Layer 1s versus Ethereum

Last year, the networks that set out to compete with Ethereum for a slice of decentralized applications proved to be profitable. These blockchain networks, also known as ‘Layer 1s’, include Solana, Polygon, Avalanche, Polkadot and Cosmos amongst others.

These protocols are masters of decentralized computation, something that can power any type of software, but is “particularly apt for digital scarcity, property rights and provenance,” writes Lex Sokolin at Coindesk. And as last year showed, they proved to be increasingly profitable for investors. However, they only remain valuable if they are used by the developers who make apps.

They also require users. As Sokolin says, “if there are users in your platform, developers value that as a distribution channel in addition to a technology enabler.” He refers to this creating a viral loop “that can create positive network effects, which allow certain equilibria to hold, and others to collapse.” He adds, “So layer 1s do both – they provide the computational unit as well as the market context in which that computational unit is generated and executed.”

Yet Ethereum is still holding the biggest slice of the market. It is true that its dominance has declined. For example, in September 2020, Ethereum had 90% of the assets on the market, and today it has about 50%. How and why has that happened?

Let’s take Avalanche as an example. It is launching a $290 million incentive program to grow the applications built on its technology. Its market cap is around $30 billion, so this expenditure on platform growth and customer acquisition is only one percent of its cap. And last year, Polygon, targeted DeFi growth with a $100 million ecosystem fund, which worked for it, as you will find quite a number of DeFi projects on its blockchain.

Ethereum by contrast was boosted by Consensys, which “played the role of ecosystem fund in the early days, eventually generating sufficient building and adoption by the community.”

These ecosystem funds are a really important element in the rise of Layer 1 solutions. Success and sustainability comes from spending on marketing, growing your adoption against others, building in profitability and using profitability to grow your market share. Ultimately, it should have been easy for Ethereum to hold onto the lion’s share of the market, but it didn’t factor in investors’ appetite for. As Sokolin says, “there’s a lot more risk capital out there wanting to recreate a layer 1 investment return profile,” which is good news for those protocols.

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