Thousands poured into the Hilton in midtown Manhattan this week, but they weren't the typical 54th-Street business type. These high-powered entrepreneurs and go-getters opted for jeans over a suit and sneakers over Gucci sleds.
Many of them expats from the West Coast for the week, they were largely cut from a different cloth than those who tend to populate midtown from Monday through Friday, but that comes as little surprise given the reason they were there. It was Consensus 2018, one of the biggest events in blockchain.
Consensus was the marquee event for New York Blockchain Week this year, and its attendance grew threefold from last year. Many took that as evidence that blockchain technology and its seemingly infinite applications are tightening their grasp on traditional business, changing the face of finance and creating a new world order led by 20-something tech geniuses. In large part, they're not wrong.
After attending Consensus, I walked away with a few distinct impressions, for better or worse. Here they are.
Scaling Is an Issue for More Than Just Startups
Wall Street hears endless groveling about the failure of good ideas to achieve the scale needed to become good companies. The same issue was applicable to this event.An estimated 8,500 people attended Consensus this year, and the overcrowding at the conference space was suffocating. It took no fewer than 10 minutes to get from one end of main area to the other and a nearly an hour and a half in line to get an event pass.
One participant said he'd been to Consensus last year and the year before, but neither had been as hectic. They were, as he put it, better run from a logistics perspective. He opined that Coindesk, the group that put on Consensus, would have been infinitely better suited to rent out some place like the Javits Center instead of one corner of a hotel in Times Square.
The lunch line was so long that a large portion of the attendees poured into midtown Manhattan for the midday break, eschewing their free meal because the headache of the seemingly mile-long line wasn't worth the $12 they'd save.
It's become clear that, though the world may be ready for blockchain, blockchain may not be ready for the world. Until industry leaders (and their event planners) can effectively manage a several-thousand-person-strong conference, the attendees will continue to belabor logistics issues instead of spending their off time discussing the merits of the panels, presentations and conversations.
Crypto Is Losing Ground to the Bigger Picture.
Noticeably missing from a large portion of the conversation at Consensus this year was cryptocurrency. The digital assets have long been the poster children of the blockchain protocol, and are arguably what brought the very idea of blockchain technology into the public lexicon over the last few years.
But this conference was more about blockchain's uses beyond bitcoin, litecoin and its brethren than it was the cryptocurrencies themselves. Leaders from FedEx Corp. (FDX) , Deloitte, Porsche (POAHY) , KPMG and many, many more took the stage to explain how blockchain can revolutionize charitable giving, supply chain logistics and even autonomous driving technology -- not how we may pay for groceries using bitcoin someday.
It brought to mind the idea that cryptocurrency is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg for this technology. Sure, its parabolic valuation has attracted countless headlines, but that's small potatoes at the end of the day.
Blockchain technology has what could be millions of uses, most of which are centered squarely on improving our lives and making what we do easier. It's far more than just bitcoin at $20,000, and the conversations at Consensus proved it.
Knowing the Right People Is Still Important
Despite its reputation as a disruptor to traditional business and finance, blockchain technology and its applications still rely heavily on the market influences firms did even 100 years ago. Knowing the right people means getting requisite funding and incubating invaluable ideas.
With that, the influx of institutional players remains a top industry priority. The booths for the likes of Deloitte and KPMG were far more crowded than many of the startup fintech companies, suggesting their influence may arguably be more valuable.
While those companies may not be as nimble when it comes to innovating and adding new technology to the space, they can offer important scale and institutional advice that can help upstarts get what they need to grow.
In speaking with a team from KPMG, I learned that these large companies have all the resources to identify what businesses are best suited to succeed long term. With that, their backing offers a level of confidence in extended growth prospects that any fledgling firm would be crazy not to want.