Historically, new models of computing have tended to emerge every 10-15 years: mainframes in the 60s, PCs in the late 70s, the internet in the early 90s, and smartphones in the late 2000s. Each computing model enabled new classes of applications that built on the unique strengths of the platform. For example, smartphones were the first truly personal computers with built-in sensors like GPS and high-resolution cameras. Applications like Instagram, Snapchat, and Uber/Lyft took advantage of these unique capabilities and are now used by billions of people.
Blockchain computers were first proposed in 2008 by Satoshi Nakamoto in the Bitcoin whitepaper. Those original ideas have since been dramatically expanded by developers and researchers around the world. Blockchain computers are new types of computers where the unique capability is trust between users, developers, and the platform itself. This trust emerges from the mathematical and game-theoretic properties of the system, without depending on the trustworthiness of individual network participants. In exchange for these new capabilities, blockchain computers trade off other capabilities such as transaction scalability. This can lead people to dismiss them, in the same way people dismissed early smartphones because they traded off computing power and screen size for portability and new sensors.
Trust is a new software primitive from which other components can be constructed. The first and most prominent example is digital money, made famous by Bitcoin. But, as we’ve discovered over the past few years, many other software components can be constructed using the building blocks of trust. Smart contract platforms like Ethereum enable the creation of, among other things, application-specific currencies, digital property rights, open financial instruments, and software-based organizations.
From these components, in turn, new infrastructure and applications can be constructed. For example, developers are working on upgrading the core infrastructure of the internet, including storage, networking, identity, and distributed computation. Stablecoins can enable more mainstream user experiences for digital payments and financial services. Cryptogoods can unlock new experiences and business models for games and other forms of media. Entrepreneurs are developing crypto-powered financial services like the tokenization of traditional assets, and payment services for the unbanked. We expect many other applications to emerge in the coming years.
The new primitive of trust also means that 3rd-party developers, entrepreneurs, and creators can build on top of crypto-powered platforms without worrying about whether the rules of the game will change later on. In an era in which the internet is increasingly controlled by a handful of large tech incumbents, it’s more important than ever to create the right economic conditions for developers, creators, and entrepreneurs. Trust also enables new kinds of governance where communities collectively make important decisions about how networks evolve, what behaviors are permitted, and how economic benefits are distributed.
There are other important trends happening in computing, including the emergence of next-gen computing devices like VR & AR, self-driving cars, drones, and IoT devices. Recent developments in artificial intelligence are extremely exciting and will enable computers to more intelligently interact with the world. We believe that just as the last three megatrends — mobile, social, and cloud — intersected and reinforced each other, so will the next three megatrends — next-gen computing devices, AI, and crypto.
Although the Bitcoin whitepaper is now almost 10 years old, we believe we are still early in the crypto movement. The infrastructure needs to be improved and the applications are difficult for non-early adopters to use. Many crypto applications still get dismissed as toys. We believe this will change quickly. For one, crypto is purely a software movement and doesn’t depend on a hardware buildout, in contrast to, say, the internet, which required laying cables and building cell towers. Second, the space is developing extremely rapidly, partly because the code, data, and knowledge is largely open source, and partly because of the increasing inflow of talent.
Finally, we are optimistic because we are deep believers in the power of software. Software is simply the encoding of human thought, and as such has an almost unbounded design space. We find ourselves consistently surprised and excited by the wide variety of creative crypto ideas we encounter. For those of us who have been involved in software for a long time, it feels like the early days of the internet, web 2.0, or smartphones all over again.
The a16z crypto fund
Today we are announcing the launch of a16z crypto, a $300M venture fund that will invest in crypto companies and protocols. Our fund is designed to include the best features of traditional venture capital, updated to the modern crypto world:
- We are long-term, patient investors. We’ve been investing in crypto assets for 5+ years. We’ve never sold any of those investments, and don’t plan to any time soon. We structured the a16z crypto fund to be able to hold investments for 10+ years.
- We have an “all weather” fund. We plan to invest consistently over time, regardless of market conditions. If there is another “crypto winter,” we’ll keep investing aggressively.
- We provide operational support to entrepreneurs. Our crypto investments have access to the same 80+ person a16z operating teams as do our non-crypto investments. Our operating teams have deep expertise in executive and technical recruiting, regulatory affairs, communications and marketing, and general startup management. We are responsible participants in the governance of companies and the governance of networks.
- We are flexible with respect to stage, asset type, and geography. One reason we created a new fund is to have maximum flexibility. We invest at all stages, from seed stage pre-launch projects to fully developed later-stage networks like Bitcoin and Ethereum. We’ll invest in traditional financial instruments like equity or convertible notes, and new instruments including the direct purchase of coins/tokens. Crypto is a global phenomenon, with great projects all around the world, and we’ll invest accordingly.
- We are focused on non-speculative use case. We want services powered by crypto protocols to be used by hundreds of millions and eventually billions of people. Crypto tokens are the native asset class of digital networks, but their value is driven by the underlying, practical uses cases.
We’ve assembled a team of crypto specialists to lead our investment effort: myself, Ali, Hilary, Jesse, Denis, Corban, Michelle, and our newest General Partner, Katie Haun.