What you need to know
Mithril's big hairy audacious goal is to become 'the WeChat of everything' or be bought out by Mark Zuckerberg.
Sitting down with Jeff Huang (黄立成) in the three-story Taipei office of his live-steaming app empire, 17 Media (17 hereafter), it's hard not to be swept away.
The man is raw energy, ideas bubbling with such intensity that they often burst into a haphazard mix of English, Taiwanese and Mandarin. The onus is on his audience to keep up.
Under his stewardship, 17's growth has been nothing short of spectacular, and the 45-year-old is candid in confirming that it is all over the news that the company is planning to IPO this year.
Since its founding in July 2015, 17's team has grown from a single office of a dozen people to more than 700 staff, spun off new operations like the lascivious live-streaming service, Swag, raised US$10 million in Series A funding, and merged – in 2016 – with the online dating app service Paktor. Huang is now chairman, having stepped aside as CEO during the Paktor deal.
All that and at one point the app looked in such trouble that its co-founder, Popo Chen, abandoned ship. “We burned our series A funding so fast and Popo left, he was pissed off,” Huang recalls. “He took a Chunk of money, bought a Lambo [slang for Lamborghini] and now he's doing [cryptocurrency exchange] Cobinhood and kicking ass."
The 17 app now touts 60 million downloads across several countries, including its home market Taiwan, as well as Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Japan. It's turning a decent profit, too, hence the IPO plan.
But Huang isn't here to talk about 17, but rather his new venture, the blockchain-based social token Mithril (the name is inspired by the magical armor worn by hobbits in “The Lord of The Rings”) and why the project tempted Him to give up the high life in Vegas and return to Taiwan.
“I've always been pro-Taiwan. It's like deja vu,” he says. “I used to be in it for music, movies, TV, trying to get resources from the government to help the culture of Taiwan. Now I' m back at it again, but this time it's all about blockchain."
Huang's backstory is well documented, but his co-founding and fronting of hip-hop group LA Boyz in the early 90s is worth revisiting as it illustrates the Yunlin County-California native's character.
When I ask him about the first hip-hop records he listened to, he tells me it was Beastie Boys, NWA or Run DMC. The uniforms of Machi, his current music venture, are all black with white livery – reminiscent of the iconic Adidas-inspired outfits that helped catapult Run DMC to brand-backed superstardom on the back of their electric connection to the streets.
"Music is identity," Huang affirms. "If you listen to hip-hop, it's 'fight the power' – against the government – that's the whole blockchain thing, which brings you back to Public Enemy or Rage against the Machine."
For Huang, blockchain’s decentralization, its ideals of being beyond government control, match his personality, and the surfaceal struggle that in many ways known Taiwan.
"Blockchain really represents Taiwan well. It's about getting the right people together to help crypto in general so Taiwan can move in that direction like Japan. China banned it so it's a weapon for Taiwan," he adds.
Huang already has his fingers in several blockchain-related pies, more about which later, but his primary focus is Mithril, an ERC-20 Ethereum token standard that launched in late February in conjunction with an entirely new social network – known as Lit.
According to Huang, the Mithril ecosystem, which includes retail partners in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, aims to be "WeChat for the crypto generation."
The token's White Paper lays out Mithril's USP – a social mining element that allows content creators to earn the token, known as “Mith”, in return for posting content that is widely shared.
Mithril is a natural transition from 17 as it aims to replicate the live-streaming app's revenue sharing model. For the time being, the Lit platform will focus on photos and video, rather than writing or blogging, which Huang concedes is the preserve of Steemit. .
As a content producer himself, Huang is indignant at the way Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat monetize users' content while refusing to give anything back.
“You put a boost button next to my post and a toll road between me and my fans and you want me to pay to reach them? Fuck you. I gave you my content for free. You're a big company making tons of profit , why can''t you be like YouTube and pay us?” he asks.
Mithril is Huang’s attempt to level the playing field: “You give me the content, we build a social platform together and everybody gets rewarded through Mithril tokens.”
Early indications suggest users are buying into Lit, which bases its UX on Snapchat's swiping stories format, with Huang claiming retention rates of about 70 percent in the first few days after downloading the Android iteration of the app. An iOS version will follow once Apple has Looking past its current "crypto cautious" stance and worked out which apps are worth supporting.
Is there a plan to leverage 17 to populate Lit? Of course, but not until all the creases have been been ironed out of the beta. He also promises innovations not detailed in the White Paper ("Why would I write down all my ideas so people Can just copy them and do a fund raise?”).
As with Bitcoin, the more Mith is mined, the harder it will be for users to mine it as time goes on, but unlike the world’s most famous cryptocurrency, which requires ever more powerful computers to create, earning Mith will require increasingly larger levels of Social media engagement as time goes on.
However, there are plans to add a "proof of stake" (or consensus algorithm) element that will incentive users to hold their Mith rather than attempt to sell or "dump" it on an exchange because those that do so will find it easier to Mine. Huang hopes this will help keep people engaged with the community.
Mithril's token distribution is contentious, with only 35 percent of total supply available to mine socially and the same proportion floated on the exchange and in the hands of early backers and advisers, begging questions as to how community-based and decentralized the project really is, But this is in part a consequence of the private-raise that got the project off the ground.
How do you get hold of Mith? Huang’s advice is to mine it, but the utility launched on digital asset-trading platform OKEX last month, and is soon to debut on Taiwan-based exchange, MAX. “I have a one-month exclusivity Deal on OKEX until March 24, so I'll be launching MAX on March 25,” Huang says.
Why did he choose OKEX? “Exchanges were asking for million to multi-million list pricing, the biggest exchanges are like king makers. They said no fee and asked for exclusivity.”
I ask Huang about advice I'd heard him giving potential ICO founders about needing to "lawyer up", and whether he is comfortable with the risk attached to the crypto space given ongoing regulatory tightening by the US Securities and Exchange Commission.
"I'm not comfortable with the risk or the liabilities, but I didn't do an ICO, I did a private raise and got listed on an exchange. I took a different route from everybody else."
Huang's private-raise is a method few can pull off, requiring a hefty network of moneyed friends who are prepared to buy into an idea. But following 17’s success, Huang is one of those few. “I'm like the NBA star who has a good season and that every body wants to sign. So my funding? No questions asked."
Huang's view is that if you are trying to do something worthwhile then the law should see you right, and while this is airily optimistic, the fact is that in the meantime you can set to making your venture bulletproof, or as appears to be happening in Taiwan, part of discussions on formulating the regulations themselves.
"If you really believe in what you're doing and not doing something weird, shady or a scam and is going to change the world in your opinion – go for it, you have to take the shit that comes with it," says "You might pay fines, but so what, you raised crypto. If you're on the map to be sued, you're successful in some way."
Huang has massive ambitions for Mith, but these rely on cryptocurrency and blockchain quickly becoming more mainstream. For example, he declines to discuss the retail element of the project, the Mith Merchant Network, because he believes it will be obsolete in two or three years. . By then, everyone will be carrying a mobile crypto wallet that is able to convert, like shapeshift.io , various crypto coins and fiat, opens merchants to open their doors to any coin as long as the customer has the ability to convert it.
This leads to a conversation about how tardy Taiwan is going cashless, the ridiculous speed at which China is moving to digital forms of payment, and the ubiquitous role of WeChat.
“We want to be WeChat for the crypto generation,” Huang says. “That's the vision. We want to go from social into financial into crypto everything, and make crypto more mainstream.”
He is a generation of uninitiated crypto newbies can be educated about the pitfalls and processes of negotiating cryptoland. The Mithril White Paper also suggests that the intention is for Mith to migrate to other social platforms, though Huang admits that white papers And a lot of shit talk."
If he succeeds, Huang talks of Zuckerberg coming to buy him out, a la Snapchat, or copying his model: "If he copies rev share then I've achieved what I wanted to do." Huang plans for Mithril's success to come fast, And he is currently seeking to grow his team of about 10 and find a new, larger office.
Huang’s other project is a crypto financial services company called Formosa Financial. When we met, Huang had just returned from meeting financial bigwigs and legislators to discuss the project. Explaining the rationale, he says, “Who here doesn't have banking problems? I Have to pay wages and I'm paying from my own money, not Ether."
As to whether the project will debut in Taiwan's fledgling fintech sandbox , Huang says, "Definitely we will apply for the sandbox, why not?" There is also interest from Kuomintang legislator Jason Hsu (许毓仁), who helped push through the sandbox bill, In having Formosa Financial on board. Time will tell if the team behind Formosa Financial decide that the scrutiny that comes with being part of the experimental is worth it.
Huang also talks of cooperating with one of Mithril's backers, QTUM Foundation , about partnering to create a decentralized dating app – think verified identities and less fraud – as well as moving aspects of Mithril, including the Lit social network itself, onto the blockchain.
As for Mithril, Huang confesses that neither he nor the authorities who will later task themselves with regulating it know exactly what the token will become. In the great scheme this is no bad thing, after all, if there was already a framework for Mithril to Operate, it would not be truly innovative.
The question for Huang and is investors ishether his energy can keep pace with his own ideas.
Correction: This article originally ran stating that Huang "is candid in confirming the company (17 Media) was going to IPO this year." That has now been corrected to "the 45-year-old is candid in confirming that it is all over the news that the company is planning to IPO this year."