By David Z. Morris
February 25, 2018

Last year was without a doubt the Year of Bitcoin, as exploding interest in cryptocurrency fueled a massive market runup. As if that wasn’t enough excitement, some speculators took the further leap to investing in cryptocurrency projects through a lightly regulated process called an “ICO,” or initial coin offering, in which a startup sells its own crypto token to raise money.

We here at Fortune have cast a curious but frequently skeptical eye on ICOs, which from the get-go were ripe for scams. It turns out that skepticism was well warranted: cryptocurrency news site has surveyed last year’s ICOs and found that of 902 tracked by TokenData, 142 failed before raising funding, and another 276 failed after fundraising.

That’s a 46% failure rate — but wait, there’s more. found another 113 projects that it calls “semi-failed,” because their teams have gone off the radar or their community has withered away. Add those, and the failure rate jumps to 59%. says the total funding of failed projects from 2017 was $233 million.

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That’s a lot of wasted money, though the failure rate might not seem outrageous for those familiar with startups. As many as 75% of all startups backed by traditional venture funding fail, and 30 to 40% of those take all of investors’ capital with them. Out of all new companies started in the U.S., a little over 20% fail in their first year.

The ICO numbers obviously beat that percentage soundly, which again, might not seem surprising in such a nascent sector. But the findings are especially disturbing for at least two other reasons.

First of all, since 2017’s ICO mania didn’t fully take hold until the second half of the year, a disproportionate number of ICO failures have unfolded in a matter of months. And second, not all of the shuttered projects are actual ‘failures’ — many produced no product at all, and a good number probably never intended to. Some were simply “exit scams” whose founders disappeared with the money they raised — while others, in’s words, “slowly faded into obscurity,” but with the same nefarious intent.

On top of crunching the raw numbers, took the time to sift through the digital remains of all those broken promises. What they found was bleak: “a digital graveyard” of “abandoned Twitter accounts, empty Telegram groups, websites no longer hosted, and communities no longer tended.” ICOs aren’t going away, but if you’re tempted to invest in one, hold that image in your mind — and, more importantly, do your homework.


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