New York City subway advertising tends to fall into familiar, millennial-friendly categories like new bedsheets, apartment-search apps, period-absorbing underwear, or smoothie-delivery services.
These ads often shill products that would appeal to the sort of young, urban professional who barely has time to eat meals, let alone cook them, and possesses a never-sated appetite for tweet-length snark. “You get to stop pretending cooking is therapeutic,” a 2 train ad for a produce delivery service reads, for example.
And now, there’s a new campaign in town, with ads compelling youthful straphangers to “invest in crypto.”
Targeting millennials with cryptocurrency investments isn’t such an out-there idea. A November 2017 survey by Blockchain Capital found that around 30 percent of respondents between the ages of 18 and 34 were more interested in spending $1,000 on bitcoin than on stocks and bonds, while 42 percent of the age group were at least somewhat familiar with the cryptocurrency. Twenty-five percent of affluent millennials said they already held some kind of crypto, according to a recent study of affluent millennials from the communications marketing firm Edelman, while an additional 30 percent wanted to look into it further.
So what sort of company—using the same minimalistic, brightly colored, Twitter-copy-inspired ads that usually paper the subway—would try to sell crypto investments to millennials? A startup, probably. One that can’t just be an ICO, because it wouldn’t have the money to pay for a takeover ad campaign in one of Manhattan’s most trafficked subway stations (Fulton Street, in the Financial District). One that works with some of the same agencies responsible for other millennial-targeting ads that cover the otherwise bleak space below the streets of New York.
You’d be right about some of those things. Republic, the company behind the ads, is a startup investment platform located on Madison Avenue, a few blocks from Bryant Park. When I visited the office in early November, they’d just moved from a coworking space into an office of their own a few floors down in the same building. Walking through the pristine, white hallway to get to Republic, I passed a mostly empty office space with a giant fuchsia gorilla sitting at what would have been the receptionist’s desk.
Without any discernible receptionist space—inhabited by a pink gorilla or otherwise—Republic’s open office plan left me to stranded in the middle of the room before clearing my throat and finding Caroline Hofmann, the company’s COO. She sat among other employees at a long communal desk facing the back of the room.
Before joining Republic in early 2017, Hofmann worked at consulting firm McKinsey for more than five years. She received her MBA at Harvard Business School and attended both the London School of Economics and the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris. When I met her, she was in the middle of a busy post-move day at work, but she smiled and ushered me into a glass-walled conference room not far from her desk.
Other executives at Republic have similarly institutional roots. They’ve worked at Merrill Lynch and Liberty Mutual, attended Oxford University and Columbia. The company’s CEO, Kendrick Nguyen, served as general counsel at AngelList for two years before cofounding Republic.
Republic later spun out of AngelList in the spring of 2016 in part because of an update to the JOBS Act. In May 2016, Title III of the act enabled unaccredited investors, those with yearly earnings under $200,000 and net worth under $1 million, to buy equity in companies, spending up to a maximum of $2,000.
“This allows everyone to invest in startups,” said Hofmann, “and we looked at this as a very groundbreaking regulation that would allow us to offer new and very different investment opportunities to everyone, not just the top three to five percent.”
Republic started off attempting to “democratize fundraising,” as Hofmann put it, without token sales. Crypto didn’t enter the picture until later, around the summer of 2017. First, Republic’s mission was just to offer investment opportunities to founders who weren’t located in Silicon Valley, say, or otherwise didn’t appeal to traditional venture capitalists.
When Hofmann and her colleagues at Republic started talking crypto, it was through the lens of regulation. As a member of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA), a nonprofit meant to protect U.S.-based investors, Republic adhered to SEC regulations. Republic’s executives liked the idea of startups raising money through ICOs—it fit it neatly with the company’s “democratize fundraising” mission statement—but those startups would need to be compliant.
“So we looked at this and said at the end of the day, most blockchain companies are just a version of early stage startups,” like the ones Republic was already working with, Hofmann said. “We looked at how we could actually apply regulation crowdfunding and what we already do to blockchain startups. The only big tweak we did beyond branding was developing the token DPA.”
During the ICO craze, most companies Hofmann knew of were raising money through the Simple Agreement for Future Tokens (SAFT). SAFT covers utility tokens, not security tokens, and left no protection for investors who put money into companies that never delivered on their token promises. Republic’s DPA (debt payable by asset) alternative would allow companies to raise debt from their investors. Republic would hold that money in escrow until startups reached predetermined milestones. If the startups never reached those milestones, the money would go back to the investors.
Today, four of the 12 startups actively seeking funding on Republic are token-based (Republic doesn’t like to use the word “ICOs,” instead opting for the less stigmatized “token sales”). These range from a “gaming currency” called Quarters, which has already raised more than its $100,000 funding goal, to Nori, a “blockchain-based marketplace” that aims to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It’s raised $87,000 so far on Republic, 174 percent of its desired investment capital.
Of the 49 companies that have successfully finished out their funding rounds on Republic, three have been ICOs—excuse me, token sales. The first was Props, a digital media startup by YouNow. It raised $1.07 million—Republic’s cap—on the platform in January 2018. The first token sale on Republic, the Props investment opportunity came with a warning: “This debt offering is suitable for sophisticated investors with knowledge of blockchain technology and the ability to assess its applications and their market potentials only.”
Newer crypto-backed startups on the platform don’t come with these warnings. The idea of “investing in crypto” has perhaps become less outlandish in the eyes of the investing public.
Republic’s ad campaign was built on the idea of “crazy today, obvious tomorrow,” said Hofmann. The crypto ad compares blockchain startups to “the internet in 1980.” It aims to reflect “the whole story around” crypto, how “five years ago it seemed totally crazy to even buy bitcoin, it was basically just a currency for the dark net, so we just used that theme… Crypto is basically yet another crazy thing to [invest in].”
“Some of our other ads are like a drone delivering pizza and a flying car,” Hofmann continued, “because all of these things are not totally far off, right?”
Republic’s aim is to get a more diverse population to invest in the startups that use its platform. While their investors for most startups range from “millennials on the coasts” (one of the site’s high frequency user demographics) to “the dentist in the Midwest” and “the older woman in Texas,” those who choose to invest in crypto skew “a little bit more male,” according to Hofmann. (Republic declined to provide more specific user demographics, and Hofmann said the company hasn’t looked specifically into where its ICO investors are geographically located.)
So far, Republic’s site traffic has increased thanks to the subway ad placements. “Brand awareness is working,” said Hofmann.
“For 95 percent of people who ride the subway, investing in crypto or having bitcoin or opening a Coinbase account is not mainstream yet,” she continued, and whether it meaningfully increases the number of people investing via Republic’s site remains TBD. One thing that’s for sure, though, is it’s increased the number of daily email messages Hofmann gets from ad salespeople, like those hawking space on the New Jersey PATH train or on the top of yellow cabs.
Maybe Jersey City commuters will be encouraged to “invest in crypto” next.