Updated with additional comments at 20:35 GMT, Monday and 09:57, Wednesday.
Everyone in crypto knows what white papers are. But who are the people who write the bloody things?
It turns out, based on a massive Decrypt two-week-long investigation (wherein we spoke to, perhaps a dozen of them) that the writing of these papers is largely outsourced to contractors—many with limited technical knowledge. Some are freelancers, while many others are employed by private white-paper mills. They rake in between $1,000 and $50,000 for a single job, which might take up to eight months of hard work. Most find their employers through social media—Upwork, LinkedIn and Facebook.
The good news is that most of the writers we interviewed are reporting a recent resurgence in business, which is (perhaps?) another leading indicator that crypto is emerging from its long, withering winter.
The bad news, which will likely not surprise anyone who’s watched this space, is that many of the writers say that they are consistently required to fabricate and exaggerate facts, and are met with an alarming laziness on the part of the companies employing them.
Multiple writers recalled being asked to inflate clients' expenses. “Most time[s], there are cases of funding budget padding,” said Adefemi Yusuff Adegoke, a prolific writer. “A project that can be executed with $180k funding budget can be padded up to $450k. And they won't report the total amount realized during ICO.”
“Most of the fraud[s] are in the miscellaneous part of the budget,” he added. “Those ones go directly into the pockets of the CEO and CTO.”
(Adegoke, as well as others we spoke to who asked to remain anonymous, is based in Nigeria, which seems to have developed a healthy cottage economy for white-paper writers. Adegoke himself charges $30 to would-be proteges for a training session.)
Volodymyr Malyshkin, the CEO of Ukraine-based white paper provider Illuminates, which has helped its clients score upwards of $12 million from token sales, said the practise of inflating figures is rife: he has frequently been asked to include “fake numbers” in his company’s work.
Sometimes, Malyshkin is able to offer clients discounts on "marketing"—selling stories to crypto news sites—which cheapen the cost by as much as half. But often, he said, the clients won't correspondingly reduce their budgets, instead including the "official," non-discounted price.
'It means you have $1 million marketing-PR budget, and in reports you show your spendings based the prices on official website of service provider," he said. "But in [reality] you paid up to two times cheaper."
"It works with most of [sic] crypto news/channels," he added.
It gets worse. Businesses, according to Malyshkin, often go into blockchain with little understanding of what they want to build—or even how to build it—merely hoping the word "blockchain" will attract investors. That means the white-paper writers are often tasked with inventing business models on behalf of their clients. Out of dozens, Malyshkin said, “only one client had any real idea about what to do from scratch.”
One person, a senior consultant from a leading blockchain advisory, said it wasn't a matter of startups being clueless but a matter of simple, calculated cynicism. "Usually the way it works in my experience is this—a group of people want to raise money, they buy a consulting package that includes figuring out how they can raise, what they need to message, what they need to have in the whitepaper, etc. and that's it," he said. "There's rarely any interest on the part of the 'crypto startup' of what's in the whitepaper. All they want is to raise and everything else serves that purpose."
Case in point: An American writer who asked to remain anonymous recalled clients briefing him on a full-fledged white paper, with little more than “five sentences.” Another asked him to write “a white paper for a basket ETF that included [Bitcoin], Litecoin, and Ethereum.” Although the client announced the project publicly, he seemed more than willing to accept a substantially different business model.
“He basically told me to write whatever,” he said.
The well of imagination can run yet drier. The U.S.-based writer recounts “lots of copyright infringement,” saying: “I’ve had CTOs ask me to write about patented technology from another white paper as if it were my own idea, change the words a little, and then put it in a new white paper,” he said. “This is patented technology in another part of the world.”
“Everything is the same,” agreed Malyshkin.
Do clients literally say, “Copy this business model”?
Quoth the Ukranian: “Yeah, sure.”
Sometimes, items in a white paper are near poetic in their descriptions. Hassan Sa’eed, another Nigeria-based contractor, claims to have penned the white paper for “KuCoin,” a $32 million Singapore-based exchange and cryptocurrency. (KuCoin didn’t respond to our emails.)
We asked Sa’eed how he arrived at conclusions such as: “KuCoin's capable operation team shall create a bright and prosperous future through long-term and large-scale online/offline promotion & operation.”
“It is a subjective understanding, even though each view is based on one or two premises,” he said. “I started out with the mindset of making money to raise my head above water level. So, it [wasn’t then] about how authentic the project is.”
Often, aspects of a white paper would be included because they would help generate interest in the fundraise—whether or not they had any factual basis. For instance, at the height of the ICO boom, “it was previously enough to add [social media] influencers in the white paper as teammates,” said Malyshkin.
“Now it’s not,” he said, referring, in part, to the recent resurgence in profits the cottage industry has seen since startups began peddling “security tokens”—which are designed to comply with securities laws. It is, according to Malyshkin, a boom that has come with a caveat:
“People want to see workable projects,” he said.
Writers are frequently stiffed on payments. Grant Fjermedal, a writer whose employer raised $25 million worth of ether, was promised a cut of the crypto funds raised. "Fortunately, the company never came through with the coins they had promised me--which would have created quite a tax liability, as the government would have valued them upon day of granting, and the last I looked our coin had joined the Triple Egg club, trading at something like $0.0009," he said.
The US-based writer, meanwhile, recalled a perennially dissatisfied client who demanded constant rewrites, yet refused to pay him on false grounds. "I’d work on a draft, submit it," he said. "They would not offer any direct feedback, if I were lucky, one sentence. The guy would say the board does not like it. Then I would have to write another 20-30 pages, and not get direct feedback again. But it was like being held hostage for the other half of my pay."
"Then they had a launch event so had no choice but to use what they had," he said. "Afterward, the board member said he didn’t want to pay me [because] the WP was dif from what I wrote, and they used other writing. While in reality, one of my drafts was the foundation for 99% of the material they had."
Do the writers have any scruples when they are asked to fabricate parts of or all of their work?
A freelancer from India told us he was often compelled to include token models that made little sense to him. “Those things aren’t practically feasible.” he said. “But still, I have to write those things according to the instructions.”
“I write for crappy [projects] too, if they’ll pay good,” agreed Adegoke. “I won’t allow my name to be written among the team though. Money must be made.”
Still, even the dumbest ideas are an opportunity for profit, many of the white paper writers said.
“There are no stupid ideas,” said Malyshkin. “We’ll never say no to any startup that needs a white paper."