Initial Coin Offering (ICOs): Everything to Know

By  Beluga Research September 11, 2023

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  • In cryptocurrency, an initial coin offering (ICO) is a crowdfunding method wherein projects sell tokens for funding, often before full development
  • ICOs allow cryptocurrency projects to raise capital by issuing and distributing tokens to investors
  • Participating in an ICO involves thorough research, and investors must understand the nature of the tokens they acquire, whether they are utility tokens or security tokens
  • Participants must also acquire the necessary cryptocurrency, set up a digital wallet and follow the project's instructions for contributing and receiving tokens


In cryptocurrency, an "initial coin offering" (ICO) is a crowdfunding method wherein projects sell tokens for funding, often before full development. ICOs are used by blockchain-based projects and startups to raise capital. During an ICO, projects issue personalized cryptocurrency tokens or coins and sell them to the public in exchange for established cryptocurrencies like bitcoin or ether. Investors purchase these tokens with the expectation that values will increase as the project develops and becomes more valuable.

A Brief History

ICOs originated in 2013 with the "Mastercoin" project, which conducted the first-ever ICO, raising around 5,000 BTC. Ethereum's ICO in 2014 marked a breakthrough moment, raising over 31,000 BTC and ushering in a new era for token sales. Since then, ICOs have become popular, but concerns about fraud and lack of regulations have also emerged.

ICOs: Everything to Know

  • Purpose and Function . ICOs raise capital for blockchain projects. By selling tokens to investors, projects can fund platforms, technology or applications. ICOs also help to engage the community and build a user base early on.
  • Token Types . Tokens issued through ICOs can serve different functions. They can be "utility tokens," providing access to a platform or service, or "security tokens," offering ownership rights or dividends. Investors must understand the nature of the tokens they acquire and the associated rights.
  • White Paper . Projects usually publish a "white paper" before launching an ICO. The white paper outlines the project's vision, goals and technical details. Investors should review this to assess the project's technology, use cases and roadmap.
  • Token Sale Process . During an ICO, the token sale occurs through a smart contract. Investors send funds (usually bitcoin or ether) to the smart contract address and receive tokens in return. The sale may have different phases, such as "private," "pre-sale" and "public," with varying token prices and bonus structures.
  • Regulatory Considerations . Regulatory bodies scrutinize token sales to protect investors from fraudulent ICOs. Regulations vary across jurisdictions, so investors should be aware of the legal framework governing ICOs in specific jurisdictions to ensure compliance and mitigate risks.
  • Risk Factors . Investing in ICOs carries risks, including the possibility of losing the entire investment or facing market volatility. Due to scams and fraudulent projects, thorough due diligence is crucial. Evaluating the project's team, technology, roadmap and community support can help investors to make informed decisions.

Getting Started

To participate in an ICO, investors should first thoroughly research the project conducting the ICO. It is important to understand the project's goals, team, technology and roadmap to make an informed investment decision. A good place to start with research can include reading the project's white paper, exploring the website and assessing the online presence.

Once an investor has chosen a project in which to invest, they must acquire the necessary cryptocurrency for the ICO. Most ICOs require popular cryptocurrencies like bitcoin (BTC) or ether (ETH), which can be acquired through an exchange or other means. After obtaining the required cryptocurrency, the investor should set up a digital wallet that is reputable and supports the specific cryptocurrency needed for the ICO.

With cryptocurrency and a wallet in place, the investor is ready to participate in the ICO. The investor should visit the project's website and follow the provided instructions, as the project will specify the contribution address and required cryptocurrency amount. This information should be double-checked for accuracy.

After sending the contribution to the specified address, the investor will receive the project's tokens or coins. These tokens represent the investor's investment and may have various utilities within the project's ecosystem. It is necessary for the investor to keep track of and securely store these tokens in the digital wallet previously obtained.

Unique Aspects

ICOs have unique aspects that differentiate them from traditional fundraising methods. One aspect is global accessibility. Unlike traditional methods limited by geography or accredited investors, ICOs are open to anyone with an internet connection. This accessibility democratizes investment opportunities and allows individuals worldwide to participate in innovative projects.

Another aspect is the potential for high returns. Investing in early-stage projects through ICOs can lead to significant price appreciation if the project succeeds. Early investors in successful ICOs have earned substantial returns. However, it is important to note that ICO investments carry high risks, as many projects fail to deliver on promises.

ICOs also provide a direct fundraising avenue for project founders, bypassing intermediaries like banks or venture capitalists. This model allows founders to maintain control over projects and avoid lengthy bureaucratic processes. ICOs also benefit projects facing geographical or regulatory funding constraints.


  • Access to Capital . ICOs allow early-stage projects to raise funds without relying on traditional venture capital or bank loans.
  • Global Reach . Many ICOs attract investors from different parts of the world, increasing the potential investor base.
  • Democratization . ICOs enable anyone with an internet connection to invest in promising projects, promoting financial inclusion.
  • Liquidity . Tokens purchased through ICOs can be traded on cryptocurrency exchanges, providing potential liquidity.
  • Early Adoption Benefits . ICO participants can be early adopters of innovative blockchain projects, potentially reaping significant rewards.
  • Token Utility . ICOs often issue tokens that have utility within the project's ecosystem, providing holders with access to specific services, products or benefits.
  • Transparency . Many ICOs publish white papers and project details, allowing investors to make informed decisions.
  • Community Building . ICOs help create communities around projects, fostering engagement and collaboration.


  • Lack of Regulation . The lack of regulatory oversight regarding ICOs exposes investors to potential scams and fraudulent projects.
  • Investor Protection . ICOs offer limited investor protection, increasing the risk of loss due to project failure or malicious intent.
  • Volatility . The cryptocurrency market is highly volatile, and ICO investments are subject to market fluctuations, potentially leading to significant losses.
  • Lack of Due Diligence . Some ICO investors may not conduct thorough due diligence, leading to investments in projects with weak fundamentals or unrealistic promises.
  • Market Saturation . The ICO market has become saturated, making it more challenging for projects to attract sufficient funding.
  • Centralization of Tokens . ICOs can lead to a significant concentration of tokens in the hands of a few individuals or entities, potentially impacting decentralization.
  • Regulatory Uncertainty . The evolving regulatory landscape surrounding ICOs creates uncertainty and can hinder market development.
  • Exit Scams . There have been instances where projects have conducted ICOs and disappeared with investor funds, highlighting the risks associated with fraudulent schemes.