ICO Investing: What You Need to Know Before Investing in Initial Coin Offerings

The transformative power of blockchain technology and its byproducts, primarily cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings (ICOs), has sparked interest from investors globally. But as with any investment opportunity, entering the ICO market requires a solid understanding of what you're signing up for. This extensive guide will delve into ICO investing, equipping you with the knowledge necessary to make informed decisions when investing in ICOs.

Introduction to ICO and Cryptocurrency Investment

What is an ICO (Initial Coin Offering)?

An Initial Coin Offering (ICO) represents a fundraising mechanism wherein startups create and offer their unique digital tokens to early investors in exchange for other established cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum. Unlike traditional fundraising methods that require startups to part ways with company equity, ICOs enable them to raise funds while retaining full ownership.

Moreover, these tokens can serve dual functionalities — providing access to the service offered by the project and potentially accruing profits if the platform succeeds. However, as lucrative as these numbers sound, one should remember that just like every investment avenue, ICOs come with their risks.

The Evolution of ICOs: A Historical Overview

The ICO phenomenon traces its roots back to 2013 when software engineer J.R. Willet penned a pivotal white paper titled "The Second Bitcoin White Paper" for the token MasterCoin (later rebranded as Omni Layer), successfully raising an impressive $600,000 (source). Fast forward to 2014, witnessing the ascent of seven projects that collectively amassed $30 million. Notably, Ethereum took center stage, creating and selling 50 million ether to the public, securing over $18 million in funding.

The momentum continued into 2015, albeit at a quieter pace. Seven sales accumulated $9 million, with Augur leading the pack by raising just over $5 million. The real surge occurred in 2016, with 43 ICOs, including Waves, Iconomi, Golem, and Lisk, collectively raising a substantial $256 million. This period also marked the infamous token sale of The DAO project, an autonomous investment fund aimed at fostering Ethereum ecosystem development, which unfortunately fell victim to hacking (source).

ICO stats from around the world, Source: CoinTelegraph

The year 2017 witnessed a pinnacle in ICO activity, fueled in part by technological advancements. A staggering 342 token issuances raised nearly $5.4 billion (source), thrusting ICOs into the forefront of blockchain innovation. The frenzy was further intensified by ICOs selling out in record time, with project fundamentals taking a backseat as investors eagerly sought to participate in the rapidly evolving landscape.

The Role of Blockchain Technology in ICO

Blockchain technology powers ICOs, supporting the creation and distribution of digital


How Blockchain Technology Powers ICOs

Blockchain refers to a decentralized database or ledger that records transactions across multiple computers. This technology ensures transparency and immutability — once recorded, transactions can't be altered without altering subsequent blocks, which requires consensus from the majority of the network.

In the context of an ICO, blockchain technology facilitates token creation and distribution. When planning an ICO, startups will decide whether they need a new blockchain or if an existing one (like Ethereum’s) would suffice. Once they have their blockchain set up, they create tokens — these are what investors purchase during the ICO.

The transaction records of purchasing these tokens are stored on the blockchain, making it easy for anyone to verify ownership. The decentralized nature of blockchain also means that no central authority has control over these records; rather, control lies with the majority.

How Initial Coin Offerings (ICO) Function

When a cryptocurrency project decides to raise funds through an ICO, the initial step for project organizers is to define the coin's structure. ICOs can take several structural forms, including:

  • Static Supply and Static Price: In this model, a company establishes a specific funding goal or limit. Each token sold in the ICO carries a predetermined price, and the total token supply remains fixed.

  • Static Supply and Dynamic Price: This ICO structure maintains a static supply of tokens while incorporating a dynamic funding goal. The total amount of funds raised during the ICO influences the final price per token.

  • Dynamic Supply and Static Price: Some ICOs adopt a model with a dynamic token supply but a static price. Here, the amount of funding received dictates the overall token supply.

Token structure in ICOs, Source: Investopedia

Cryptocurrency ICOs vs. Stock IPOs

The primary distinction between a cryptocurrency Initial Coin Offering (ICO) and a stock Initial Public Offering (IPO) lies in regulatory oversight. In the case of an IPO, a company seeking to go public must adhere to mandatory registration requirements, producing a comprehensive legal document known as a "prospectus." This prospectus serves as a formal declaration of the company's intention to offer shares to the public, and it must meet rigorous transparency standards. Key information about the company and the upcoming IPO is detailed within the prospectus, aiding potential investors in making well-informed decisions.

Conversely, recent U.S. regulatory actions indicate that ICOs are subject to regulatory requirements primarily if they involve security tokens, as opposed to utility tokens (explained in more detail below). However, due to the nascent nature of regulatory frameworks for ICOs, conducting investor assessments and due diligence is notably more challenging. This stands in contrast to the regulated processes governing stock IPOs, which are meticulously overseen by accounting firms and investment banks, providing investors with a higher level of information and security.

Investing in ICO: What You Need to Know

Before you embark on your ICO investment journey, it's important to understand the associated risks and rewards.

The Risks and Rewards of ICO Investing

While the allure of high returns can be irresistible, potential investors should not lose sight of the inherent risks that come with ICO investing. The lack of regulatory oversight makes it a fertile ground for scams. It's not uncommon to come across projects that simply vanish after raising funds through an ICO.

It's also worth noting that investing in an ICO doesn't grant you any ownership rights in the company. Instead, what you get is a promise in the form of tokens, which may or may not increase in value depending on how successful the project becomes.

On the flip side, if the project you've invested in goes on to become successful, your tokens could multiply in value. Additionally, these tokens may give you access to specific services provided by the project.

Key Factors to Consider Before Investing in ICOs

Here are some key factors that could help you make an informed decision:

1. Project Whitepaper: This is a document released by projects planning an ICO. It details critical aspects like its goals, funding needs, token distribution, accepted payment methods, and campaign duration. Scrutinize this document thoroughly before deciding to invest.

2. Management Team: Look into who is behind the project — their experience with cryptography and blockchain technology can be indicative of their ability to deliver on their promises.

3. Legal Terms and Conditions: Review these carefully for any red flags that might indicate potential fraud.

4. Escrow Wallet: Funds deposited in an escrow wallet are only released to the project once it hits certain milestones. This offers some protection against scams.

5. Transparency: This is key when evaluating ICO projects. Look for clear goals and straightforward white papers.

Understanding Crypto Tokens in ICO

Crypto tokens play a pivotal role in ICOs, giving potential investors access to the platform's services and a stake in its success.

The Role of Crypto Tokens in ICOs

Crypto tokens are digital assets that companies create and distribute during an ICO. They provide access to the platform's services — for instance, a token could allow you to play games on a blockchain-based gaming platform or grant you transaction rights on a crypto exchange. Tokens fall into distinct categories based on their purpose, being classified as either utility tokens or security tokens.

Utility Tokens:

Utility tokens, also known as "user tokens" or "app coins," symbolize future access to a business's products or services. These tokens serve as a unique avenue for ICO startups to secure funding for their blockchain projects, offering users a glimpse into the future access they'll gain. Unlike traditional investments in company shares, utility tokens, when structured appropriately, are exempt from federal securities regulations.

Imagine utility tokens as 'digital coupons' for services in development, akin to pre-orders for highly anticipated video games. Filecoin, for instance, successfully raised $257 million by selling tokens that grant users access to its decentralized cloud storage program. To distance themselves from the term "ICO," businesses are embracing alternatives such as "token generation events" and "token distribution events" to underscore their focus on utility rather than securities.

Difference between Utility & Security tokens, Source: Bitpanda

Security Tokens:

On the flip side, we have Security Tokens, which derive value from external tradable assets or the efforts of others. If a token falls into this category, it may be subject to federal securities regulations, and non-compliance could lead to severe penalties. Adhering to regulatory obligations is paramount. Once properly classified, security tokens unlock various possibilities, with one of the most promising being the ability to issue tokens representing shares of company stock.

However, bear in mind that owning any kind of token doesn't give you any ownership of the company itself. It simply gives you access to their product or service and may potentially accrue value if the platform succeeds.

How to Evaluate Crypto Tokens Before Investing

Before buying tokens during an ICO, consider factors like:

  • Token Supply: Is it static (i.e. fixed) or dynamic? Depending on this, the token's price could be pre-set or determined based on the level of funding received.

  • Project Viability: Does the token offer real value? Does it integrate seamlessly with the project’s objective?

  • Market Potential: Is there enough demand for the product or service that utilizes this token?

  • Competitive landscape: How does this token fare against competitors? Is it offering anything unique?

Legal Scrutiny Surrounding ICOs

As the spotlight intensified on Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), so did the scrutiny surrounding their legal standing. In 2017, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a cautionary statement, emphasizing that any digital asset sold to U.S. investors exhibiting security-like characteristics must adhere to U.S. securities laws to avoid facing penalties.

Gary Gensler, the current SEC Chairman, goes a step further, expressing the view that all ICOs should be classified as securities (source), potentially paving the way for more class-action lawsuits. Simultaneously, South Korea and China implemented outright bans on ICOs (source), with Thailand following suit a year later by temporarily halting token offerings while regulators crafted a new legal framework.

Conclusion: Is ICO Investing Right for You?

Investing in ICOs involves navigating a high-risk landscape that may deter even seasoned investors. The sector's vulnerability to regulatory uncertainties and the prevalence of scams make it a challenging terrain. However, for those willing to embrace the risks, ICOs offer a unique opportunity to participate in innovative projects from their inception, potentially yielding high rewards. It is paramount, though, for investors to exercise caution and only allocate funds they can afford to lose.

To navigate this complex landscape successfully, thorough research is imperative. Understanding the project's fundamentals, scrutinizing the team, and assessing the viability of the proposed concept are crucial steps. In addition to project-specific analysis, staying informed about regulatory developments and industry trends is essential. In summary, while ICOs hold promise for innovation and financial gains, a cautious and informed approach is crucial due to the inherent uncertainties and challenges in this evolving investment space.


Q: What do investors typically receive in Initial Coin Offerings (ICO)?

A: Investors usually receive crypto tokens that provide access to the platform's services and may accrue value if the platform becomes successful.

Q: What determines success in initial coin offerings?

A: The success of Initial Coin Offerings depends on how well the project delivers on its promises as outlined in its whitepaper, often dictated by the project's viability and market demand.

Q: How do initial coin offerings work?

A: Initial Coin Offerings work by offering digital tokens or coins from a startup company to investors in exchange for other cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or Ethereum.

Q: What is the difference between ICO and token offering?

A: Initial Coin Offerings (ICO) refers to startups selling their unique cryptocurrency tokens to raise capital. On the other hand, a token sale typically involves selling tokens that already exist within a specific blockchain ecosystem.

Q: How do you structure initial coin offerings?

A: The approach towards structuring an ICO differs among startups but most include creating a detailed white paper outlining project goals, funding needs, token distribution mechanics, accepted payment methods, and campaign duration. The company then sells tokens during the Initial Coin Offerings phase in exchange for other established cryptocurrencies.

Q: How do I make my ICO successful?

A: Building a strong team with experience in blockchain technology, creating a whitepaper that transparently outlines your project's objectives and funding needs, building community support, establishing partnerships with credible organizations, and ensuring regulatory compliance can boost your ICO's chances of success.

Q: How do you structure initial coin offerings?

A: Structuring Initial Coin Offerings (ICO) involves outlining the project's mission, the role of the token in the project, the distribution of tokens, and a roadmap detailing the project’s future. This information is often presented in a project whitepaper.

Q: What makes a successful ICO?

A: A successful ICO typically consists of a strong, experienced team, a well-articulated white paper with detailed goals and realistic funding needs, an innovative and feasible project idea, strong community support, and adherence to legal requirements and regulations.