ConsenSys: Understanding one of the most important firms in crypto

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ConsenSys can be a deceptively hard to understand business. There was plenty of noise made by block.one’s EOS focused VC arm, but this is nothing compared to the network ConsenSys has constructed to build out the Ethereum network.

The ‘mesh’ of 50+ projects it has incubated is well known. What attracts less attention is the raft of corporate relationships it has built and the soft power it can now wield in an attempt to define what decentralisation is — and isn’t — to the wider world. As a result of this range of activities, ConsenSys funds, sets standards and lobbies on behalf of its projects and Ethereum more widely.

What is ConsenSys?

Most people know ConsenSys as a business incubator for Ethereum focused projects. The firm operates a ‘hub and spoke’ model which sees over 50 projects currently affiliated to ConsenSys in some manner. This ‘mesh’ consists of DApps such as Airswap and Gnosis, as well as infrastructure-focused projects like MetaMask and Infura.

The benefit of this model for project teams is obvious, for it affords them access to other developers while simultaneously affording them autonomy. As founder Joseph Lubin pointed out, ConsenSys are “building out the decentralization ecosystem…when you do that you need a lot of communication, collaboration inter-operation between different projects.”

Not only do projects benefit from the accumulated developer knowledge, they also receive varying degrees of financial support. ConsenSys started as a venture production studio, with the intention of incubating companies around MVPs before putting them up for external investment. An early example of this was the spun out BlockApps. Furthermore, if Lubin’s comments from Episode 1 of the State Change podcast still hold (the company declined to comment) then mesh projects also get equity in all other ConsenSys projects, providing them upside even in the event of their own project failing.

However, the mesh, while important, is now just one part of ConsenSys. Its business offering has expanded to include:

  • Academy: “The educational core of the Ethereum movement”
  • Capital: Venture capital & token sale advisory
  • Catalyst: Full-service marketing and branding agency
  • Design: Product designers, design thinking facilitators, design researchers, and strategists
  • Diligence: Smart contract audits and Ethereum security
  • Labs: Incubates projects and provides them capital, mentorship and access (this is where the mesh projects sit)
  • Social Impact: Projects with a social impact
  • Solutions: Enterprise Ethereum & blockchain innovation partnerships

In summary, ConsenSys is doing a lot. This is reflected by the growth in employees from 80 to over 1,000 in under two years, an increase which shows little sign of abating.

This growth makes it difficult to understand where different parts of the company fall, particularly as the firm is frequently reorganised. Furthermore, it is hard to even find everything that ConsenSys is involved in; even after hours of research, new initiatives and partnerships were still revealing themselves. While many corporate websites are designed to impress upon viewers the vast range of activities being undertaken, ConsenSys is expanding so quickly that its website features a mere fraction of its operations.

It’s not (just) about the money

This article was originally inspired by the recent Civil ICO, with many bemused why ConsenSys would be so heavily involved with Civil (seeding the project with $5m before contributing another $1.1m to the ultimately failed ICO) unless there was the promise of riches. However, ConsenSys — spearheaded by Lubin — likely has wider ambitions than solely profits.

While there is of course a financial motivation, the firm has quickly evolved into the best-connected and arguably most influential company in the entire ecosystem. Just as funding Civil could be interpreted as a means to increase media influence, so too can ConsenSys be seen as a means to shape and influence the very nature of blockchain and decentralisation for the wider world.

There is no doubt that it is incubating dozens of interesting projects, some of which are vital to the success of Ethereum, but it is also helping to cultivate how industry and governments view blockchain. This is why those focusing on purely the mesh outlined at the start are missing some of ConsenSys’s most important facets.

The below is a map outlining some of these relationships.

As the above demonstrates, ConsenSys is better represented than any other firm on industry bodies and committees. It has as many partners and joint ventures as anyone. Its relationships with government organisations run wide and deep. This map is far from exhaustive; there are many more connections which could be featured (and more are announced on an almost daily basis).

These connections can be thought of in two broad categories:

  1. Links with industry
  2. Soft power

Industry connections

ConsenSys works for many leading industry players through its enterprise focused Solutions arm. Furthermore, it sits on a number of industry focused committees (frequently as board members) and is a leading member of more crypto focused committees such as the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA). ConsenSys personnel have played a leading role at the EEA since its inception, including co-founding and leading two of the eight original working groups.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Through its mesh projects, the company has also formed a number of joint ventures with leading financial services and technology companies. The company has also directly entered into JVs with companies, including the likes of Komgo SA (a JV with the likes of Shell and many leading banks) and Ethereum Blockchain as a Service, a JV with Microsoft.

These connections with technology and financial services companies should not come as a surprise. Many of ConsenSys’s employees — including many of the most senior — come from a financial services background, with the likes of Bank of America Merrill Lynch well represented. These sorts of employees bring with them connections of their own from their spells at such companies. Lubin himself comes from a financial services background. The manner of his involvement with Ethereum, coupled with the industry friendly manner in which he promotes Ethereum, likely also has a large impact in enabling ConsenSys to attract large corporations.

Wrong

ConsenSys’s importance to Ethereum goes well beyond providing infrastructure tools. Positioning ConsenSys as the industry friendly face of decentralisation gives the firm a large amount of influence in defining to organisations both what it is and how it can be useful. It also increases the chances of Ethereum adoption amongst corporations, as competitor protocols lack a similarly well-organised cheerleader body. As Lubin argued at the launch of the EEA, “Enterprises represent mindshare, they represent resources”.

A quick side note; some connections overlap because of ambiguity or because they could fit in multiple sections. Furthermore, some connections are stronger than others; for example, although I have listed ConsenSys on the MOBI and Trusted IoT Alliance, it should be noted there are multiple other crypto companies who are also members.

Soft Power

The firm’s influence on corporations is mirrored by its close ties with global and country non-profit bodies. These can be broken up into three broad categories:

  1. Governments and NGOs
  2. Crypto associations
  3. Education

Strong government relationships

The most obvious route to influence comes in close relationships with government bodies. ConsenSys works with a number of government agencies, including the likes of the European Commission, the South African Reserve Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank. It has worked with bodies in India, the United States and the Middle East. It also has its Social Impact and Grants schemes, which enable it to work with NGOs in the developing world as well as funding impact projects out of educational institutions such as the University of Michigan. Much like the company, it has connections worldwide.

This has also materialised into a more formal presence, with over 1,000 employees spread across six continents. Despite the Dublin office only opening in June with 12 employees, the company is already looking for new office space as they look to increase their headcount to over 110 employees, up significantly from the initial 12 month target of 60. Governments love technology employers, particularly ones in new fields; they usually create high paying roles and enable technology clusters to form. This alone provides clout.

Leading voice in crypto

Photo by BRUNO CERVERA on Unsplash

Secondly, ConsenSys is unsurprisingly active in trade bodies. It co-founded the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance, it runs the Ethereal Summit and the newly launched TruffleCon, and it is a member of Crypto Valley and Global Digital Finance. Furthermore, it is at the forefront of many initiatives in the space either directly (such as the Regulatory Framework it constructed with Coinbase, Coin Center and Union Square Ventures) or through its projects (such as the token framework devised by Token Foundry and similar work by the Brooklyn Project). Above all, it is as closely entwined with Ethereum as can be as a result of Lubin’s early involvement and the subsequent work by ConsenSys to grow the network.

Emerging educational force

This input on standards extends to constructing the literature through which people learn about decentralisation and Ethereum. It has partnered with Coursera to devise a course on blockchain and decentralisation and has launched its Academy arm to teach people what blockchain is.

The joint Coursera/ConsenSys course

Given the lack of comprehension of blockchain within governments and industry, coupled with the immaturity of blockchain focused education, being able to set the standards of which elements of decentralisation are important and tailoring that presumably to what Ethereum can enable would be a powerful asset. Of course, this is what the firm is able to achieve in its current more individual/limited interactions with industry and government bodies at present. The Academy is simply a more formal extension of this.

Why is all of this important? Because it puts ConsenSys in a position of being able to teach regulators, governments and the wider world what crypto is — or rather, what they want crypto to be seen as.

We’ve been lucky to get called in by regulators to share our understanding of what this new technology is. We helped to enable the different, very smart people in those agencies understand that blockchain may bring a fundamentally new construct and it may be possible to use existing rules to assess it, but it may need a new way of organizing collective action. — 

Joe Lubin

Finally, as this article was inspired by the Civil ICO, it would be neglectful not to mention the firm’s expanding media operations. This includes the film studio SingularDTV (which recently released the blockchain documentary ‘Trust Machine’), UjoMusic and the dual news platforms of DecryptMedia and Breaker magazine (which is itself owned by SingularDTV). Although these news platforms are editorially independent, it provides ConsenSys with another component upon which they can build out a media platform.

ConsenSys: A model for future networks?

Some have commented that ConsenSys is Ethereum. While this is a step too far, the importance of the firm to the network is undeniable, for it simultaneously acts as lobby group, incubator and technological driver.

However, ConsenSys is becoming not just relevant to Ethereum but, through the government, regulatory and industry connections it has built, important to the whole crypto space. This is likely to only increase in coming years, as it expands its Enterprise and Ventures offerings whilst simultaneously playing a bigger part in linking crypto and industry. Given growth to date, it would be difficult to bet against its importance increasing in future years.

Later this week: How does ConsenSys fund itself?

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