When thinking about the token launch, many teams and token creators underappreciate the importance of a critical aspect of every blockchain project — token design.
No matter which chain and technology you use to create a token, it can be doomed to failure without properly designed token economics.
This article aims to explain the basics of the token design process, and it will serve equally well if you want to launch an ICO or have an existing product/concept/idea and want to integrate a token into it.
Creating a token and building a product around it is a task that will require flexing your mental muscles.
First, you have to understand the basics of the common token properties and the ones shared by your token.
Token Properties For Your ICO
In the blockchain world, there are many different types of tokens for various purposes and use cases. For example, there are Layer 1 and Layer 2 tokens, fungible tokens and NFTs, security and utility tokens, and other species.
However, when people talk about launching a token (doing an ICO), the token is most likely to have the following properties.
Layer 2 Token
Layer 2 tokens are the tokens built on top of the existing blockchains.
For simplicity, nowadays, you don’t need to build your own blockchain from scratch when launching a token. Instead, you can use existing blockchains such as Ethereum, Binance Smart Chain, Polygon for token creation.
These Layer 1 networks allow creating tokens on top of them with a few lines of code using smart contracts. For example, tokens built on top of the Ethereum network are called ERC-20 tokens.
Fungible tokens are the opposite of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that are unique, non-divisible, and non-interchangeable.
For the token launch, we want to have fungible tokens — identical tokens with an equal monetary value.
In Security vs. Utility, you want your token to be of a utility type. It is mainly due to regulatory aspects, so we will not dive too deep into that. Just know that a utility token is much simpler to set up and register than the security one.
Designing Token Economics
The most crucial step in creating a token is to design its tokenomics and define product usage cases.
While many token creators fail at this stage and end up with poorly designed tokens with their value going to 0, there are a few steps you can follow to create a long-lasting token economics model.
Step 1: Define Token Utility and Workflow
Before you delve into any numbers and economic modeling, you have to ask yourself the most critical question:
Why do you need a token?
In your system, the token should have a definite purpose. Otherwise, it has limited or no value for an end user or an investor.
The purpose of a token is usually determined by the utility it provides in a product ecosystem.
Defining utility of your token
As a rule of thumb, you want to add as much utility to the token as possible. This means that there should exist many ways for people to use tokens in your system to get value.
While defining token utility, ask yourself the following questions:
- Who uses the tokens in your project?
- Why should they use the tokens?
- How can they use it in the project?
I personally like modeling your utility using the actions-actors approach outlined in the article by Christian Blanquera, where actors are the types of users of the token and actions are what actors can do with it.
Here are a couple of examples based on existing tokens:
Actors- Users- Validators- Developers
ActionsUsers:- Can send transactions- Can use apps
Validators:- Can validate transactions, mine tokens and earn rewards- Can govern ecosystem decisions
Developers:- Can build apps- Can improve the network code and earn rewards
Actors- Customers- Developers- Platform
ActionsCustomers:- Can buy tokens- Can pay for online services that support BNB- Can receive discounted service fees when paid in BNB- Can earn cashback by using Binance Visa card- Can participate in Binance launchpad projects when holding BNB- Can earn increased referral rewards when holding BNB- Can provide liquidity and earn rewards
Developers:- Can create tokens and build apps- Can list their tokens on the platform
Platform:- Can earn service fees- Can sell tokens to customers- Can do token burns
One Button Token (OBT)
Actors- Customers- Promoters- Merchants- Platform
ActionsCustomers:- Can buy tokens on the exchange- Can buy tokens from the platform directly- Can buy tokens from merchants- Can provide liquidity on merchant’s platforms and earn rewards- Can pay service fees with token- Can get access to premium strategies by holding tokens- Can receive quarterly reflections from company profits- Can pay discounted service fees with the higher amount of token held- Can govern product decisions
Merchants:- Can sell tokens to customers- Can earn tokens in exchange for products or services- Can gift tokens to potential customers or as rewards- Can use tokens to list products on the platform- Can use tokens to promote products on the platform at a discount
Promoters:- Can earn tokens by promoting the platform- Can earn tokens by referring customers to the platform- Can sell tokens to merchants or consumers
Platform:- Can earn tokens from service fees- Can earn tokens from transaction fees- Can sell tokens to customers- Can burn tokens to decrease supply and increase value
It is important to note that each token use case should provide a form of value to its users. Without value, there will be no incentive for people to participate in your ecosystem.
In order for an economy to prosper, it should be clear how each actor could possibly win, including the platform.
Token Workflow and Distribution
Token distribution is basically an every ‘in and out’ flow of tokens in the system.
Consider different ways how tokens enter and exit your network and what makes it circulate.
When designing tokenomics, we want to create a model where:
a) The circulation volume is high enough — meaning that there should be a consistently high amount of transactions — “ins” and “outs” of a token in the system.
b) There should be more “ins” than “outs” — meaning that the incentives should be designed to increase the inflow of tokens into the system and create buying pressure.
c) The token hold time is long enough — meaning that there are enough incentives for the token holders not to cash out immediately.
Asking the following questions can help:
- What are the values that the ecosystem is trying to promote and how is the incentivization organized to adopt a determined behavior?
- What are the sources of input (injection) and output (rewards) of tokens?
- How can we build a sustainable and stable ecosystem in the long term?
Step 2: Set Up The Basics
When creating your token using a Layer 2 solution (on top of Ethereum, Binance Smart Chain, or Solana networks), all your token business logic and code will be inside a smart contract — a transaction protocol that automatically executes actions and events written in its conditions/code.
Thus, since you cannot change most things written in the smart contract code once it hits the main network, it is critical to think through your economic model in advance.
Now it’s time to get slightly deeper into the technicalities and understand the basic terminology of token economics modeling.
Basics of token economy
Market capitalization is the total financial value of available tokens on the market when the token is launched. It is determined by how many tokens are in circulation multiplied by the token price.
Market Cap = Token Supply * Token Price
How to define a market cap? It will be hugely dependent on how much money you want to raise during your token launch (ICO). You can read how to structure your tokenomics for your fundraising round in this ICO tokenomics article.
After you blueprint the fundraising part, you need to decide on the token supply.
Total Token Supply
Total supply is how many tokens in total you create (mint) for your coin.
Does the total supply number matter? Not really.
What matters is the total supply compared to the price per one token — the market cap.
As a rule of thumb, the token supply shouldn’t be super high or extremely low. For example, you can rarely see the tokens with less than 100,000 or more than 1,000,000,000,000,000 (1 quadrillion) in supply. Unconventional numbers can push investors away.
Bitcoin (BTC), for example, has a max supply of 20 million, while Ethereum has a current supply of more than 118 million.
Number of Decimals
The number of decimals is how many digits your token has in the fraction part.
For example, if your total supply is 10 million tokens, on the network your supply with 18 decimals looks like the following: 10,000,000.000000000000000000
Screenshot from BSCScan of OBToken
You have to specify this number when designing your token and submitting it to the network.
As a rule of thumb, you won’t be wrong if you use the number 18.
Why 18? Because 1 ETH = 1¹⁸ Wei
Are Tokens Minted or Mined?
There is a fundamental difference between minting and mining tokens related to the type of protocol used in the network.
For simplicity’s sake, in this article, we’re not going to dive deep into the technicalities of Proof-of-Work vs. Proof-of-Stake.
You just want to know that the mining technology is getting outdated, and all the tokens in the Layer 2 protocols are minted. That means your tokens will be minted, too.
Token minting is simply a process of creating new tokens.
Transaction Fees (Token Tax)
The question of transaction fees deserves a special mention as this topic is not widely covered in any existing sources.
Transaction fee (also commonly known as Token Tax) is a fee taken by the network from each transaction.
For example, if you’re sending 100 tokens from one address to another with a 1% transaction fee, you will only receive 99 tokens. What happens with the remaining one token is determined by the token creators and the token smart contract.
There are multiple ways token creators choose to distribute tokens from fees, some of the most common ones:
- Project funding — tokens go to one of the project’s wallets to fund the product development, marketing, or other efforts.
- Adding liquidity — tokens go to one of the liquidity pools to provide higher market liquidity.
- Burn — tokens are simply getting burned.
- Profit-sharing — tokens are distributed between the existing token holders proportionally to their stake.
You can implement combinations of mechanisms; for example, you can specify that from 1% token fee, 0.5% will be burned, 0.25% will go to the developer’s wallet, and 0.25% to the liquidity pool.
So, what transaction fee should I implement in my token economics model?
It highly depends on other incentives your model offers to the users.
Often projects set up high transaction fees to prevent token holders from actively selling received tokens. For example, Safemoon coin has a 10% transaction fee, from which 5% is redistributed to existing holders, and another 5% is sold as BNB and added to the liquidity pool.
However, you should be careful with implementing high token fees as it can create the opposite effect and send a negative signal to an investor. If investors notice high transaction fees (~3%+) in your token model, they might think there are no other incentive mechanisms you can offer to the holders. Thus, they may not see enough value in your project and would rather not invest in your token.
Generally, transaction fees of 0.2–1% are acceptable.
In the OB Trader project, we implemented a 0.5% fee, 0.25% of which is burned, and 0.25% goes to the product development. There are three reasons why we did this: a) The fees are not outrageously high to scare investors away b) They are still sizeable enough to incentivize investors to hold rather than sell and lose some % of value c) It allows us to start getting returns from launching the token while still building the product.
It is worth noting that the fees can be made adjustable even after the token is launched. When creating a smart contract, developers can make it so you can modify transaction fees and how they are distributed in the network later on.
This may be a good option for you, especially if you’re afraid your tokenomics model won’t work from the first try.
Step 3: Define Economic Model
Economic Model: Deflationary vs. Inflationary
There are two types of economic models you can select for your token: Deflationary and Inflationary.
Deflationary Model (Examples: BNB, CRO, LUNA)
A deflationary model means there is a hard cap (limit) on the number of tokens created.
In the deflationary model, token supply only decreases over time.
Deflationary models are made possible with the token burn mechanism.
Token burning is the process of a token being permanently removed from the system.
There are two primary ways token burns are implemented in the deflationary models:
- Buyback and burn — the platform or the token creators purchase the tokens from the market and purposefully send them to the “burn” wallet where they are unrecoverable.
- Burn on transaction — automatic mechanism defined in the token smart contract that burns a certain amount of token from each transaction.
Not to mention that users occasionally lose or forget their private keys to wallets, making the tokens unrecoverable. So pretty much any token model with limited supply becomes deflationary.
Deflationary token models are generally simpler to design; therefore, many new projects choose them for their tokenomics. A deflationary model makes it easier to increase token value over time since the supply only becomes lower.
Inflationary Model (Examples: ETH, DOT, SOL)
There is no hard cap on the number of tokens created in an inflationary token economic model, meaning that the token supply only increases over time.
There are different examples of the inflationary model: some release tokens on the fixed schedule, some use non-linear functions, and others simply mint tokens on-demand.
While the inflationary models are slightly harder to sustain than deflationary, there are some basic rules to follow if you’re designing your token in an inflationary way.
Rules for an inflationary model:
- Don’t allow an on-demand token minting mechanism. It is generally not a great idea to let someone (e.g., project team) issue new tokens as they see fit. If the public looks at the contract code and sees that you can mint an unlimited number of tokens at any given moment, investors will run away from your project like from a fire.
- >200% annual inflation is problematic for a token model to sustain.
- Aim for >20% initial circulating supply and <150% annual inflation rate
Minting new tokens through staking or mining is the main driving force behind inflationary models.
Staking is the process of token holders validating transactions and maintaining the security of a network. As a result, validators receive token rewards for supporting the network.
Token rewards minted for network validators in the block creation process are what causes market inflation.
Many projects successfully use a combination of deflationary and inflationary models. More precisely, they use a primary inflationary model with some deflationary mechanisms (token burns).
For example, Solana’s (SOL) is an inflationary coin. Its annual inflation rate started at 8% and will gradually decrease until it hits its final rate of 1.5% in about 10 years from now. However, the % of each transaction fee is burned (depending on the transaction throughput). With enough transactions per second, the burn rate can reach 1.5% per year or higher, ultimately making the currency deflationary.
Step 4: Polish and Add More Incentives
As a final step, analyze everything you defined so far, examine potential flaws in your model, and think about extra ways your model can add value to the investors.
Consider not only the use-case of your token from a business or technical perspective but also the perspective of your future investors. How can your token metrics increase the value proposition for them?
There are several incentive techniques available in the arsenal you can introduce in your token economy system:
Allow token holders to benefit from holding their tokens by distributing rewards. These can be airdrops, fee reflections, or other discretional token distribution events.
Burn some of the token supply to decrease the number of tokens in circulation and raise scarcity. The more tokens you burn, the more valuable the single one becomes.
Allow token holders to stake their tokens and earn rewards by being validators in the network.
Partially lock investors’ tokens and unlock them based on the set schedule. For example, you can specify in the smart contract that the ICO buyers will only be able to use 25% of tokens purchased during the ICO. The rest 75% will unlock linearly over the next three months. This way, you enforce the holding of tokens.
Allow token holders to participate in decision-making for the platform’s future and reward them with tokens.
You can see the extended list of various tokenomics techniques and examples here. Worth the read for inspiration.
Key Properties Of Successful Tokenomics Model
To summarize, a great token economics model has to satisfy a set of different rules, and most importantly, provide value to the token holders. As a result, a well-designed token has the following properties:
- Has usefulness in the ecosystem and without it the ecosystem will function less efficiently or will not function in principle;
- It has inflationary resistance, so the issue of tokens is thought out in the system;
- Scalable: tokens can be sent between people quickly and in large volumes;
- Replaceable, unless it is a unique token (non-fungible tokens);
- Accepted by many people, services, artificial systems;
- It has liquidity: tokens are traded on exchanges and p2p sites;
- It has motivational features for use, which are divided into economic incentives (the token holder earns more or saves with it) or managerial incentives (the token holder has the right to vote and is able to influence the ecosystem).
- The token has “rules of the game”: users understand what can be done with this token and what cannot.
Examples of projects with well-designed tokenomics
1. Polkadot (DOT)
DOT is a native token in the Polkadot ecosystem. Polkadot offers two primary features:
- Parachains — Polkadot offers a framework with comprehensive tooling for blockchain developers to implement their own blockchain projects.
- Slot Auctions. To participate in Parachain, developers have to submit their project proposals and bid on the auction to get their Parachain slot. Because the places are limited, the highest bidder wins the slot. This auction mechanism helps maintain a high bar of quality for all the projects on the Polkadot network.
Within the Polkadot ecosystem, DOT holders can do the following with their tokens:
- Participate in the governance of the Polkadot network. DOT token holders have certain voting entitlements within the governance framework of the platform, similar to how shareholders can vote on matters regarding a listed company.
- Participate in staking either to become a validator or to nominate validators. Polkadot is one of the largest networks by staked value and offers some of the highest rewards, averaging around 13%, which is generous considering that participation is a relatively passive activity.
- Bond tokens to connect a chain to the Polkadot Relay chain as a parachain. Parachain slot winners only lease their slots for a fixed period; they will have to rebid at the time of renewal. The value of the successful bid in DOT is bonded for the duration of the lease.
- Participate in Crowdloans. Crowdloans are a new feature offering an interesting proposition for token investors, as they create a competitive environment in which projects have to offer incentives for participation. Bonding DOT in crowd loans also offers a high-security guarantee, as the funds are held transparently on the Polkadot Relay chain, meaning that there’s no opportunity for founders to execute any exit scams with the funds.
What makes the Polkadot tokenomics model stand out?
The whole Polkadot system is designed to incentivize two primary roles: users and developers.
Developers are incentivized to buy DOT to submit their projects to Polkadot Parachains. The DOTs are then locked for 96 weeks on the chain (good use of a freeze mechanic)
Regular users are incentivized to vote, stake DOT, and participate in Crowdloans to fund the developers’ projects. After the Crowdloan is fulfilled, the DOTs are locked in the contract until the team completes the project (again, clever freeze mechanic).
The use of the two above mechanisms creates buying pressure for DOT. By setting the high entry bar for developer’s submissions, Polkadot maintains a high standard for the projects in its ecosystem. This, in turn, attracts more investors and other developers.
In the Polkadot model, there is a clear correlation between ecosystem growth and token price growth — the more developers and users there are on Polkadot, the higher the token price, which is evident from the DOT chart below.
DOT market chart from CoinMarketCap
2. Helium (HNT)
The Helium Network is a long-range wireless network that is both distributed and global, providing coverage for IoT devices. The network is comprised of Hotspots that provide the public network coverage, and in return are compensated with Helium’s native cryptocurrency — HNT.
The Helium Token is designed to serve the needs of the two primary parties in the Helium blockchain ecosystem:
- Hotspot Hosts and Network Operators. Hosts mine HNT while deploying and maintaining network coverage.
- Enterprises and developers using the Helium Network to connect devices and build IoT applications. Data Credits, which are a $USD-pegged utility token derived from HNT in a burn transaction, are used to pay transaction fees for wireless data transmissions on the network (in addition to things like adding Hotspots and sending).
What makes the Helium tokenomics model stand out?
One of the great features of the Helium project is that it has an amazing underlying hardware technology behind it. It is an IoT project with a real-life use case and is already bringing value to thousands of people and businesses.
There are two main roles involved in the Helium network: hosts and network users (enterprises/developers).
The hosts are incentivized to deploy hotspot devices and provide network coverage. By maintaining the network, hosts can receive passive income in HNT tokens from transaction fees paid by the network users. Therefore, the more coverage you provide — the higher the potential income.
All Helium’s blueprints for IoT devices are open-sourced, meaning that anyone in the world can craft and deploy them. Making their designs public is an excellent move by Helium, making it easy for the hosts to enter the network.
Enterprises and developers, in turn, are happy to pay the fees to hosts for using the network because it provides value for their projects. For example, Lime — an e-scooter rental project — uses the Helium network to provide coverage for their scooters located in major cities. It enables thousands of users around the world to rent Lime bikes on their mobile apps.
With such a straightforward tokenomics model and an ingenious hardware device, the Helium project and its HNT token have been showing consistent growth over the last months.
HNT market chart from CoinMarketCap
3. Ethereum (ETH)
It is worth giving Ethereum as an example of a project with simple and well-designed tokenomics.
There are just two types of participants in the network — network validators and network users.
Network users are people who want to send tokens on the Ethereum network and developers.
Network validators are miners who validate transactions and earn rewards from gas (transaction) fees and newly created blocks.
What makes Ethereum so successful is the layer of tools and infrastructure they offer to developers. Blockchain developers can create their own tokens, write smart contracts, and build decentralized applications on top of the Ethereum network. All the created tokens and dApps will share the same technology benefits with Ethereum.
The Ethereum token model is pretty simple — miners create new blocks, users make transactions, and pay gas fees to the miners. On top of gas fees, validators receive rewards from the created blocks.
Despite Ethereum having an inflationary model with uncapped supply, it has worked well for the ecosystem so far, which we can judge by the price chart of ETH over the last few years.
ETH market chart from CoinMarketCap
Examples of projects with poorly-designed tokenomics
1. Safemoon (SAFEMOON)
Safemoon is a coin launched to support the development of Safemoon wallet, exchange, and other products.
What is notable about this coin is that it has a 10% transaction fee for transferring the token. Arguably, this is a bad token design decision that can impede token growth in the long run. Going to such an extreme with transaction fees can indicate that there is not much else the project can offer to its investors.
And indeed, the project by itself doesn’t have any unique value proposition — it created a blockchain wallet when there are hundreds of similar wallets out there. It also started building an exchange when there are so many of them.
Personally, I think the model with such high transaction fees is not sustainable in the long run — investors lose too much value in transactions which makes this project unappealing compared to alternatives available on the market.
Here is how the SAFEMOON chart looks like now:
SAFEMOON market chart from CoinMarketCap
2. IRON Titanium Token (TITAN)
Titanswap is a project that allows cross-chain token swaps and automated liquidity mining. Titanswap had a dual-token economic model when they launched, with TITAN being a primary value token and IRON a utility stablecoin.
The IRON token was designed as an algorithmic stablecoin tied to the price of the other crypto within the pool (TITAN).
When the project was launched in May 2021, they provided liquidity farming options with more than 2,000,000%+ APY on their pools.
However, the party ended quickly. In June 2021, in the TITAN/IRON pair pool, the selling pressure on TITAN caused both cryptos to spiral down nearly to $0 almost instantly, which made all the investors, including Mark Cuban, lose their money.
IRON Titanium Price Chart from Coingecko
It happened because the algorithmic stablecoin (IRON) was poorly designed.
3. Dogecoin (DOGE)
Dogecoin is a token that was created as a tribute to the Doge meme. The DOGE blockchain was forked from Bitcoin, so it shares all the main features of the Bitcoin blockchain.
Despite Dogecoin being a powerful meme in the crypto space, it is not too great with it from the tokenomics perspective:
Dogecoin is a replica of Bitcoin with some minor adjustments to the code. So it acts as a Layer 1 blockchain that is fundamentally similar to Bitcoin. That means DOGE’s utility is limited to being a Bitcoin-like cryptocurrency.
Unlike Ethereum or tokens made on the Ethereum network, developers cannot create smart contracts or build decentralized applications on Dogecoin. People can only send it back and forth as a currency.
Unlike Bitcoin, Dogecoin doesn’t have a supply limit. So it means that it’s infinitely inflatable. With more than 130 billion DOGE already in supply, 5.26 billion new DOGE is minted every year to reward network validators. That slowly drives the value of DOGE down because the number of Dogecoins increases, and its utility does not.
Lack of differentiation
Since Dogecoin was launched in 2013, its original creators abandoned the project for many years. Without any improvements made to the protocol over the years, Dogecoin isn’t any better or different from other similar blockchains.
Even one of Dogecoin’s developers, Billy Markus proclaimed that “The coin design was absurd.”
Powered by the strong meme, the coin’s price surged in recent months. However, this growth is unlikely to be sustainable due to poor token design.
DOGE market chart from CoinMarketCap
As we can see from the examples of successful projects, even the simplest token economics models can yield great success. However, there are also many great tokens with a rather complex environment, use cases, and mixed economic models.
Therefore, economics design is not always the place to start. Instead, begin by thinking about how to build a meaningful product and, at the same time, create value for your token holders.
There is nothing bad with very simple models or complicated multi-actor models. What’s important is that the value of your system is clear to the investors.
Your model can be complex, but the token use case should be simple and easy to understand. Remember that humans are lazy by nature, so you don’t want to confuse them with unnecessary over-complication (if you want them to buy into your token).
Token Design and Human Psychology
It’s also worth pointing out the linkage between token design and other sciences.
To design a robust and sustainable token economics model, it is not enough to be an expert in blockchain and cryptocurrencies.
Tokenomics modeling involves interdisciplinary aspects of mathematics, behavioral psychology, macroeconomics, game theory, game design, and related industries.
The meaningful token economics model considers the individual needs and desires of all the network actors and aims to predict macroeconomic patterns that can result from the special events in the future of a token system.
Many token creators underestimate the importance of investing time and effort in the economic model in the early stage, which causes them to lose a lot of value in the long run due to various flaws in their system.
Before making your own token launch, it is highly advisable to consult a specialist to get an outside opinion on your tokenomics model.
Here is a list of 20 questions (source) you should ask yourself when creating a token. Give yourself 1 point for each “yes” answer. Ideally, you should strike 20/20.
- Is the token tied to a product usage, i.e. does it give the user exclusive access to it, or provide interaction rights to the product?
- Does the token grant a governance action, like voting on a consensus related or other decision-making factor?
- Does the token enable the user to contribute to a value-adding action for the network or market that is being built?
- Does the token grant an ownership of sorts, whether it is real or a proxy to a value?
- Does the token result in a monetizable reward based on an action by the user (active work)?
- Does the token grant the user a value based on sharing or disclosing some data about them (passive work)?
- Is buying something part of the business model?
- Is selling something part of the business model?
- Can users create a new product or service?
- Is the token required to run a smart contract or to fund an oracle? (an oracle is a source of information or data that other than a smart contract can use)
- Is the token required as a security deposit to secure some aspect of the blockchain’s operation?
- Is the token (or a derivative of it, like a stable coin or gas unit) used to pay for some usage?
- Is the token required to join a network or other related entity?
- Does the token enable a real connection between users?
- Is the token given away or offered at a discount, as an incentive to encourage product trial or usage?
- Is the token your principal payment unit, essentially functioning as an internal currency?
- Is the token (or derivative of it) the principal accounting unit for all internal transactions?
- Does your blockchain autonomously distribute profits to token holders?
- Does your blockchain autonomously distribute other benefits to token holders?
- Is there a related benefit to your users, resulting from built-in currency inflation?
References and further reading: