Thousands of people have pumped $150 million into what might be the biggest crowdfunded project in history, something called the Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO). Compare this to the $20 million raised by the project with the most funds on Kickstarter, the Pebble Time smartwatch. The strange thing about this crowdfunding is that the DAO doesn’t produce any concrete products or services–not yet, anyway.
The DAO’s big promise is that it’s an entirely new way to manage and allocate capital. More specifically, it’s capital allocation without a fund manager. Think of it as venture-capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, but with Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz replaced by the wisdom of the crowd.
That crowd consists of about 11,000 anonymous stakeholders who can vote directly on any major decision to spend the organization’s funds. Companies or individuals who want to tap the funds must submit a proposal. These proposals are published online, and stakeholders ultimately vote on whether to adopt them, allocating a slice of the $150 million, or not. Stakeholders then stand to gain from the profits generated by these proposals, whether in the form of dividends or an increase in value of their tokens.
“This is an incredible evolution over the Kickstarter model,” says Stephan Tual, the chief executive of Slockit, a company with a proposal on the table for funding from the DAO. Tual’s company has played a pivotal role in getting the DAO going. Its chief technology officer wrote the code that animates the DAO, and the Slockit proposal is just one of two currently published on the site. Tual says there are at least a dozen more proposals in the works, bandied about on the DAO website’s forums, but it’s taking time to get them published (“it’s like herding cats,” he says). Slockit itself has no power over the funds collected so far—no one individual or entity controls the DAO or profits more from it than other stakeholders.
This radical experiment in disintermediation has won favor among Silicon Valley’s technorati. Here’s an Andreessen Horowitz partner’s take on it:
There’s another major factor at work here. The DAO is funded entirely with Ether, the cryptocurrency that’s rivalling bitcoin and exploding in value. That is to say, users need to convert dollars or bitcoins or other currencies to Ether, which they then use to invest in the DAO.
Ether was trading at about $0.90 in December, but is now changing hands at nearly $15, or a 15-fold increase in six months. In fact, the DAO has proved so popular among holders of Ether, that the DAO now accounts for almost 14% of the value of all Ether in circulation.
Ether, and the protocol it’s built on, called Ethereum, is an essential part of the DAO project. It allows developers to write smart contracts, self-executing agreements that don’t require human intervention, thus enabling ideas like an organization that manages itself. The DAO is essentially a complicated smart contract, with hard-coded rules on voting and governance.
But the same free-market beliefs that birthed the DAO could also stifle it. That’s because DAO stakeholders received tokens in exchange for their Ether at a fixed rate when they bought in. The price of Ether has nearly doubled since DAO tokens first became available on Apr. 30, in large part because of the hype generated by the DAO itself. Token holders now have a large incentive to swap their tokens out and get Ether back, which can then be sold for US dollars or bitcoins.
Token-holders can’t sell out now, because the DAO smart contract says tokens are locked up during this subscription period. But the lock-up period ends in seven days. That’s when we’ll see a drop in Ether’s stratospheric price rise. “As soon as people are able to transfer out of DAO tokens, the Ether price will drop temporarily,” says Joseph Lee, who runs London-based bitcoin trading platform Magnr. “People would want to cash out. The price has been rising rapidly.”
A drop in the Ether price would leave a dent in the value of the DAO’s funds. But for true believers in the decentralized ways of the DAO, it’s a small price to pay for a future without middle-men. “The amounts raised now are making people think this is no longer a toy,” says Slockit’s Tual. “This is going to make a very big difference. It’s paving the way for a billion-dollar project.”