Sooner or later, every finance craze turns into performance art. In the 1990s, David Bowie securitized himself, turning his songwriting catalog into bonds. In 2008, a young Portland tech-support worker named Mike Merrill sold shares in himself through a “personal IPO.” And today, Evan Prodromou is minting the hours of his life into a cryptocurrency called Evancoin.
Like many developers and entrepreneurs—Prodromou founded Wikitravel in 2003 and is now the cofounder of the Montreal-based AI startup fuzzy.ai—Prodromou has an inbox that brims with requests for his time: Can I pick your brain about this project? Will you have lunch with me to give me some advice about my startup? These commitments are hard to juggle, and it’s tough to balance them against the hours you put in at a day job and those you dedicate to family or private life.
Evancoin turns these interactions into transactions. Want to pick Prodromou’s brain? As of October 1, the date of Evancoin’s initial coin offering (ICO), you can ask him for some Evancoin. He’ll probably give you some. Then you can use these tokens by “paying” for his time with them.
But they’re a kind of money, so you can also bank them for the future. Evancoin could gain or lose value depending on how it’s traded—how much demand there is for Prodromou’s time and what the supply of the currency is at the moment. You could also just sell your Evancoins for cash: As of this writing, each Evancoin, representing an hour of Prodromou’s attention, is worth about $45. (That’s well below his usual consulting rate, but he’s pleased nonetheless—it’s early days for the currency, and the market is acknowledging the worth of his time, then discounting for the risk inherent in the scheme’s novelty.) What if you sell your Evancoins to someone who wants to trade them for Prodromou’s time rather than for dollars? He’s game—as long as you’re not planning to ask him to do something “illegal, humiliating, or abusive to others.”
Yes, it sounds a bit crazy. “People wanted to know whether it was just a stunt,” Prodromou says. “And I’m not above a stunt! But in this case I’m really serious about exploring how cryptocurrency is changing what we can do with money and how we think about it. Money is this sort of consensual hallucination, and I wanted to experiment around that.”
The seed for Evancoin was planted a few years ago, when Bitcoin first got popular. “My friend and colleague Kevin Fox, who designed the original Gmail interface at Google, said, ‘Everyone should have their own personal currency,’” Prodromou recalls. “Of course, I immediately went out and registered Evancoin.com.”
But coding and then deploying your own personal currency from scratch turns out to be a lot of heavy lifting. So Prodromou put his idea on hold. This year, when Ethereum took off, he realized Evancoin’s time had come. Ethereum is a platform that lets you use the same technology that underlies Bitcoin, a distributed ledger known as the blockchain, to power all sorts of other applications. As one of the most popular platforms, Ethereum provides a ready-made framework for projects to “tokenize” themselves via their own ICOs, selling cryptocoins or tokens to the public. This currency both supplies the creators with some capital and opens a market in whatever it is that the coin represents—shares in a startup, functions of a software protocol, or, in Evancoin’s case, hours of someone’s time.
ICOs have been a hot commodity this year. Enthusiasts cheer their potential to disrupt the tired traditional venture-capital industry and the larger world of finance. Critics point to their volatility and view them as get-rich-quick scams. Prodromou worried that his own ICO might go awry if speculators flooded in, distorting the personal functionality he hoped to invent and creating a sort of bubble in himself. That didn’t happen. The Evancoin ICO was unusual, anyway. Prodromou didn’t dump a huge load of coins on the market in hopes of getting rich (or prefunding a giant project); he sold a small amount at a discount (20 hours at $15 each) to start the market off, continues to offer batches at smaller discounts according to a schedule, and keeps most of the coins for himself. “By releasing few at a time, I can show direct value, and keep a more moderate process happening,” he says.
A couple of people have already used Evancoin as Prodromou intended. But to do that,
you need to have an Ethereum wallet—a software home for your Ethereum-based coins. You also need to be reasonably comfortable with the technical business of transacting cryptocoin. This limits the currency to users on the geekier end of the spectrum—people who view spending a couple of hours learning how a new tech platform works with relish rather than dread.
For a developer in the startup world, that may not be much of a hurdle. But Prodromou has encountered a layer of resistance to his idea that’s less mundane and more philosophical. When he proposed to one friend that she use Evancoin to book his time for a coffee outing, she demurred and told him it made her uncomfortable to turn a social interaction into a paid exchange.
Prodromou does not seem to be a monetization freak. He says he’s less inspired by the “everything’s a market” mania of cryptocoin’s libertarian wing than by experiments in “time-based currencies”—markets that substitute work time for currency, like Ithaca Hours. “That came out of the ’60s, but the idea goes back to the 19th century,” Prodromou says—and its roots are in the progressive labor movement, rather than Hayek and Milton Friedman.
However you think about it, monetizing the hours of our lives can feel unsettling. But Prodromou points out that most of us trade our time for money with every day that we work. He’s not applying Evancoin to every minute of the day, only to professional time: “I’m not charging my family to sit down and have dinner with them.”
When a meeting lies in the fuzzy zone between social and business affairs, putting a price tag on the time might feel crass. Then again, Prodromou says, it also helps clarify that our time is money—at least in part. “That moment when I hand someone 10 Evancoins, I’m also thinking, ‘Hmm, how much do I really want to spend 10 hours on this project?’”
It took a few days for me to nail down an interview with Prodromou, and I wondered whether it was because I hadn’t approached him with Evancoin in hand. When I told him, he laughed and explained that he’d given up asking members of the press to play along. “With one outlet I wanted to try it, but they said their ethics policy didn’t allow them to pay for interviews,” he recalls. Not only that, they wouldn’t take the Evancoin he wanted to give them to pay him with, either—the policy forbade accepting any kind of gift.
Prodromou isn’t fazed. Today we’re racing to figure out how blockchain technology changes our ideas about money. Maybe, Prodromou says, “it’s good that we move really slowly when it comes to changing how we think about ethics.”