Things have taken a dramatic turn for investors and employees with Neo & Bee. The gist of it is that CEO Danny Brewster has disappeared, and with him apparently thousands of bitcoins from investors. If the company is not salvaged, the reputation of Bitcoin on the island of Cyprus will be tainted, and hundreds of bitcoiners will see their investment fail.
This is ugly, there's no other way to put it.
I hope that my perspective below can help putting some of the pieces together as to what exactly happened. Interactions with Danny and my trip to Cyprus for their branch opening
My first contact with Danny Brewster was in june 2013. We had a brief skype call in which he asked me some feedback about his plans for starting a Bitcoin company in Cyprus. I was quite skeptical at the time, because his profile and background in security didn't seem to match with my notion of a tech entrepreneur. I did agree with him that Cyprus was a very interesting location for a Bitcoin venture, and I wished him well.
Later last year, in early september, Danny informed me about the prospectus and public offering
of Neo & Bee. I didn't pay much attention to this and didn't read the prospectus, as I was in Austin at the time helping out with Cointerra.
In november, he contacted me again with the question whether I wanted to speak about Bitcoin at their conference in Cyprus. Originally it was planned for january, later it was pushed back to late february. I booked the flights, and they were reimbursed to me in BTC by Danny.
The pieces of information Danny shared every now and then over skype were intriguing. He talked about his connections with the university, meetings with the minister of finance and other high brow people, how he had signed up a chain of 40 stores where Neo & Bee products could be offered, and more.
When I arrived in Cyprus in late February, Danny picked me up at the airport. In the kiosk there he showed me how all major newspapers had a 2 page wrapper over the front cover, featuring "Neo" in big letters. On the way to his house (he had invited me to stay at his place) we saw at least four big Neo bilboards flash by.
Danny drove a posh Bentley car that he'd imported from the UK. Once arriving at his luxurious but sparsely furnished rental home, I was greeted by his fiancé. At first I was surprised by the affluence he displayed that first day, but that faded when Danny told me he was an early Bitcoin and Litecoin adopter who'd invested thousands of his own coins into the company (since his disappearance, his personal btc wealth became very contested).
When Danny and I discussed the MtGox failure the day it made the news, I asked him how many worthless bitcoins he personally had left sitting in the exchange. He answered "365".
At another point during my stay, the Bitcoin price fell briefly to below $500, and when I told him about this, he set up a trade to allegedly buy over €80,000 in bitcoins while sitting in his office, taking profit a few hours later when the price had recovered. (I was at the other side of his desk, so I didn't see the actual trade happen.)
The evening of the first day, Danny drove me to Neo's headquarters, an impressive four story building in downtown Nicosia. The building was owned by Christos Vlachos, CFO of the University of Nicosia, who I met several times during my stay and who'd made headlines last year by being the first to launch an Masters' degree in Digital Currencies. The bottom floor of the building featured the Neo store, with furnished rooms in the back for staff meetings and sanitation. Next to the store there was a large floor where I saw at least 12 programmers at work, one of whom demonstrated to me a functioning beta version of Neo's teller backend software as well as the e-banking interface. Upstairs on the second floor I found Neo's headquarters, and on two floors above that there were a number of ad agencies, the largest of which had created the ad campaign for Neo.
Over the course of the three days I got to talk to about ten of the Neo employees. They struck me as quite professional, and they were obviously passionate about the company and about the prospects for Bitcoin in Cyprus. The impression that I got of the corporate culture was relaxed and open. Danny didn't seem to mind showing me emails or allowing me to be present in the office while he was discussing certain corporate decisions. In a skype message to a friend, I wrote on the 23rd: "I still need to find out whether these guys are casual geniuses, or clever cowboys".
After the opening event the next morning—about 120 people attended, and it was widely reported—, we traveled to a hotel/conference centre nearby for the Bitcoin conference. The turnout was impressive: about 200 professionals, many working for multinational corporations, banks, and even government agencies. The next day in Limasol, the same scenario repeated itself.
I left for London the following day. How I found out about the problems at Neo & Bee
I was not aware of anything amiss with Neo until late last month when one of their investors asked me about the rumors that were circulating. That day I contacted Neo's management, and on sunday march 30th I got to talk to its COO and Compliance Officer (George Papageorgiou and Øystein Aaby). They told me the story as it was published today
I also emailed CEO Danny later that day, asking him about his version of the facts. Surprisingly, I did get a short response (he also seems to have given Coindesk a short response), though he didn't answer my request for more details and contact info of the lawyers he mentioned.
Earlier this month I helped the former management with reaching out to various Bitcoin angels and funds, to see whether Neo & Bee can still be salvaged. The outcome of that process is uncertain. Why I didn't investigate Neo & Bee's financial situation more thoroughly — though I should have
On February 23rd I asked Danny for clarification about the company's valuation. He said that Neo had +3,000BTC left from the IPO proceeds. Based on the numbers he told me, I calculated that the total valuation of the company was roughly 56,000 BTC, or $32.3M at the time, $2M of which were the publicly available shares. Despite the 3,000 bitcoins that were allegedly left, this valuation struck me as very high, and so from then on I didn't ask more because I had decided that this company not something I would be interested in as an investment.
The next month, on march 17, my attention was caught by the newly published Neo & Bee prospectus and the fact that they had received several inquiries from international parties that wanted to start franchise Neo stores (as per Danny). I decided to buy 250 shares at 0.8 BTC as a first investment just in case the international leg of the company would take off quickly. I disclosed that purchase on twitter
. Ironically I made that purchase exactly the day before Danny disappeared.
In hindsight I definitely should have done due diligence before writing in such positive terms about Neo & Bee. That is a lesson I will certainly remember. Final thoughts
Even though I never had any business relationships with Neo*, I do feel I have failed to take my responsibility as a public commentator seriously enough.
To wit, over the past two months I have talked repeatedly and positively about Neo & Bee and the Bitcoin ecosystem in Cyprus. I also visited the company headquarters on February 24th and 25th, and spoke about the experience on various public fora.
Though I never recommended anyone to invest in the company, and only did so myself for less than 1 BTC, I can imagine that my enthusiasm for the project, combined with my profile as an economist and investor helped convince a fair amount of people to make an investment or to maintain their trust in the company. I'm very sorry for any losses incurred because of that.
The lesson for me going forward, which I already knew but that I have now laser engraved into my brain, is that it is critical doing proper due diligence when making investment decisions. Excitement is never an indicator of viability or proper management. Sure, we all occasionally make an investment decision based on nothing more than a trusted reference. That's fine, as long as we keep these investments very small to manage their inherently high risk.
This episode has also reminded me, as I stated in my Buenos Aires talk
last december, that investing in Bitcoin the currency is likely the most stable and maybe even the most profitable option going forward, because it avoids the bulk of the third party risks involved with Bitcoin ecosystem investments.
*My financial interactions with the company were thus: I was reimbursed for my flight with 0.27 BTC, and the compensation for speaking at the two Neo conferences was a surprise gift containing promotional materials including an €80 tablet pc, a writing pad, and a Neo T-shirt.
Here's the post I published on reddit during my visit late February: http://www.reddit.com/Bitcoin/comments/1ysbt6/a_quick_take_on_whats_happening_in_cyprus_now_im/
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