Oct 16, 2022

The Way of Cosmos

The “internet of blockchains” believes tomorrow’s builders will prioritize specialization and sovereignty. It represents a distinct view of crypto’s future and is gaining momentum.

Artwork by 
Tyler Comrie
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If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what investors, operators, and founders should know about Cosmos.

  • Cosmos is a constellation of blockchains. Though often called the “internet of blockchains,” Cosmos is perhaps best thought of as a federation of city-states. Each city (an “appchain”) has a distinct identity, but it may connect to others through shared infrastructure. 
  • Appchains have benefits and drawbacks. Building on Cosmos comes with clear advantages, including customizability, sovereignty, and predictable resource usage. However, there are tradeoffs. Versus a monolith like Ethereum, developing on Cosmos may be more expensive and complicated.
  • Terra’s implosion may have helped Cosmos. When Terra collapsed in May, many feared Cosmos would suffer. After all, Terra was the ecosystem’s highest-profile project. Instead, Cosmos appears to have absorbed much of the talent Terra shed, strengthening the broader network. It has also attracted significant projects like dYdX.
  • New initiatives hope to improve security within Cosmos. One knock against Cosmos’ appchain structure is that it forces builders to bootstrap their own validator set. This can be a costly task that may undermine security. Announcements at the Cosmoverse conference suggest this will be addressed through an initiative entitled “ATOM 2.0.”
  • Cosmos’ ultimate goal is to be forgotten. Great infrastructure becomes so ubiquitous consumers scarcely think about it. For example, few modern internet users spend much time thinking of underlying protocols like TCP/IP. Cosmos’ ultimate mission is to become so fundamental to the blockchain world that it disappears.

Sometimes, how you build matters as much as what you build. 

No matter how bold your ambitions, you cannot make a ship out of sand. Or a soup spoon from sugar. We may occasionally defy expectations, twisting the laws of biology or physics into surprising shapes. Mostly though, the available materials – and how you use them – impact the viability of your aspirations.

Cosmos is focused on the how. Though promising projects are emerging, the ecosystem is most notable for the methods that have allowed its constellation of blockchains to bloom. A cluster of mechanisms and software programs, “Hubs” and “Zones,” foundations and counsels, bewilder an interstellar tourist, as do alien terms like “CosmWasm” and “Tendermint.” Beneath this confusion, though, there is a deep-seated sense that unites and synchronizes – a coherence on a philosophical level. “Cosmos isn’t one specific blockchain,” Billy Rennekamp, lead of Cosmos Hub, said. “It’s a new way of thinking about making blockchains successful for mass adoption.” 

In today’s piece, we will mostly stay above the technical detail. Others have done this better than I can, and like the galaxies above our heads, it is easy to get lost in any number of infinities. Instead, we’ll focus on the Way of Cosmos: the technologies it offers, the new constructions this enables, and the differentiated perspective it advances. In particular, we’ll cover the following: 

  1. Explaining Cosmos. Cosmos' abundance of different entities and technologies makes it a little tricky to understand. We’ll use the metaphor of a city to outline how the ecosystem works. 
  2. A philosophical debate. Will crypto projects coalesce around one monolithic blockchain, or is the future multichain? Cosmos is at the heart of this conversation. As we’ll discuss, no solution is perfect, with each having distinct tradeoffs. 
  3. Growing momentum. Cosmos is picking up speed. Despite Terra’s demise, Cosmos seems to have grown stronger, attracting large projects like dYdX and newer builders. 
  4. Big changes. The recent Cosmoverse conference showcased impactful initiatives that should improve security and liquidity within the ecosystem. Native token ATOM may also finally have a reliable way to accrue value.

Stellar city-states

The complexity of Cosmos can make it challenging to grasp. Which piece should you start with? What deserves to be emphasized or relegated? 

The best metaphor I have heard to describe the ecosystem is a collection of city-states. Each metropolis has its own personality, but similarities persist. They might be governed by the same or similar laws, for example, or participate in a shared economy. Roads and relationships connect the cities, allowing goods, messages, and money to move. Suburbs and smaller outposts surround each central hub, drawing and contributing resources, altering practices and customs to suit their needs. 

Replace city-states with blockchains, and Cosmos's essence becomes clearer. Cosmos is made up of Layer 1 chains that interact with one another: communicating, trading, and sharing features. These are often called “appchains” since they’re true L1 blockchains designed for specific uses. Some of these appchains become cities in their own right, “Hubs” suited to particular use cases and designed to route activity for suburban “Zones.” Jose Maria Macedo of Delphi Digital noted that Osmosis – a decentralized exchange – “was becoming a DeFi Hub” for the ecosystem. Secret Network, another blockchain, is fulfilling a similar role in the privacy space.

If there is a capital city in Cosmos’ federation, it is the Cosmos Hub. Traditionally, the Cosmos Hub has acted as the central router for the network’s transactions. It also serves as the ecosystem’s collective memory, tracking the state of each blockchain to prevent double-spending. To do so, Cosmos Hub relies on validators participating in a Proof of Stake protocol called Tendermint. At a simple level, validators verify transactions and maintain the system. They put up capital (a stake) that can be “slashed” if they act irregularly. For example, if a validator goes down for too long, they risk losing some of their stake. As a result, validators are incentivized to act reliably and in the interest of the entire network. Notably, validators stake in Cosmos’ native currency, ATOM

For a newcomer, this may all sound a bit confusing. Using the metaphor of Cosmos as a network of cities, though, we can abstract the crucial pieces. The Cosmos Hub keeps track of the activity across connected cities and suburbs to ensure everyone is on the same page. It does that work with Tendermint and validators, and its economy is denominated in ATOM. Notably, the Cosmos Hub does not force these choices on other cities. As we’ll discuss, each entity within the network has flexibility around how they want to manage their local consensus and economy. 

Communication between different cities is handled via the Inter-Blockchain Communication Protocol or IBC. Though launched in 2021, seven years after Cosmos debuted, IBC has quickly become a foundational piece of infrastructure, enabling the transfer of tokens and messages. It is, in crypto jargon, a kind of “bridge,” though one with an especially secure design in the eyes of many. Unlike other bridges, IBC does not rely on intermediaries that sit between communicating blockchains, minimizing the number of parties that must be trusted in a transaction. That does not mean it isn’t without weaknesses; last week, developers released a patch to address a “critical security vulnerability” that had left all IBC-enabled chains at risk. 

Despite this setback, there seems to be broad confidence in IBC and little argument about its worth to the network. Susannah Evans, IBC’s product lead, neatly described its impact: “IBC is powerful in that it prevents silos of value forming and enables chains to tap into each other’s applications.” 

It’s not hard to visualize how meaningful this is. Before IBC, the collection of cities and villages struggled to interact. No bridges or roads connected one to another, making it impossible to transport goods, services, and messages. IBC has built this network of overpasses and highways, fundamentally changing how its constituent pieces can synchronize. Dan Edlebeck, Head of Ecosystem at Sei Network, remarked that Cosmos’ vision for a connected ecosystem of blockchains had been “impossible to realize” until IBC’s entrance. Sunny Aggarwal, co-founder of Osmosis, provided greater technical detail, outlining the types of transfers IBC is capable of:  

Chains connected with IBC verify each others’ block headers, allowing trust-minimized general communication between the two, something that is not possible with a multi-sig bridge. On top of this basic structure lie a growing number of IBC modules. The most obvious is token transfers, but as IBC’s Interchain Standards continue to expand, a whole world of cross-chain interactions is growing — smart contract queries and contract calls, controlling accounts on other chains, and the sharing of security between chains. 

We have spoken about Cosmos’ Hubs and Zones and how these entities connect. But how are the cities themselves made? What does it take to add a territory to the Cosmos map? Much of the ecosystem’s appeal is that it makes this process easy through the Cosmos SDK. This simplicity should be understood in relative terms. While building on an established ecosystem like Ethereum is perhaps the simplest route, the Cosmos SDK is more efficient than trying to make a Layer 1 blockchain from scratch. 

One way to think about this SDK is like a Betty Crocker cake mix for blockchains. You add a little water, and with comparatively little effort, you have a sophisticated blockchain. In the Cosmos SDK box, you have familiar ingredients: a Proof of Stake consensus mechanism, interoperability with the Cosmos ecosystem, and integration with IBC, among other features. Effectively, developers can create something like the Cosmos Hub from existing building blocks. 

As with a box mix, you’re not forced to follow the recipe exactly. The Cosmos SDK is modular, designed to be used for different applications. Builders might decide to add a pinch of this or a sprinkle of that, depending on their goals. Sei Network, for example, is architected to support DeFi use cases. To do so, Edlebeck and his team modified the size of their blocks and the speed with which transactions settle. This speed and finality are extremely valuable for financial use cases, but an NFT-focused application might make alternative tweaks. 

A smart contract module, CosmWasm, connects to the SDK, making it easy for new teams to create robust logic. Eric Chen, CEO of Injective Labs and longtime contributor to the ecosystem, emphasized the value of this module. “The new CosmWasm smart contract environment began to receive major adoption this year…[it] allows for highly sophisticated apps to be built rapidly, which was not really possible in the past.”

There are many more aspects of Cosmos a visitor might wish to see. Before we explore some of the different city-states within this world, we must better understand why builders would choose Cosmos to begin with. 

Monoliths and multichain

The decision to build on Cosmos is not simple for many builders. Over the past few years, several promising ecosystems have emerged, offering varying benefits. Beyond Ethereum, the default choice for some time, developers might reasonably consider Solana, Polkadot, Near, Avalanche, and newcomers like Aptos and Sui. 

Tactical reasons might drive a project to pick one L1 or L2 over another. But a considered process may also surface differing philosophical convictions. One of crypto’s most significant ideological debates in recent years is whether the future will be “monolithic” or “multichain.” Many will be familiar with this discussion, but it is at the heart of Cosmos’ benefits and tradeoffs. (For a look at how a team worked through this process, Delphi Labs’ discussion of their move to Cosmos is excellent.)

Those in the monolithic camp expect crypto activity to coalesce around one ecosystem. For some, this is likely to be Ethereum. It is battle-tested and boasts the most liquidity and developer activity. Others argue it will be Solana, thanks to its higher speed and growing reach. Whichever monolith one prefers, the rationale is reasonably similar. We’ll focus on Ethereum for the sake of simplicity. 

As mentioned, there’s significant liquidity and developer activity on Ethereum, which can be extremely valuable to a newcomer. Additionally, it’s often easier to get started. There are established pathways, and many of the design decisions have already been made by the monolith in question. You also inherit much of the underlying monolith’s security. Instead of setting up your own validators, you trust the work of Ethereum itself. 

Critically, plugging into Ethereum also offers perfect, “synchronous” composability. If another Ethereum developer wants to interact with your project, they can. Many DeFi services rely on this perfect composability, using the assets from one project as collateral in a separate activity. No permission is needed for this collaboration, making innovation and experimentation seamless. Though “asynchronous” composability exists in ecosystems like Cosmos, Aggarwal notes that “synchronous cross-chain transactions are not yet possible, which would be necessary for certain cross-chain arbitrages.”

To bring us back to the world of metaphor, we might describe the monolithic view as the equivalent of living in one impossibly massive apartment building. As a developer, you receive a room all to yourself, in which you are free to do what you’d like. You benefit from the overall management of the building, the security it offers, and the amenities that come from being one of thousands. But there are constraints – the size of each unit, the way they are ordered – beyond your control.

The multichain adherents find promise in an alternative perspective. For them, crypto’s needs are too varied to be well-served by a monolith. They believe the desire for specialized features will drive developers to embrace ecosystems more closely tailored to their needs, leading to a proliferation of different chains. Ecosystems that encourage this variety will win in the long term, the multichainer submits. As with the monolithic view, different tastes abound. Some prefer Polkadot’s “parachain” structure while others ride for Cosmos. We’ll focus on Cosmos. 

The biggest benefit of using a service like Cosmos is customizability. You can choose which architectural decisions you want your appchain to inherit and which you want to forgo. “Cosmos gives you the ability to specialize,” Jose Maria Macedo remarked. “You can decide to change parts of the consensus mechanism or virtual machine.” The builder of a DeFi project no longer has to use the same set of materials and tools as the game developer – both can fiddle with the dials as they see fit. 

Historically, blockchains have faced a “trilemma” between scalability, security, and decentralization. The common belief is that a chain can only prioritize two out of the three, creating a performant and safe product at the expense of decentralization, for example, or a decentralized and secure network while sacrificing speed. Cosmos gives the builder control over where they want their appchain to sit on each dimension. “The design space becomes a lot bigger,” Macedo noted.

In a conversation earlier this year with The Generalist, Chris Dixon of a16z shared his views on the importance of blockspace. As the name suggests, blockspace refers to the space on a blockchain that stores information and runs code. In that interview, Dixon suggested the need for blockspace is likely to increase in the coming years as greater activity occurs on blockchains, not unlike how more bandwidth was needed to support internet applications. 

As a builder, blockspace represents a fundamental resource. On monoliths like Ethereum, blockspace is shared across projects, meaning that control over pricing is out of a builder’s hands. If demand spikes, blockspace becomes more expensive, and the network may become congested. For many, that’s a considerable risk and constant fear. Various solutions have emerged to scale space and speed for monoliths, but the fundamental concern remains. The blockspace your application uses is controlled elsewhere. 

Cosmos changes this structure. When creating an appchain, you take dominion over your patch of blockspace. The cost and performance of it are in your hands, making it much more predictable.

This issue of control is also at the heart of a final tradeoff: sovereignty. When building on a monolith, a developer gives up a degree of governance. The monolith will make choices it believes are best for itself and the entirety of its ecosystem. This may not always coincide with an individual developer’s goals. In web2 parlance, this is effectively a form of platform risk. Just as Zynga suffered when Facebook decided to relegate its content, a blockchain project could be damaged by a change made by a monolith. Because of the control described above, a Cosmos appchain wouldn’t face this issue. As Aggarwal explained: 

When an app controls its base layer, it can finely control its settings, developing solutions and optimizations that are impossible on a general-purpose blockchain. This allows value to accrue at the app layer rather than the infrastructure layer, like the internet of today. 

This rendition of the monolith versus multichain argument is, naturally, reductive. Innovation rarely follows neat binaries. Just as both parties could be proven correct – with monoliths and multichains thriving – a new paradigm could emerge that supersedes the pair. 

For now, each approach seems to carry pros and cons. While Cosmos appears to have real merits, the lack of synchronous composability and extra effort required to build a more bespoke solution are significant drawbacks, as are the network effects monoliths have established. Greater costs around security are also unfavorable. Being too starry-eyed about an ecosystem that has seemed poised to break out many times before is dangerous. And yet, there’s the feeling that this time may be different. Time will tell whether Cosmos’ current trajectory reflects real momentum or is merely a mirage. 

Momentum or mirage?

Cosmos is neither a large ecosystem nor an insignificant one. As it stands, Cosmos’ total value locked (TVL) sits at $1.3 billion, making it close to a twentieth the size of Ethereum’s $25 billion. ATOM’s market cap is $3.4 billion, a measure that doesn’t reflect the scale of the ecosystem but is another relevant data point. In total, Cosmos’ “apps and services” number just 263, according to the network’s website. As Andrea Di Michele, founder of Juno Network, remarked, “It went from ‘an ecosystem that nobody knows’ to ‘an ecosystem that a few degens know.’” 

And yet, some of crypto’s most significant projects rely on some form of Cosmos infrastructure. HOSS, an ecosystem educator, highlighted Cosmos’ impressive scope in this respect. “A lot of people don’t realize that Binance, Kucoin, and are using the Cosmos SDK,” they said. “In addition, Polygon uses Tendermint.” THORChain is another player that relies on Tendermint and the Cosmos SDK. Though heavily skewed by Binance’s inclusion, the combined market cap of Cosmos projects is pegged at $59.22 billion. 

“People underestimate the influence that Cosmos already has on the industry,” Injective’s Eric Chen remarked. In part, this has been by design, per Chen: 

Cosmos and the broader IBC ecosystem were designed and built with a spirit of open-source and altruism. By prioritizing adoption over value capture, Cosmos consigned massive value extract for true adoption of the underlying disruptive technology. Many of the top 50 blockchains would not have existed without Cosmos, and it’s only a matter of time for all of them to join this interconnected ecosystem one way or another. 

Increasingly, Cosmos seems to be getting more credit for the value it offers. Interest in the ecosystem heightened earlier this year when it was announced that dYdX would be migrating from Ethereum to Cosmos. The popular derivatives exchange announced it was creating a standalone chain using Tendermint consensus and the Cosmos SDK. While many worried the shift might create security issues since dYdX would need to bootstrap its own validator set, dYdX persisted in pursuit of the scalability and sovereignty Cosmos offered. Industry publication Bankless suggested that dYdX’s move may have also provided a regulatory benefit since creating a validator set would better position it as a truly decentralized exchange.

It was not the only source of good news for Cosmos. As mentioned earlier, Delphi Labs decided to focus its efforts on the ecosystem after the implosion of Terra. Though Terra was the undoubted sun in the Cosmos’ solar system, its decline has brought surprising benefits. Sunny Aggarwal from Osmosis outlined a few: 

The Terra blowup brought some attention to Cosmos…Regardless of the merits of their algo-stable, or offering too much yield on Anchor to artificially prop up demand, people saw that the underlying blockchain tech was sound. Perhaps more importantly, the Terra supernova seeded Cosmos with hungry developer teams looking for a new home. 

Terra transplants have started new projects within the ecosystem or joined existing applications. Many of Cosmos’ most influential appchains have benefited from this sudden influx of available talent. 

There are many projects worth knowing within Cosmos' firmament, including several we have mentioned in passing. Though just one year old, Osmosis is perhaps the natural place to start. The largest decentralized exchange has established itself as a DeFi hub. Susannah Evans noted that “when new chains launch, typically the first chain they want to form an IBC connection with is Osmosis.” 

Co-founder Aggarwal outlined his ambitious plans for Osmosis, which include “grow[ing] its suite of DEX applications to include lending, options, margin, yield vaults, automation strategies, and the like.”

Injective is another key player. The Layer 1 blockchain is designed to help build a broad range of DeFi applications. “At its core, Injective provides powerful financial primitives such as a fully on-chain orderbook, derivatives and binary options for developers creating sophisticated DeFi apps,” Chen remarked. “Anyone can utilize these primitives in a plug-and-play manner to deploy applications that would simply not be possible without the Injective infrastructure layer which is optimized for the world of DeFi.” Intriguingly, Injective is Ethereum-compatible and in the midst of building a native connection to Solana, according to Chen. “Injective will be the first Cosmos chain to support Solana ecosystem assets,” he said. 

Sei Network appears to be serving a similar customer base, offering DeFi infrastructure. “Sei explores the middle ground between an app-specific chain and a general purpose one,” Dan Edlebeck said. “It’s a L1 blockchain that’s use case specific.”

On the privacy side of things, both Secret Network and Penumbra were cited as among Cosmos’ most intriguing projects. Originally called Enigma, Secret was early to embrace Cosmos and was the first project to deploy CosmWasm smart contracts on mainnet, according to one source. In the years since, it has established itself as a privacy hub, looking to solve related issue for other appchains. 

Penumbra, a privacy-focused DEX, is an interesting case from a construction perspective. Though the team did not use the Cosmos SDK, it will be IBC-enabled. “[It] could be the first non-Cosmos SDK chain to have a mainnet IBC connection,” Susannah Evans said. Sunny Aggarwal cited it as an example of “how teams can rework large portions of the Cosmos stack while still being interoperable through IBC.”

Outside of these names, a long tail of other applications spanning NFTs, yield farming, smart contract development, bridges, and beyond were mentioned by Cosmos contributors, including Juno, Composable, Regen, Mars, Akash, Stargaze, Evmos, Agoric, Axelar, Sommelier, Umee, Lum, Stride, Skip, and Nomic. We should expect many more to be added to this list in the coming years. 

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The future of Cosmos

Cosmos continues to innovate for the benefit of the whole. Last month, the network held its annual Cosmoverse conference in Medellín, Colombia. Entirely community-run, it seems to have showcased Cosmos’ thriving ecosystem and ingenuity.

The event’s biggest moment was the release of a whitepaper outlining the future of ATOM and the Cosmos Hub. Several upgrades were announced, including a plan to open up liquid staking, improvements to MEV distribution, and an initiative that will allow Cosmos to better invest in new ecosystem projects. (Bankless has a good run-down of these.) 

The most interesting addition was the introduction of Interchain Security (ICS). Once implemented, ICS would give appchains the ability to “rent” security from the Cosmos Hub or other robust providers. This would be a win/win: Cosmos Hub’s validators earn rewards for their work, while the new appchain no longer has to spin up a set of validators from scratch. If it operates as expected, ICS could encourage more builders to start on Cosmos with the knowledge that security is more robust.

ATOM holders will also benefit from this initiative. Investors have often criticized the token for capturing very little of the value it creates. Though the Cosmos Hub and broader ecosystem are extremely valuable, appchains are not forced to transact in ATOM. While ATOM holders have sometimes been airdropped tokens from appchains within the ecosystem, there have been relatively scarce opportunities for value capture. Billy Rennekamp, lead of Cosmos Hub, noted that the ICS model should change that. “The Cosmos Hub is no longer a ‘model home’ in the neighborhood of Cosmos, but rather a differentiated entity with truly distinguished features that create value for the ecosystem and capture value for ATOM,” he said. 

An alternative approach to security was also proposed at Cosmoverse. Sunny Aggarwal outlined his vision for a “mesh security” system that takes advantage of the ecosystem’s existing decentralization. Rather than new chains all relying on Cosmos Hub, Aggarwal thinks chains should depend on each other. “[A]ll remain sovereign and have their own governance systems and don’t meddle in each other's internal politics,” Aggarwal said, “But an attack on one is an attack on all.” In this paradigm, a misbehaving validator on Osmosis could have its stake slashed on dYdX, for example. 

Improving its infrastructure may not be sufficient for Cosmos to truly break out, however. Several contributors referenced the ecosystem’s BD and marketing capabilities as a weakness. “We’ve always focused on the technology to carry itself to market, and we’ve seen a lot of success in this, but we all know stories of inferior technology getting market share due to BD and marketing,” Rennekamp remarked. Macedo made a similar observation, saying the “BD side is really missing right now.” 

Because of this, many developers don’t consider Cosmos when thinking about where to build. Macedo noted that when it came to gaming projects, for example, Polygon, Solana, and Immutable led the way, while Cosmos “wasn’t really in the picture.”

This absence seems to be a result of Cosmos’ decentralization. Numerous entities contribute to the network’s advancement, but there’s no decisive leader. “There’s no one Schelling point for the entire ecosystem,” Dan Edlebeck said. “There’s no one ‘God Tier’ chain.” 

Cosmos will hope it can increasingly edge into the frame. Some of this may happen naturally; as individual appchains look to grow, they will inevitably evangelize their offerings and draw more people into the Cosmos universe. Connecting to prominent ecosystems like Solana and Aptos could have a similar effect. Cosmos’ stakeholders will need to be proactive as well, though. 

There seems to be broad acceptance that more can be done on this front, with some initiatives in the offing. One source discussed the emergence of various cross-application counsels designed to serve as a “UN within Cosmos.” One of these entities may be tasked with improving the ecosystem’s storytelling, hoping to make Cosmos more visible and comprehensible. Even simple tweaks like aligning on common terminology could be valuable.

Successful infrastructure is forgotten. We might spend hours of each day navigating the internet, for example, but no time thinking about its underlying protocols. When did you last ponder TCP/IP? What total boredom would invite a lengthy consideration of HTTPS? Anonymity is the prize for ubiquity. 

Its devotees believe Cosmos may be headed for a similar fate. As Billy Rennekamp remarked: 

[In the future] it may be easy to forget the word Cosmos because it is implied in the state of technology. Similar to how people stopped using the term “World Wide Web” because it became implicit in the internet, I could imagine the word “Cosmos” being replaced by common nomenclature “interchain” while at the same time, it is all still Cosmos.

Though understated, this is technological ambition at the grandest scale. If Cosmos wins in the way those like Rennekamp think it might, it will not merely thrive but proliferate, insinuate, subsume. All blockchains may find themselves connected to Cosmos in some way or another, including monoliths like Ethereum and Solana. “If you don’t think that Cosmos is going to eat all blockchains and create the interchain, then you’re underestimating it,” Sunny Aggarwal said. 

We are a long way from such an outcome at the moment. Cosmos is lively but small; it needs many more developers and greater liquidity to take over. But by providing a better way to build, a better how, the ecosystem delivers meaningful benefits. Cosmos has its own way of doing things; we may see a growing number start to embrace its differentiated perspective. 

The Generalist’s work is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal, business, investment, or tax advice. You should always do your own research and consult advisors on these subjects. Our work may feature entities in which Generalist Capital, LLC or the author has invested.