did this all together? We should do an ICO that combines the value of all of our companies and raise money as a group.” At that point, I had to ask the obvious question, “Guys, what’s an ICO?”
ICOs were a way for young companies to raise money by issuing a digital currency tied to the value and services that the company provides. The currency acts similar to shares in a company, like on the public stock market, increasing in value as it’s traded online.Most important, ICOs expanded the investor pool, from a few hundred venture capital firms to millions of everyday people, excited to invest. This market represented more money. It represented more investors. Which meant a greater likelihood to get funded. I was sold.
The idea, though, of doing it together still seemed a little crazy. Startups compete with each other for investment, it takes hundreds of meetings to get a check. That I would spend my precious 15 minutes in front of an investor talking not just about my own company, but all the companies in the batch, was unprecedented. But the idea caught on. And we decided to cooperate, rather than compete. Every company put 10 percent of their equity into a communal pool that we then split into tradable cryptocurrency that investors could buy and sell. Six months and four law firms later —
in January 2018, we launched the very first ICO that represented the value of nearly 30 companies and an entirely new way to raise capital. We got a lot of press. My favorite headline about us read, “VCs, read this and weep.”
Our fund was naturally more diverse. Twenty percent of the founders were women. Fifty percent were international. The investors were more excited, too. They had a chance to get better returns, because we took out the middleman fees of venture capital. And they could take their money and reinvest it, potentially funding more new ideas faster.
I believe this creates a virtuous cycle of capital that allows many more entrepreneurs to succeed. Because access to capital is access to opportunity. And we have only just begun to imagine what democratizing access to capital will do. I would have never thought that my own search for funding would lead me to this stage, having helped nearly 30 companies get investment.
Imagine if other entrepreneurs tried to invent new ways to access capital rather than following the traditional route. It would change what gets built, who builds it and the long-term impact on the economy. And I believe that’s way more exciting than just trying to invest in the next billion-dollar startup.