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The race to create the Amazon or Instagram of cryptocurrency

  • Although the extreme hype around blockchain and cryptocurrency today attracts hucksters and scammers, investor Chris Dixon and Coinbase founder Fred Ehrsam argue that the significance of the rise of cryptocurrencies is undeniable.
  • Just as Amazon created the first web-native e-commerce site, and Instagram the first mobile-native photo site, somebody's going to create the first blockchain-native business.
  • What could it be? Dixon and Ehrsam had no predictions, but contributor Eric Jackson has some ideas.
Brent Lewis | Denver Post | Getty Images

What will be the first native app that taps into the power of the blockchain, cryptocurrencies and tokens?

That's the provocative question posed last week by venture capital investor Chris Dixon and Coinbase co-founder Fred Ehrsam in Andreessen Horowitz's tech podcast "Why Crypto Tokens Matter."

Although the extreme hype around blockchain and cryptocurrency today attracts hucksters and scammers, Dixon and Ehrsam argue that the significance of the rise of cryptocurrencies is undeniable.

The analogy they use to explain the significance is this: in the way that the web allowed for the programmability of information for the first time, cryptocurrencies and tokens allow for the programmability of money or value for the first time.

The development of the web allowed for new businesses operating at a global scale which the world had never seen before. They believe cryptocurrencies will offer the same potential.

However, Amazon didn't become a $500 billion business overnight. It's taken over 20 years to get to its current size. Dixon and Ehrsam argue that it required the development of a whole ecosystem around Amazon and other web companies – including web servers, databases, logistics, and payment systems – for them to maximize their potential. There will be the same need for a massive build out in infrastructure for cryptocurrencies and tokens to reach the same potential.

But the most intriguing idea in the podcast is how both Dixon and Ehrsam agree that the companies which have the greatest chance to capture the most value with every big wave of technology – such as web, mobile, and now crypto – are the ones who "burn the boats" to yesterday's technology and go all-in on being the first native app for the new wave.

For instance, Amazon set the example when it came to native web apps for e-commerce. Unlike Barnes & Noble, they didn't try to keep one foot in traditional retail with their brick-and-mortar stores and one in the web world. They showed the world what a total focus on e-commerce looked like.

The mobile-only world arrived 10 years ago with the unveiling of the Apple iPhone. However, the initial mobile apps were modeled after websites – cramming a large amount of data fit for a web page on to a tinier mobile screen. Flickr was the dominant photo site in 2007. It created a mobile app for itself but still was geared to you going to your computer and uploading photos.

It wasn't until Instagram came along when the world saw what a mobile-only photo app looked like. For a long time, there wasn't even a webpage for Instagram. Users flocked to it, and Facebook bought it for what seems like a bargain price of $1 billion in 2012. It's still the dominant photo-sharing app today

What this business might look like

So what will be the first "blockchain-only" native business?

Dixon and Ehrsam don't have any predictions of what that business will be or when it will arrive. But it's helpful to think about what such a business could look like, if you're an investor like me and interested in keeping your eyes open to find out what to look for.

To me, what's most interesting about the whole advent of cryptocurrencies in the past year is Etheruem and how it allows for "smart contracts" to program the relationship of money between parties. The basic idea is that, if something happens, then someone should get paid automatically. You can imagine intricate conditional patterns that allow for people to be generate value for themselves automatically while stripping out a bunch of intermediaries which have existed up until now taking out a toll at every step along the way. The businesses that can pop up, go after big markets, and put these old intermediaries out of business should have a big leg up on future competition.

Here are some ideas of possible businesses to look for in the years ahead (and invest in if you're lucky):

  • The first all-blockchain insurance company that only issues policies in smart contract form.
  • Human futures. On my recent podcast with Balaji Srinivasan, he spoke about the company Upstart. It was founded a few years ago with the idea of actually allowing you to invest in an individual's potential future income stream. You could decide to lend to them based on their background and ask for a share in their upside career (almost like an agent). Smart contracts would make that business model feasible. Upstart pivoted away from that model a few years ago but it will be possible in the future.
  • We already have have online law firms like LegalZoom which allow you to more easily incorporate your business for example. What about a law service only focused on creating smart contracts without a lot of expensive overhead of top laywers running around billing by the hour?
  • Why not a LinkedIn career service focused on matching short-term gigs that tap in to your specific expertise and pay you in some cryptocurrency?
  • The first institutional investment bank allowing only blockchain-based trading of securities with immediate settlement. They could also finally crack the IPO code for the perfect "dutch auction" of new issues with a perfect matching of buyers and sellers to the optimal amount of money raised goes to the issuer, instead of the investment banking clients.
  • The first blockchain-based rewards system that rewards participants with special offers if they allow advertisers see when they perform certain tasks or reach certain levels.
  • The first blockchain-based mortgage lender or credit card issuer.
  • With the whole Equifax scandal of the past few weeks, why not a blockchain-based (hyper secure) credit bureau to replace the status quo credit bureaus of today with a promise of better confidentiality and better credit information?

We need to get beyond the Jamie Dimon type of discussion about bitcoin being a fraud or the speculative bubble around cryptocurrencies. Instead, we need to look at the underlying technology around these currencies, especially smart contracts that are programmable and enforceable. These contracts will allow for many new disruptive businesses to be formed on top of them.

If you find the first new "native app" to be built on top of the blockchain in a big product category, it's likely that you'll find an attractive long-term investment.

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