We're All in This Together
Bitcoin entrepreneurs have yet to appreciate fully collaborative nature of the Bitcoin economy and its implications for entrepreneurial strategy. Every successful entrepreneurial act improves the Bitcoin economy and attracts more people in, thus raising the value of the coins. Each new service benefits everyone else who is already invested. Consequently, Bitcoin businesses do not necessarily need to see themselves as competitors to one another. Even if they have the same business model, they both have more to gain from the influx of new users from outside than by taking customers from one another.
Furthermore, the growth of any Bitcoin business is limited ultimately by the growth of Bitcoin itself. Since the number of coins is strictly capped, the currency must grow with its price. This means that few businesses, if any, can be expected to earn a much better return than the coin itself over time. Entrepreneurs should therefore invest in coins, not businesses, because coins are where the profit is. In addition, if Bitcoin fails, then the Bitcoin businesses fail—so Bitcoin is less risky than any Bitcoin business too. Thus, Bitcoin entrepreneurs should be less interested in making money than in making bitcoins into money. An entrepreneur who follows that precept should generally be expected to be more successful than otherwise because the potential for Bitcoin itself is so much greater than any Bitcoin business he could invest in.
Of course, Bitcoin cannot succeed without businesses, or at least some sort of entrepreneurship. What is the best way to fund ventures in an environment in which they are relatively poor investments? The trick, I propose, is to think of these ventures more as donations to the Bitcoin economy than as profit-seeking ventures. Any useful Bitcoin service will tend to make the Bitcoin price increase because it adds value to the network. It may, therefore, be perfectly rational for a Bitcoin investor to contribute the service to the economy for free. Furthermore, the success of such a business being desired by everyone who holds coins, such a business can be run more like a non-profit or open-source project than an business. Thus, a new venture may attract investment even if it is not profitable as long as it provides a service the Bitcoin world needs.
In mid 2013 Armory, an open-source Bitcoin wallet project, received $600k in seed funding without even though nobody knows how it will eventually be monetized. These people have the right idea, but they shouldn't try to monetize it at all—it is obviously making all the coins more valuable.
Don't be a venture capitalist—be a speculative philanthropist.
Labor Is Scarcer than Ideas
The task ahead of us is monumental—the construction of a new financial economy to replace the one built around the national currencies. This will take a lot of work. Unfortunately, a lot of work is being wasted right now. The venture capitalists are looking to invest in a sharp team with a cool idea but the group of people that matters most is the entire network of Bitcoin users, and the idea that matters most is Bitcoin itself. Big new ideas get hyped up almost every week around here, and the Bitcoin economy will work a lot better if people would try harder to ignore them.
There are lots of business ideas floating around and limited time to create them. Only ideas that have a very high probably of being an important part of the future Bitcoin economy should be implemented because that is all we have time for and those are the only ideas worth risking Bitcoins on.
The proof that ideas aren't scarce is that anybody can make his own altcoin at any time. Already there are hundreds, and every one of them a bad idea from people who don't understand the cumulative benefits of cooperation. Since entrepreneurs don't understand Bitcoin very well yet, it is easy to dazzle them with technobabble and funnel investment into flawed projects like Protoshares, Mastercoin, and Ethereum that have a very low probability of furthering Bitcoin adoption to any significant degree.
There is no real reason to keep secrets because the more that everyone knows about what everyone else is doing, the more easily they can decide what the Bitcoin economy most needs of them. Everything about a business can be done openly for the benefit of the entire industry. Product development, future plans, market research, finances; everything except private customer data, which shouldn't be collected anyway, and, in the case of illegal Tor businesses, the real identities and locations of the owners. We need open business and open businesses.
Entrepreneurship as a Collaborative Scientific Enterprise
In an open-business world, less experimentation is necessary to produce a workable system than among other businesses because there is no reason to keep secrets from one another. All trial-and-error should immediately benefit all the other Bitcoin entrepreneurs so that everyone can more easily figure out the most effective way to work. Open business as a generally accepted best practice would have eliminated terrible businesses like MtGox and Butterfly Labs early on. But even that would have been too late. Everything possible should be done to try to eliminate ideas before they can turn into failed businesses. That means sharing all ideas with the community, and investing in nothing that does not already have widespread community support.
Much of the Bitcoin world already works very openly. Lots of terrible ideas get shot down all the time in the Bitcointalk.com forums. All the software is open source. However, more is required: Bitcoin entrepreneurship should be run more like scientific research than a gold rush or an Internet bubble. There should be open research into the future Bitcoin economy, complete with peer review and consensus over which ideas are the most useful and important. Investment should focus on ideas that already have been vetted by the community. It should be considered reprehensible for startups to invent their own cryptographic algorithms.
It is too much of a waste of resources to test ideas in experiments with real businesses. All business models ought to be carefully critiqued beforehand and only the most necessary ones that we have time for should be created. This is not central planning; it is consensus-based entrepreneurship. No one shall be forced to follow any idea at all; it is simply in everyone's best interest to cooperate. If I am right, then soon investors will learn to back only heavily vetted ideas and entrepreneurs will it as well.
In the early Renaissance, mathematics was practiced in secret and mathematicians carefully guarded their own discoveries because a mathematicians' career depended on being able to show patrons that he could solve problems other mathematicians could not. However, in 1545, Gerolamo Cardano sparked a new trend with Ars Magna, the first published work to include the general solutions of the cubic and quartic equations. He even included secret work (with citation) by Niccolò Fontana Tartaglia, which whom Cardano had promised not to reveal. Gradually, mathematics transformed into a tradition characterized by publication rather than secrets. Open-access publishing is now demanded. Entrepreneurship is in its Renaissance still.
In a low-growth economy, one grows rich by carefully leveraging one's skills and assets so as to negotiate the most profitable trades. In other words, wealth comes from performing better than everyone else. It makes sense to guard closely any edge that one might have. Whereas in a high-growth economy, wealth comes from doing as well as everyone else. It is more difficult to improve one's state relative to everyone else than to enjoy the overall growth that improves everybody's state.1
The Bitcoin world understands this instinctively, but needs to take it to its logical conclusion. The entire Bitcoin economy needs to be open-sourced. This is how to make Bitcoin succeed most quickly and with the least effort, which is the best outcome for everyone.
Let's get to work.
In a post-singularity world, everything should be expected to grow at a phenomenal rate, similar to the growth of the Bitcoin economy today. Thus, I would expect the attitude of sharing and collaboration should apply generally. ↩