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What is an ICO?

Discover the benefits and potential risks of Initial coin offerings and their role in funding blockchain projects. Discover the benefits and potential risks

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ICO is an abbreviation for Initial Coin Offering, a term coined supposedly in 2013 yet only gained popularity in 2017. ICOs were created as a method of raising funds for cryptocurrency projects in a crowdfunding manner. When people partake in an ICO, through funding it, they receive "shares" of that project in the form of cryptocurrency tokens.

This method is set up to help new projects find funding to build their project, platforms, or products. It's very similar to investing in a start-up in the hopes of a project becoming bigger and better through your investment contribution.

Mastercoin was the first ICO recorded back in 2013, raising a grand total of 5,120 BTC. Shortly after, Ethereum followed, and in 2014 raised roughly $18 million to build their project. There is clearly a great deal of success to be seen through ICOs, so let's see what all the fuss is about.


Let's look at IPOs, or initial public offerings, to learn more about where ICOs originated.

Similar to ICOs, IPOs were created as a way of gaining capital to better the businesses' infrastructures. While they are similar to a crowdfunding aspect,the primary distinction is in how investors are rewarded. IPOs will offer their investors shares, while ICOs offer digital currencies that can be used within their ecosystems or can be sold when the price increases.

Now that we understand how ICOs and IPOs work, let's discuss the differences when it comes to IEOs, or Initial Exchange Offerings. Again, this is another method used to raise funds for upcoming projects, but there are some key aspects that make IEOs different to IPOs and ICOs. While IEOs are also a crowdfunding method in the cryptocurrency industry, they use an exchange. Anyone can generally buy tokens from an ICO page, whereas IEOs use exchanges as the distribution mechanism.

In order to take part in an IEO, you must be a registered user of the exchange that the project is utilizing. While IEOs may be more transparent, they do push us towards a more centralized approach. There are also IDOs, Initial Dex Offering, Dex standing for decentralized exchange (increasing the data privacy aspect), but that's a topic for another day.

How they work

So now we know what ICOs are and how they differ from their counterparts, but now let's delve deeper into how ICOs actually work. As stated, ICOs are a way for cryptocurrency projects to raise money. When a project decides to launch an ICO it will generally underline the sale dates, the participation rules, and the buying process.

Usually, investors will need to choose currencies they are happy to accept in exchange for their tokens, such as Mastercoin accepting Bitcoin. There are some ICOs who will also accept fiat currencies as payment.

The projects' core purpose, its timeline, and how much money is needed to succeed should be released in their whitepaper. If the project does not raise enough money to meet the minimum funds needed, the money should be returned to those who contributed. This would classify the ICO as unsuccessful.

If the funding goal is met, the project will continue to pursue its original goals and contributors will be able to claim their tokens further along. Tokens will either be listed on notable exchanges later on or will be distributed using smart contract technology,This is something you should do more study on before contributing to an ICO.

Advantages and disadvantages

While ICOs have proven to be a massive benefit to project developers, there are some underlying issues and risks that may come into play. In order to give you the best chance of understanding ICOs we will need to cover all the pros and cons that come with ICOs. So let's see what you have to look out for:


        High potential profits

        Accessible to anyone (unlike IEOs)

        Money returned if unsuccessful (smart contacts)

        Transparency on fund usage (Blockchain)

        High liquidity


        No intrinsic value

        No legal guarantees

        Potential fraud

Frequently asked questions

Now that we have covered the basics, there are some additional questions the internet has and we thought we would take the time to answer them for you. These are the most frequently asked questions about ICOs, and while we have answered some here is a more TL;DR breakdown:

What does ICO mean?

ICO stands for Initial Coin Offering, a phrase coined by the cryptocurrency industry.

What is the purpose of an ICO?

ICO is a method used to raise funds for up and coming projects, think of it as an early investment phase.

How do I get an ICO?

That depends on the ICO you want to partake in, you will generally need to sign up to the ICO, deposit funds, and wait for the tokens to be distributed either through an exchange or smart contract. This differs depending on the projects' ICO parameters.

Is Bitcoin an ICO?

No, Bitcoin required no funding, tokens were mined and sold without the need for crowdfunding.

How many ICOs are there?

There is no definitive number out there but consensus shows that there have been roughly over 7,000 businesses that have attempted ICOs.

Are ICOs safe?

This is a tricky question and depends greatly on the individual project that is hosting an ICO, whether they are using smart contact technology, and how legitimate the team behind it is. ICOs can be safe, but they also carry risks, it is always best to do your own research before investing.

As there is no universal authority on ICOs there is certainly a lack of regulation in the space so be sure to do thorough research before parting ways with your money.

Closing Thoughts

That is all the essential information you need to grasp in order to better understand what an ICO is. From the textbook definition to its competitors, how it works, and everything in between. ICOs are popular for a reason, they offer a range of benefits to both projects and investors, but you should keep in mind that there is no benefit without risk.

While we can explain what an ICO is, we can not tell you whether to invest in an ICO. It's important to vet the project for yourself and see if it aligns with your interests, and more importantly if it has all the key components for a legitimate project and token.

While the world is increasingly accepting of ICOs from both businesses and retail investors standpoints, there are several alternatives available. We briefly discussed IEOs and IDOs, but more crowdfunding methods have flourished from the origins of ICOs, so be sure to explore those out too. At the end of the day, we hope we helped you better understand what an ICO is.


This article is for general information purposes only and is not intended to constitute legal or other professional advice or a recommendation of any kind whatsoever and should not be relied upon or treated as a substitute for specific advice relevant to particular circumstances. We make no warranties, representations or undertakings about any of the content of this article (including, without limitation, as to the quality, accuracy, completeness or fitness for any particular purpose of such content), or any content of any other material referred to or accessed by hyperlinks through this article. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content on our site is accurate, complete or up-to-date.


Frequently Asked Questions