What appcoin startups have in common with Midwest logging companies

Logging companies in the 19th century Midwest had a problem. In the remote forests where they set up shop, cash was hard to come by. Still, workers needed to be paid so they could buy food and other basic necessities. So the logging companies came up with a solution to the cash shortage: they would print their own currency.

This private currency, known as “scrip“, was denominated like U.S. currency and redeemable for goods and services exclusively at company-run stores. If a worker who received scrip in lieu of cash wanted to spend their paycheck elsewhere, the scrip would often trade at a steep 10 percent to 25 percent discount. Exchanging scrip for cash would result in additional exchange fees. And so most business was done at the company store.

Company scrip for the Network Age

Fast-forward 125 years and private currencies are once again being used by cash-strapped companies to keep operations running smoothly. Only this time, the companies are high-tech software startups instead of Midwest logging companies, and the currencies they are issuing aren’t simply a stand-in for cash. Private currencies have become a core part of new business models emerging around digital networks.

Often referred to as “appcoins”, these new private currencies are being used by issuers to simultaneously fund their businesses and bootstrap networks around their products. Unlike the company scrip of the past, appcoins are neither denominated in another currency nor redeemable for a fixed quantity of goods. Instead, the issuer designs their product in such a way that users have to dispose of some quantity of the appcoin to receive the value offered by the product. As a result, demand for the product results in demand for the appcoin, creating a virtuous cycle of adoption and price discovery.

The power of incentives

For early adopters of the appcoin, this virtuous cycle can result in a significant financial return, similar to the way that an early investor in a company can earn significant returns if the company is later successful and the value of their equity increases substantially. For example, if an early adopter of a product receives appcoins when there are only 1,000 users and the appcoin is valued at 100 satoshis each, and several years later the product has over 100,000 users and the price of the appcoin has increased to 10,000 satoshis each, this results in a 10,000 percent “return” for the early adopter.

The potential for financial return creates an incentive for people to adopt an appcoin product early on, even when the “cost” to doing so may be higher than using a more established alternative (for example, using a new social network app when there aren’t as many people to connect with as on other, more established apps). This incentive helps bootstrap the network, giving the app a fighting chance in the face of well-funded incumbents and speeding up the time-to-critical-mass that gives the network value and makes the app “sticky” for end users (or so the theory goes).

The future of appcoins

I have written before about why I am skeptical of appcoins. Disintermediation and centralization remain my top concerns. But given that there is no sign of the appcoin trend slowing down, with even “mainstream” apps with millions of existing users announcing plans to release an appcoin, it is worth thinking about what it would take for appcoin issuers to address these concerns and succeed with this model.

Appcoin issuers could reduce the likelihood of disintermediation by ensuring that there is as little friction as possible when exchanging currencies to use their app, while simultaneously doing all they can to increase the value of using the appcoin. And to minimize the risk that centralization has on the long-term value of their appcoin, issuers could create a succession plan to cede control of development to a more decentralized open source community.

The long-term future of appcoins is unknown. They could overcome these and other challenges and become a powerful tool for building products and bootstrapping networks. Or, they could disappear as dramatically as they appeared, destined to be a footnote in the pages of history like the company scrip that came before.

Featured image via WisconsinHistory.org

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