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Tuur Demeester


Bitcoin and Cryptocurrency Markets:

Last year in Review, Outlook 2018
Here are my thoughts on the current state of the market, the events that led up to it, and
expected future developments.1

Fork Wars
2017 was the year of the Bitcoin fork wars, the year where the door to second layer scaling
was opened, and also the year where for the first time we saw both institutions and the
public at large begin to participate in the ecosystem.

Bitcoin’s dominance in the cryptocurrency space was challenged for the first time in March
’17, only 10 months ago, when its Dominance Index dropped from 85% to 66% in 30 days. In
my opinion, that was directly related to the first real run-up in Bitcoin fees, where on-chain
transaction fees occasionally exceeded $1 that same month. The fees were fueled by higher
demand for Bitcoin’s blockchain space, as $XBT broke through $1,200 for the first time since
late 2013.

Interestingly, and also contributing to fear and doubt, March is also the month where a group
of people started heavily promoting Bitcoin Unlimited, a hard-fork which was designed to
implement flexible blocks of a much larger size, leading to reduced transaction fees. Bitcoin
Core developers were abhorred in unison by the serious security and centralization concerns
of this project, as well as by its poorly executed codebase. This hard-fork controversy, with
the related replay attack risks, started slowly undermining investors’ confidence in the
security of the Bitcoin network. Also the merging of segwit was still very uncertain at that
point, which mortgaged Bitcoin’s future as a payment network (segwit is an important
building block for the lightning network).

With the hard-fork threat picking up speed, and with investors finally becoming aware of the
space limitations of Bitcoin’s blockchain, the narratives of some other projects became
attractive: Ethereum offered cheaper transactions and immediate smart contracts. Also
Ripple looked exciting, with its fast transactions and rumors that it could replace Swift one
day. The Ethereum smart contract application that gained huge traction was the standard
ERC20 smart contract, which allowed anyone to create a new coin on top of ETH without
needing technical skills: the ICO phenomenon. By August 2017, over 100 ICOs had been
launched in that way. The total number of ICOs is ​estimated​ at 235, though it looks like the
phenomenon peaked in September.

​The views and ​opinions​ expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the
official policy or position of any corporate entity. This document is strictly private, confidential and personal to its

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Back in Bitcoin, after several bugs exposed the incompetence of Bitcoin Unlimited’s
developers in March, things were quiet on the fork front for a while, until in late May the “​New
York Agreement​” was published, in which a number of CEOs and Bitcoin miners vowed to
merge segwit with a soft-fork (leading to more capacity on-chain), as well as to hard-fork
Bitcoin to also double the block size. This project became known as Segwit2X.

Among Bitcoin developers and holders there was shock and a sense that the upgrade
mechanism of miner activated soft forks (MASF) was being abused to impose a contentious
hard-fork onto the community. In retaliation, a grassroots political movement sprung up
around BIP148, a user activated soft fork (​UASF​), which if supported by enough nodes could
successfully boycott the miners’ hard-fork project and adopt segwit anyway. It was quite a
reckless initiative, as it could have caused a Bitcoin chain split, but it succeeded in
pressuring Bitcoin miners to activate segwit before the August 1st deadline. It was during
this period of trepidation in Bitcoin that Ethereum investors became excited about ‘the
flippening’, the idea that Ethereum’s market cap would overtake Bitcoin’s.

After segwit merged successfully, Bitmain (largest ASIC mining chip manufacturer)
unexpectedly launched “Bitcoin Cash” on Aug 1st via a hard fork of the protocol, creating a
segwit-less altcoin with 8MB blocks - the strategy behind this project would become more
clear by the end of the year. Late summer is also when the markets started to digest the
SEC Guidance on Initial Coin Offerings​.

In the fall, with the merging of Segwit and with the chain split danger fading, Bitcoin rallied
strong and saw its dominance climb back up from 38% to 61% in November. LedgerX’s
Bitcoin futures platform went ​live​ on October 20, and on Oct 31st the ​news broke​ that the
CME was working on a Bitcoin futures contract - which went live on Dec 17.

Soon though, the signers of the “​New York Agreement​” started pushing for a new hard-fork
in order to execute the “2X” part of the plan, and complete what they called a necessary
“upgrade” to Bitcoin. Once more, core developers expressed their concern with the
hastiness and lack of peer review associated with this hard-fork. Mere hours before the
planned hard-fork, on Nov 8, Segwit2X was called off because of lack of support. Now
Bitmain’s gameplan kicked into gear: rather than throwing all their support back behind the
Bitcoin Core client, Chinese miners funneled massive amounts of hashpower to Bitcoin Cash
($BCH). The temporary drain in hashrate from Bitcoin caused transactions to slow down,
resulting in anxiety among investors. It’s noteworthy that a month earlier already, Bitmain
had started accumulating $BCH by making it the only token they accepted for buyers of their
mining rigs.

Bitcoin’s competition
Before going into my expectations for 2018, let me briefly share my views on what are
currently viewed as Bitcoin’s main competitors.

My view on ​Bitcoin Cash​ is that it has no future as a decentralized currency. It’s an asset
(or a pump and dump at worst) designed by miners who feel threatened by second layer

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scaling, and who think that bigger blocks means more fee income going forward. In order for
it to reach Visa level transaction volumes, Bitcoin Cash would need blocks that are *a
million* times larger than Bitcoin: 1 terabyte instead of 1 megabyte. This would push up the
cost of running a node to ​between $400k and $1M per year​, likely killing the decentralized
nature of the network. And for Bitcoin Cash itself, bigger blocks is the ​only way forward​: it
has no segwit, which makes it incompatible with Lightning Network applications.

My impression of ​Ethereum​ is that it’s fighting an uphill battle because it violates one of the
primary laws in how to scale software: ​modularity​. By opting against a rigid, robust primary
layer and instead for a ​turing vulnerable​ network, it has created a pandora’s box that every
number of months creates new issues that need active interventionism to be mended. This is
an important reason of why there are not more institutional products built on ETH - it’s simply
too buggy. I also struggle to see how Ethereum will scale. Something like Lightning is
possible on ETH (they call it “​Raiden​”), but that seems to only work for simple transactions,
not for the smart contracts. Sharding is an ​unproven​ theoretical construct, which involves
clipping the blockchain into many pieces and then somehow trying to maintain the integrity of
the total history. And proof-of-stake is also unproven and comes with ​many fundamental
problems​. Ironically, one of the more realistic scaling solutions appears to be to keep the
main chain for transaction settlements and to move the smart contract execution to
sidechains, which, if pushed to the limit, would mean that ETH simply turns into a less
secure Bitcoin.

Ripple​ is a centrally controlled digital currency / payment rails which by definition is not a
competitor for Bitcoin. There may be a chance that it could become a better SWIFT (the
probability of which I find difficult to assess), but there’s no chance that it’d ever turn into
digital gold for lack of censorship resistance and political neutrality. So in my view the Ripple
project is similar to the ​intranet projects​ of the nineties: interesting and potentially valuable,
but not the same explosive potential as the internet.

Monero​ is a cryptocurrency with improved privacy at the cost of transactions taking more
space on the blockchain. On a philosophical level I see Monero (together with ZCash) as a
valid contender for Bitcoin’s “value anchor” throne, because better privacy makes an asset
more gold-like. Part of the value of physical gold is that I can melt a coin, blend it with other
gold, and thereby completely erase (“reset”) any history that was associated with that piece.
In this sense physical gold is almost perfectly fungible. So it makes sense that there’s a
cryptocurrency out there with privacy features out of the box. That said, Bitcoin’s market lead
and developer momentum is massive, and it has a growing toolbox of ways to help users
protect privacy where needed - so I don’t see an existential threat.

Forward outlook
First I’ll share my views on the market dynamics, then some comments on the trends and
technical advancements I see come into play in 2018.

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Reactionary narratives (“better than BTC because… ”) likely to continue

My view is that most of the major movements in the cryptocurrency market last year were a
reaction to Bitcoin, which illustrates its fundamental strength. One exception was perhaps
Ethereum which had a new narrative - smart contracts & ICOs. To illustrate how reactionary
the trends were: Early in the year, we saw Bitcoin transaction fees go up, and people started
buying XRP in response. Then with the threat of a Bitcoin chain split (UASF), people were
promoting the Ethereum "​flippening​" idea, implying that ETH would become the dominant
value anchor in the space. As Ethereum experienced a series of technical problems and
regulatory challenges, Bitcoin rolled its muscle with a phoenix-like rally from $4,000 in
September to +$19,000 in December.

Source:, Adamant Capital

And then Bitcoin stagnated and was apparently challenged again:

● Mid and especially micro cap altcoins rallied strongly, alongside dozens of ICOs
● ETH rose to new USD denominated all time highs
● XRP saw a huge rally, as well as IOTA and others

To me this is likely the result of two dynamics: a blow-off top in Bitcoin where investors try to
‘diversify’ their exposure by buying altcoins, and lots of new speculators coming in, seeing
Bitcoin as “too expensive” or as “too controversial” and seeking their own 1,000% rallies.

I see the “​junk coin index”​ (sum of non-top 10 coins’ market caps) as an indicator of the
gambling mentality in the space. These coins often are back of the merely napkin business
plans with a token slapped on, and if they do already have a native blockchain, it usually
shows hardly any transaction activity. Trading is very hype-driven, so liquidity can dry up
overnight. It doesn’t help that the more obscure tokens are traded on the less reputable

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exchanges. In early 2014, at the height of the previous period of cryptocurrency exuberance,
this “junk coin index” only counted for 8.5% of the total market cap, today it’s well over 20%.
I imagine that when these people exit, most will go to USD and not BTC. To me this is the
market responding to a novelty-driven blockchain/ICO mania, by creating an
increasing supply of ever more superficial “blockchain” fundraisers​. This is the
dynamic which eventually exhausts a mania, by distributing incoming money over an ever
larger surface.

Ethereum​’s recovery and rally is likely due to the announcements around Casper, which is
the much awaited software package that should help scale the network sustainably.
Personally I’m ​skeptical​ that the developers ​will deliver​ (given how ETH ​scaling​ is likely an
order of magnitude harder than BTC scaling), but I’m open to be positively surprised.

Ripple (XRP)​ has a total market cap of 100 billion tokens, making the price of one token
very low. That sounds superficial, but I honestly ​suspect​ that this, in combination with its
establishment friendly image (as opposed to the possibly scary sounding cypherpunk
culture), contributed to XRP being chosen by many new investor as the “safe”
cryptocurrency penny token, briefly gaining a whopping 18% total market share.

For the reasons mentioned above, I expect none of these reactionary trends to
ultimately hold water against Bitcoin, but I do believe these attempts to challenge
Bitcoin will continue in 2018. I won’t be surprised to see large banks, fortune 500
companies, or even central banks attempt to challenge Bitcoin’s value proposition by
issuing their own token.

2018 could very well be a shakeout year

Bullish as I am for Bitcoin’s long term, it appears most investors approach cryptocurrencies
as an asset class, rather than Bitcoin individually. With that in mind, I view the current
environment as frothy, and several factors make it not unlikely that we could see lower
prices later this year2:

● Lemon Market​ suggests many weak hands are in the game.​ As discussed above,
the market share of non-top 10 altcoins is ​currently​ at 23%, the highest ever
recorded. This ratio could of course keep rising still, as the market strictly speaking
isn’t saturated yet. Yet recent valuations are totally out of bounds with reality.
Consider Tron ($10B for an ICO with what looks like a plagiarized White Paper),
Dogecoin ($3.6B for a joke coin with hardly any active development), Dentacoin
($2.5B for an ERC20 token aimed at “improving dental care worldwide”), etc.3

● Regulators are catching up​. In September, the Chinese government decided to

close down all domestic Bitcoin exchanges. In November, several lawsuits were filed

I don’t agree with the entire list, but ​here​ are some thought provoking additional bearish arguments.
A Silicon Valley investors once told me that by 1996 rolled around, most smarter investors knew that
the DotCom market was in a bubble - and yet the folly lasted for another three years.# If this is what’s
happening now, we could of course resume the rally - but I keep my exposure to assets I believe have
actual long term merit.
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against the founders of the ICO Tezos. On December 4, the SEC filed its first
charges over an ICO scam. And on December 11, SEC Chairman Jay Clayton issued
a statement, saying “simply calling something a “currency” or a currency-based
product does not mean that it is not a security”. On January 5th, news broke that
Chinese regulators are looking to “guide mining firms to exit in an orderly manner”. I
believe this is the start of a trend that will persist in 2018, with lawsuits and significant
amount of legal intervention in the cryptocurrency space, including potential
crackdowns on exchanges that have taken a loose approach to KYC/ALM. The coins
least affected by regulatory scrutiny will likely be the most decentralized ones.

● Security of custodians likely hasn’t kept up pace.​ Most custodians and

exchanges in the Bitcoin space built their platform in an environment where Bitcoin’s
market cap was under $20B, often even at $5B or less. Today’s market cap of $230B
means that the popular exchanges are hugely attractive targets for cyber attacks,
potentially even state level attackers. A security breach in one or several Bitcoin
exchanges would represent a serious stress test for the ecosystem.

● Legality of Tether could be disputed​. In my opinion the rally of the last 6 months
was to a significant extent facilitated by the ​Tether​ mechanism, which allows
investors to purchase a dollar backed token ($USDT) that can quickly be transferred
to some of the largest Bitcoin and altcoin exchanges. Tether, a mechanism devised
by Bitfinex, has become a ​dollar substitute​ and is widely used as arbitrage
mechanism, with tether pair trading volume at nearly $5B daily, or 12% of the entire
cryptocurrency market. Despite the ​allegations​ to the contrary I’m more confident
than many that the Tether tokens are actually backed by USD in a real bank, but I’m
not sure whether regulators will allow for a privately issued digital dollar substitute to
freely circulate in these markets. In case of a crackdown on Tether (e.g. under an
AML or ​market manipulation​ banner) I would expect volatility to spike, inter-exchange
spreads to increase, and overall price levels to drop.

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Finally, also the charts show that a cooldown period may be required to recover from the
parabolic rise of Bitcoin and many other crypto assets:

Source: ​Peter L Brandt

2018 to bring technical advancements for Bitcoin

After all the fork wars of 2017, investors who like cheap on-chain transactions now have a lot
of options, such as Bitcoin Cash (8MB), Litecoin (4MB), United Bitcoin (8MB), Dogecoin (de
facto 10MB), and hundreds of more obscure altcoins. That said, none of them of have the
secure ​track record​, the decentralized network, the scaling ​roadmap​, the ​future technological
directions​, or the developer pedigree that the Bitcoin Core community has. If need be, the
on-chain capacity of Bitcoin can be increased, and almost all developers are sympathetic to
a well tested, well executed hard-fork to do that. But that’s not a priority right now, as several
more significant improvements are in the pipeline, and lightning is getting ready to be rolled
out in production environments. The ​Bitcoin protocol stack​ is slowly taking shape.

Decentralized Payment Rails: Lightning Network​. The much anticipated cryptocurrency

payment channel technology known as the lightning network is now ​live with an alpha
daemon since January 10​. In a nutshell, it allows for billions of low cost transactions per
second across Bitcoin-like blockchains. Because all transactions not stored on a common
ledger yet still cryptographically protected, it allows for cheap, fast, and pretty secure
payments. ​In my opinion this will put the myth to sleep that Bitcoin is not suitable for
e-commerce or micropayments​.​ The lightning network ​testnet​ currently has over 1,000
nodes and 3,000 open channels. Some have ​started​ ​experimenting​ on the live Bitcoin
blockchain, too, it has hundreds of open channels so far:

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Smart contracts coming to Bitcoin​. The idea of smart contracts - automatically executed
financial contracts that eliminate the need to trust middle men - goes back ​over 20 years​.4
It’s interesting that one of the great myths about Bitcoin is that “it can’t do smart contracts”.
The reality is that Satoshi purposefully built in smart contract capabilities into Bitcoin, as was
eloquently ​explained​ by Mike Hearn in 2012. The ​scripting system​ in Bitcoin is limited in
scope and has been rather under-used so far, which is probably why it isn’t more well
known. That said, most core developers have had the view that publishing and executing
actual smart contracts on the main Bitcoin blockchain (like Ethereum does) has little long
term merit because blockchain space will eventually become too expensive for that purpose.
Better to find ways to create the actual contracts off-chain and only use the blockchain to
ensure the trustless nature of the contract.
The ​lightning network​ is actually an early ​example​ of second layer smart contracts. And it
can be expanded to include more sophisticated contracts than just payment channels, for
example Tadge Dryja’s ​Discreet​ ​Log Contracts​. In the smart contract realm, the current most
anticipated part of Bitcoin’s technology ​roadmap​ is probably ​Schnorr Aggregated Signatures​,
allowing for the aggregation of hundreds of thousands of signatures in a single Bitcoin
transaction, which in turn allows for smart contracts that operate with large amounts of
multi-signature transactions (e.g. smart assets with large pools of voting shareholders).
Knock on wood, but ​if​ Schnorr is merged into Bitcoin Core in 2018 it will likely lead to
an explosion in developer activity​. One promising avenue of using Schnorr for smart
contracts is Andrew Poelstra’s “​scriptless scripts​”, which are very privacy friendly - a
requirement for real world deployment. Finally, also ​MAST​ ​extends​ smart contract flexibility.

Decentralized apps coming to Bitcoin​. With Lightning technology, decentralized

applications ​are being developed​ which operate using lightweight, low cost payments, and

For more background, see ​this​ early 2017 write-up by Alex Bergalex.
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which use blockchains for trust minimization. Recently coined “​LAPPS​” as opposed to
Ethereum’s “​DAPPS​”. Another way in which Bitcoin applications are being decentralized, is
by developing trustless solutions for holding collateral, and atomic swaps - the combination
of which eventually could allow for decentralized Bitcoin-to-altcoin exchanges.

Enhanced privacy in Bitcoin​. The Bitcoin blockchain is notorious for its relative lack of
privacy: all transaction in- and outputs are shared publicly, allowing companies like
Chainalysis​ to track wallets, grouping payers and payees, et cetera. Even though this allows
law enforcement to catch criminals, it’s a serious threat to fungibility of the coins (e.g. allows
for “blacklisting” wallets, etc) and also makes doing business using the Bitcoin blockchain
less attractive to corporations because of concerns over leaking client and corporate
2018 will most likely bring production ready solutions for enhanced privacy in Bitcoin. Two
projects I’ve been following for a while are ​TumbleBit​ and ​Zerolink​. Another is ​JoinMarket​.
Perhaps more importantly, several proposed second layer scaling improvements to Bitcoin
have the side-effect of significantly enhancing its privacy: ​Federated Sidechains​, ​Schnorr​,
MAST​, and ​Lightning​.

Let’s add one important caveat here: while all of these technological developments will
generate an explosion of excitement in the developer space, and likely lead to the foundation
of very promising startups, in my view the majority of this tech is still fairly immature and will
need extensive testing before featured in large scale applications. As a result I don’t think
that it will prevent the 2018 market from turning bearish in the case of investors being scared
of regulators and failing exchanges. The reason to highlight all these developments is to
underscore Bitcoin’s long term strength and relative undervaluation in the space, as well as
to suggest a narrative for the next big bull market phase.

Improved custody solutions

2018 will likely produce significant improvements for Bitcoin custody, by combining already
existing technologies such as ​multi-sig n-locks​ with some of the abovementioned segwit
enabled improvements to Bitcoin. Also we’ll see experiments with decentralized exchanges
that take away the custodial trust element, allowing participants to swap assets directly with
each other in peer-to-peer fashion via ​atomic swaps​. And finally Ledger Labs is expected to
come out with hardware security modules dedicated to Bitcoin, and several other security
companies are working on their own hardware solutions. All this should improve the
robustness of the ecosystem, though widespread adoption may only happen after a crisis
event such as a successful attack on existing custodian.

ASIC Commoditization and Bitcoin Mining Decentralization

A common concern in the Bitcoin space is the centralization of mining in China, and
specifically in the company of Bitmain. The boycott of segwit (likely related to the use of
Covert ASICBOOST), transaction spam and empty blocks, and the creation and promotion
of altcoins such as Bitcoin Cash has demonstrated what the consequences outsized mining
influence can bring. For 2018 I expect the influence of Bitmain and China to start
diminishing. First of all, it seems increasingly likely that Bejing is looking to curb energy

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subsidies and tax evasion schemes facilitated by local Chinese governments. Significant
mining capacity has already moved to ​Mongolia​ and ​other countries​. Secondly, informed by
the 2017 run-up in the Bitcoin price, I expect several energy producing countries to try and
attract Bitcoin mining activity in order to boost tax revenues. Finally, the enormous profits in
the mining sector have fostered several credible startups looking to compete with Bitmain.
E.g. ​Samsung​ appears to be in the business of producing its own Bitcoin mining chips now.
Another example is ​Halong Mining​, which is likely going to open source several elements of
its hardware designs. I think this fits into a beginning trend of ASIC mining chip
commoditization, where eventually the world’s largest chip manufacturers will develop,
produce and sell their own mining chips to the highest bidder. I think this trend is still early
and China has a significant lead that won’t evaporate overnight, but it should create
investment opportunities in incumbent Bitcoin mining companies that play into this evolution.

ICOs: valuations could suffer, governments to experiment

The valuation of many of the ICOs that were launched in 2017 (the overwhelming majority
having shipped no product whatsoever) could suffer greatly in 2018. Reasons for this:
increased scrutiny and interventions from regulators, ​oversupply​ in low quality products,
exposure of fraud and lack of discipline, and a string of class action lawsuits. The market
lacks so much in fundamentals that to me it seems like a forest dry as bone, where panic
can spread like wildfire. All this said, the current environment is driven by novelty and
FOMO, so if regulators don’t step in, if the lawsuit fallout stays limited, and no major
exchanges go bust, the ICO mania could further escalate in 2018.

Furthermore, in the wake of ​Ripple’s success​ this year, I expect some banks and
governments to launch their own versions of “permissioned digital cash”. The largest bank
in Japan (Mitshubishi UFJ) will ​reportedly​ launch an ICO in 2018. And I suspect more will
come from ​Central Bank Cryptocurrencies​, e.g. UBS’s ​Utility Settlement Coin​ and the
possible BRIC’s ​“sanctions proof” cryptocurrency ​.

Surprise scenario: Ethereum’s market cap could exceed that of Bitcoin

It’s very conceivable for Ethereum’s market cap to eclipse that of Bitcoin in 2018, if this bull
market continues to roar. I say that even though I think the platform is built on a
fundamentally weak architecture.

The thing is, Ethereum has done great selling visions of a decentralized world to the
mainstream public, generating an impressive stream of investable sounding narratives. The
launch of new ICOs also tends to lock up ETH tokens, which constrains supply. I’m
reminded of how Yahoo’s market cap grew to over 3x that of Amazon despite much weaker
fundamentals, because its advertising platform that serviced the other dotcom startups was
a huge cash cow. In the year 2000, many analysts ​called​ Yahoo an “internet blue chip”.

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Source: ​

Here’s how Paul Graham ​describes​ the situation:

By 1998, Yahoo was the beneficiary of a de facto Ponzi scheme. Investors were
excited about the Internet. One reason they were excited was Yahoo's revenue
growth. So they invested in new Internet startups. The startups then used the money
to buy ads on Yahoo to get traffic. Which caused yet more revenue growth for Yahoo,
and further convinced investors the Internet was worth investing in. When I realized
this one day, sitting in my cubicle, I jumped up like Archimedes in his bathtub, except
instead of "Eureka!" I was shouting "Sell!"

Graham also makes the point that Yahoo had a low standard for hiring programmers,
because it didn’t see itself as a technology company but rather a media company:

One obvious result of this practice was that when Yahoo built things, they often
weren't very good. But that wasn't the worst problem. The worst problem was that
they hired bad programmers. (...) Microsoft (back in the day), Google, and Facebook
have all been obsessed with hiring the best programmers. Yahoo wasn't. They
preferred good programmers to bad ones, but they didn't have the kind of
single-minded, almost obnoxiously elitist focus on hiring the smartest people that the
big winners have had. (...) In technology, once you have bad programmers, you're
doomed. I can't think of an instance where a company has sunk into technical
mediocrity and recovered. Good programmers want to work with other good
programmers. So once the quality of programmers at your company starts to drop,
you enter a death spiral from which there is no recovery.

To me it appears that most ICOs today, including Ethereum, have pretty low hiring standards
for their programmers. Often quoted are Masters, PhDs, and other “research

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accomplishments”, but resumes are usually light on actual relevant coding performance and
experience. I expect that over time this lack of an “obnoxiously elitist focus” on excellence
will translate into poor performance and lower adoption rates for the respective protocols.

I see the emergence of digital gold and the disruption of traditional finance by more
decentralized systems as a technical challenge, not a marketing challenge. Even though the
market share of Bitcoin contenders could still grow in 2018, to me it is clear that Bitcoin has
the strongest value proposition for long term success.