Why a messaging start-up is making its own digital currency instead of going public

  • This year has not only seen the explosion in the price of bitcoin itself but also the second and third most popular cryptocurrencies, Ethereum and Ripple.
  • The value of all cryptocurrencies today is $88 billion which is actually down from $114 billion a few days ago.
Founder and CEO of Kik Ted Livingston speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2016.
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Founder and CEO of Kik Ted Livingston speaks onstage during TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2016.

Unless you've been under a rock, you've likely read a lot about ICOs (initial coin offerings) in the last few weeks. These are offerings by companies starting their own variant of blockchain-based digital currencies.

This year has not only seen the explosion in the price of bitcoin itself but also the second and third most popular cryptocurrencies — Ethereum and Ripple.

More interesting, there's been a rise of many additional cryptocurrencies such as Steem, Dash, AntShares and Dogecoin. In fact, if you measure bitcoin's market capitalization as a percentage of the market capitalization for all cryptocurrencies, it's currently at 45.5 percent, down from 94 percent a year ago.

The value of all cryptocurrencies now is $88 billion, which is actually down from $114 billion a few days ago.

New ICOs have raised $500 million so far this year. One community that is showing great interest in becoming part of the trend of launching a new cryptocurrency is start-ups.

Last week, Thai fintech start-up Omise raised $25 million in an ICO to develop a decentralized payment platform. The company had already raised $20 million in traditional VC funding.

Rahul Sood's esports betting company Unikrn is launching its own cryptocurrency called UnikoinGold as the way to place esports bets on its platform. Unikrn has raised $10 million from Mark Cuban, Shari Redstone's Advancit Capital, Elisabeth Murdoch's Freelands Ventures and others.

However, social messaging company Kik has bigger plans for its upcoming ICO. In a recent talk given by Kik founder and CEO Ted Livingston, he explained that Kik saw its ICO of a currency called Kin as a potential alternative exit for them.

Like the Omise and Unikrn examples, Kik has also raised traditional venture capital money — more than $120 million, including $50 million from Tencent most recently valuing the company at $1 billion. Kik's ICO will help bring it more money. Kik will sell 10 percent of its Kin currency (half to institutional investors and half to retail investors). Kik will keep 30 percent of Kin and 60 percent of Kin will be overseen by a nonprofit Kin Foundation aimed at making Kin a popular cryptocurrency. That foundation will give away 20 percent of its stock of Kin every year to developers and others who help build out the economy for Kin.

Kin will be used as the currency on the Kik social network for things like emojis, stickers, hosting and participating in group chats, building apps like bots, etc. However, the stated goal is for Kin to also be used as currency outside of the Kik app.

Even if stays confined within the Kik community, Kik has 15 million monthly active users. It's currently ranked in the 60s in terms of popularity on the App Store. That community alone will make the currency among the more popular cryptocurrencies.

But here is what's interesting, Livingston said that, if all goes well, this ICO could be Kik's liquidity event. Up until now, Kik has been thinking it had to translate its popular youthful community chat service into ad dollars in order to make a successful business — similar to what Facebook has done. The problem is that Facebook and Google continue to suck up more and more of the ad dollars that are getting spent in the space.

Livingston said in the talk that the penny dropped for him when he saw Snap's S-1 IPO filing in February. Here was a young Facebook competitor seemingly doing everything right and yet still failing in its growth of its ad-based revenue. If Snap was failing, Livingston thought, what hope did Kik have of building a better ad mouse trap?

Yet, he thought, if Kik could develop a cryptocurrency that became a self-sustaining economy — and Kik owned a big chunk of that supply limited currency — the value of that stake in Kin could end up being more valuable than the potential exit valuation for Kik as an ad-based business in an IPO or through an acquisition. Luckily, one of Kik's earliest investors was Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures, also a big investor in the cryptocurrency space. He agreed with Ted.

Can you name the fourth most popular cryptocurrency? It's Litecoin and has a market cap of $2.5 billion. If Kin got that kind of valuation — and with an established community of 15 million monthly active users, it could be a currency worth more — Kik's 30 percent stake in Kin would be worth $750 million, almost equal to the valuation of Kik's last round. If Kin became as valuable as Ripple — the third most popular cryptocurrency today — Kik's stake would be worth $2.5 billion.

Livingston pointed out that, in this kind of scenario, an exit via M&A or an IPO would be unnecessary for Kik. Its existing backers could simply convert their shares into Kin and liquidate them. Kik could stop trying to win advertiser dollars, if it wanted. It could simply focus on developing the community's use of Kin and helping Kin proliferate outside of the Kik ecosystem.

In this scenario, according to Livingston, "we just step back and watch it continue."

Will it work out this way? Possibly for some lucky start-ups but certainly not for all. The world likely doesn't need 1,000 different cryptocurrencies. The current gold rush mentality with ICOs will probably only get bigger in the months and years to come but will probably also meet the inevitable bust of the dot-com era.

But some cryptocurrencies will endure — especially ones with strong use cases and/or communities supporting them. It's intriguing to imagine if some ad-dependent companies like Kik will opt to stop competing with Facebook and Google on a battlefield they can never succeed at and go for an alternative cryptocurrency path to value creation.

Kik is truly breaking new ground with its ICO. It will be intriguing to see if it causes other unicorns to follow its lead.

Commentary by Eric Jackson, sign up for Eric's monthly Tech & Media Email. You can follow Eric on Twitter @ericjackson .

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Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Snap