The Decentralized Autonomous Organization has captured the imagination of the cryptocurrency community and the investing world more generally. It's promise to create people-less companies through the use of smart contracts has vaulted the blockchain-based currency ethereum to a market capitalization of $1 billion—second only to bitcoin's—and made the project the largest crowdfunded venture in history.
But the clock is ticking on the DAO. After 9:00 GMT (5:00 a.m. EDT) on May 28, you won't be able to buy tokens, the rough equivalent of shares, anymore. So what is it, and if you like the looks of it, how do you invest?
What Is the DAO?
If you've already read up on the DAO, feel free to skip this section and get right to the step-by-step below ("How Do You Invest?"). Otherwise:
The Economist describes the DAO as "a venture-capital fund of sorts," since it is raising money which it will invest in startups. If these profit—which is the primary goal, although charitable donations have been floated—the DAO's owners will be able to vote on whether to reinvest the earnings or distribute them as rewards. A few things differentiate this outfit from your run-of-the-Sand-Hill-Road VC, however. (For more, see also: Why the DAO Ethereum Is Revolutionary.)
First, it exists entirely on the blockchain, a technology originally developed to undergird bitcoin, but which has seen a proliferation of alternative cryptocurrencies and other non-monetary applications in recent years. One of these currencies is ethereum, one unit of which—an ether—is worth about $12.39 or 0.038 bitcoin at the time of writing; 1.5 ether in turn buys 100 DAO tokens. The DAO is written into the ethereum blockchain. (For related reading, see also: What Is Ethereum?)
Which brings us to the second difference. The Decentralized Autonomous Organization—and the organizations it will invest in—functions based on smart contracts, or protocols written into the blockchain that govern how they do business.
If you believe the sociologist Arthur Stinchcombe, any organization is at its core just a cluster of contracts that people carry out, meaning it could theoretically exist without human input, so long as the contracts that make it up can execute themselves without the risk of someone tampering with or failing to fulfill them. Computer programming allows them to execute themselves; the blockchain, a technology designed to allow for completely trustless exchanges of value, prevents tampering. The result is a lower case-d decentralized autonomous organization, in which people are only necessary to code the contracts and provide the funding. (For more, see: Decentralized Autonomous Organizations: IoT Today.)
Of course, one of the likely proposals for DAO investment is a company that produces Big Auto-disrupting tricycles, which will probably need people to design and build them, but the relationship between the company, Mobotiq, and the DAO can be coded into smart contracts.
How Do You Invest?
Sound good? Now there's the matter of actually buying into the DAO. For that you need ether.
First, get yourself some bitcoin. We made an account at Coinbase and paid by debit card. Linking a bank account, while cheaper—a 1% fee rather than a 3% fee—takes a few days, and by then you've missed your window to invest in the DAO. You'll have to upload a picture of a valid government ID. We ran into a $40 daily buy limit, since we didn't provide much in the way of documentation to ensure we were trustworthy. That works for our purposes, but might be inconvenient for investors who are serious about the DAO (serious in a last-minute sort of way, that is).
We got around 0.085 BTC for our $40, which we then needed to convert to ETH. One way to go about it is to go to the DAO's site and follow the link to the ethereum wallet. Download the appropriate version for your operating system and follow its instructions. You'll be dealing with a few strings of long numbers, which are the addresses for your ethereum and bitcoin wallets, along with a third that's unique to the transaction. To get the address for your Coinbase wallet, go to the top right corner (in the desktop version), select "Advanced" under your profile menu, and create a new address. The ethereum wallet will give you an address where you can send bitcoin from Coinbase (using "Send/Request" on the left-hand side).
The exchange might take a while. Another way to get ether is to exchange through shapeshift.io (we tried both). That might also take a while: the average is over 15 minutes. We'll wait. (For more, see: Is Ethereum More Important Than Bitcoin?)
Once you have your ether, go to the DAO's site and either follow the wizard or deposit your ether directly to this address: 0xbb9bc244d798123fde783fcc1c72d3bb8c189413. We followed the site's warning, because in this day and age you ignore caps lock at your own peril: "DO NOT SEND ETH TO THIS ADDRESS DIRECTLY FROM AN EXCHANGE / USE THE ETHEREUM WALLET OR FOLLOW THE WIZARD BELOW."
Now a confession and word of warning. We, consummate noobs that we are, failed more than once to send our transaction. Our test-run, for which we used a tiny amount, went through, but after that we selected "Send everything." The problem, we figured out through the DAO's helpful forum, is that you need "gas" (fees) to send ether, meaning you have to leave a cushion. (For related reading, see: Bitcoin vs Ethereum: Driven By Different Purposes.)
Once you've deposited your ether, you can check your DAO token count under the "Creation" tab at the top of the DAO's site (we have 213.16, no big deal). Once the funding phase is closed, you can vote on proposals, worry about what stumbling blocks regulators will lay in your path, and maybe, just maybe, profit.