Ownerless companies on the rise as startups experiment with new business models

WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

Blockchain will let us build new types of companies in new ways, including ownerless companies where funds and profits are divided automatically between individuals.

 

Slowly, very slowly, we’re seeing the emergence of the world’s first fully autonomous companies, from small hedge funds in Hong Kong, to larger enterprises such as Bridgewater Associates, with over $160 Billion worth of assets under management, and even JD.com – China’s “Amazon.” And it’s no secret that everyone, from small startups to major corporations, are also jumping on the blockchain band wagon.

 

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As tech giants like Facebook explore blockchain as a means to reinvent themselves, startups everywhere it seems are working on blockchain projects that could be used to displace cloud services like AWS, or loosen big tech’s stranglehold on personal information with new so called Sovereign ID systems.

Now, in addition to transforming areas like data and payments, blockchain is shaking up traditional corporate structures. Through blockchain, companies could fundraise without stocks, operate without bank accounts, or pay employees without even knowing their names. So, some are now asking – could we soon see the creation of completely ownerless companies? And could these companies help solve today’s inequality where the have’s now have more than ever before, and the have nots have less than ever before?

To answer this question in this article I dig into what the blockchain based, ‘ownerless’ company of the future could look like – from how they cagoule and coordinate workforces and resources, to how they share wealth and physical assets.

Conventional wisdom dictates that startups should incorporate with taxes and stock options in mind. However, tomorrow’s companies might abandon this philosophy altogether. According to Earn founder turned Coinbase exec Balaji Srinivasan:

“Blockchain companies, to build a community, only need an internet connection and a good regulatory environment… They’re open source groups that [manage internal funds in] straight crypto and might not even have traditional, terrestrial bank accounts.”

In other words, blockchain companies don’t need to adhere to a conventional management or financial infrastructure.

 

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Ethereum, for example, raised funds through a public crowd sale, backs a free-floating token, and operates the Ethereum Foundation as a Swiss non-profit corporation. This means most of its value comes from sources that operate outside the legal bounds of traditional corporate structure.

Blockchain projects like Aragon are already specializing in this concept of ‘digital incorporation.’ Aragon aims to create digital jurisdictions, where a community will act like an online court system for resolving disputes — effectively giving borderless projects a borderless legal system.

Given these early indications, tomorrow’s ownerless companies might look more like a trust, where the set of instructions for how to split up money is just written into their code. And future blockchain based companies might also operate in a similar fashion “using a special legal system and denominating everything in their native token.”

Meanwhile elsewhere in these new companies clocking in at a centralised office is an increasingly outdated concept, and unsurprisingly it’s another outmoded tradition that these companies might be able to easily get rid of.

As AngelList founder Naval Ravikant explains:

“Blockchain companies are the most distributed companies in the world… Their developers are spread out, in some cases they’re fully anonymous, like even the team members don’t know who other team members are… There’s one that’s coming up [called Mimblewimble] where the developers use Harry Potter characters as names.”

 

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This trend toward anonymity can be bolstered by geographic trends for blockchain companies. Many major projects to date have employees spread across the globe, or are headquartered in regulation friendly financial zones like Switzerland or Singapore. Anonymity can be especially desirable for employees located in more strictly regulated locations.

Being anonymous and geographically dispersed can also have a significant impact on the unspoken rules of corporations. Norms like decision-making based on seniority and other internal politics will not necessarily be intuitive any longer, letting companies become more holocratic in nature. And, again, new rules may have to be written into companies’ software, rather than ingrained in their culture.

This is something that blockchain companies like Colony are already thinking about in an attempt “to help open organizations codify their voting, politics, and employee rewards.”

When it comes to distributing, managing and paying for physical assets though, for example, crypto-networks still rely in part on physical hardware, and bitcoin miners still incur costs for electricity and computing. equipment, some companies are already modeling themselves after the sharing economy. For example, Filecoin and Golem offer peer-to-peer networks that incentivise users to lend out their computing hardware rather than having to get “the company” to buy, use and manage its own assets.

While at their current scale these companies pose a small threat in the future, in theory, Amazon’s AWS will be subject to a new breed of blockchain based competitors that lack the burdens of real estate, labor, and a profit motive for high margins which means AWS at a minimum should be checking their rear view mirror every once in a while for new competitors. And these sorts of “asset light” companies are on the rise.

 

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There are also other odd go to market and business models appearing, such as one from Helium who are pioneering “an internet for machines owned by you” company that provides local wireless network coverage and pays users to keep it plugged in. If they gain widespread adoption, and obviously it’s a big if, then Helium could effectively help disintermediate and decentralised the telecommunications industry, by bypassing the need for capital-intensive mobile towers. And there may be even more ambitious projects down the line. Future blockchain companies could crowdsource purchases of machines, real estate, labor, and more.

Twenty years ago few people might have predicted that open source code would be the basis of some of the most valuable projects in the world, but today, startups like GitHub and Databricks have shown that open source can see widespread adoption. And many new blockchain companies are using open source code as the basis of their own companies.

Down the road, blockchain companies may even challenge today’s big tech incumbents. With the ability to leverage dispersed workforces, distributed computing hardware, and create and deploy new revenue streams ownerless companies may soon be able to offer competitive services at bargain prices.

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