Sex toys, cybercrime, and cycling sponsorship: The bizarre tale of NextHash

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As a cycling season involves an in depth, an air of desperation units in. Riders scramble for groups. Teams scramble for sponsors. Livelihoods are on the road, and as a result of sport’s fickle monetary mannequin, all it could take is one sponsor to make or break a workforce.

Sometimes it really works out. Sometimes – because the South African-registered Team Qhubeka-NextHash found out a number of weeks in the past – it doesn’t. But the continuity of all of it, actually, hinges on sponsorship.

Cycling sponsors come from all sorts of places – grubby governments, benevolent billionaires, bike manufacturers. Often, what they’re promoting is fairly mundane – construction firms, alcohol-free beer, luxury showerheads

Rare is the workforce sponsor that invitations deeper scrutiny. But NextHash – a mysterious cryptocurrency firm that got here on as a Team Qhubeka title sponsor on the eve of the 2021 Tour de France – has been a perpetual supply of intrigue for the length of its (fleeting) involvement in cycling. 

Since the partnership was introduced, it turned clear that there have been fairly a number of extra questions than solutions. Questions like: what’s NextHash? Where is it from? What does it do? Who’s behind it? How does it earn cash? Does it have any cash – and if that’s the case, will it really pay up?

Those questions nagged at me, so in late June, after a bit digging, I wrote an article that uncovered severe doubts in regards to the firm’s monetary viability and whether or not it may feasibly help what was promoted as a half-decade-long, presumably multi-million-dollar, funding in a cycling workforce. 

Things regarded regarding from early on.

I hit ‘publish’ and ready to maneuver on with my life. But inside hours, the messages began to look, from people that had labored with or below NextHash founder Ana Benčič. 

To say these messages communicated a powerful view of Benčič and NextHash can be an virtually comical understatement. “I can let you know for positive that is unhealthy for the cycling workforce,” one message learn. “She is sort of a plague and destroys every thing she touches. Have an ideal day!”

Overdramatic? Perhaps. But what would you’ve got me do, not write again? 

Over the months since, after a number of interviews with a number of sources, an arguably extra troubling image has taken form: one which asks severe questions in regards to the cycling sponsorship mannequin, in regards to the checks and balances round sponsors, and about NextHash itself. 


A workforce’s demise

The remaining hammer blow for Team Qhubeka-NextHash didn’t come till December.

After the workforce missed numerous deadlines for the submission of paperwork and funds, the UCI introduced on December 9 that it was refusing Team Qhubeka-NextHash a WorldTour license for 2022. The workforce additionally didn’t seem on an inventory of second-division ProfessionalTeams. That appeared an ominous signal for a workforce that has been round in some kind since 2007, racing within the Tour de France since 2015, and a fixture of the WorldTour for the final six years.

After a pair of weeks of radio silence, Team Qhubeka principal Douglas Ryder lastly called time on the team on December 23. In an inner electronic mail to riders and workers, Ryder wrote that “we have now tried every thing to search out sponsors for our workforce for subsequent season, proper up till the previous few days, however nothing has materialised in time.”

The official announcement landed shortly after:

That left a handful of riders contracted to a workforce that not exists, and a number of extra with no experience for 2022. Simon Clarke got lucky to find a workforce outdoors of the switch season; the likes of Domenico Pozzovivo and Sergio Henao didn’t.

Meanwhile, the Italian-registered Team Qhubeka improvement workforce will proceed, and Ryder is optimistic a couple of phoenix-like return as a ProfessionalTeam subsequent season, and from there, maybe, again to the WorldTour as soon as extra. “The help of rising expertise is extremely essential for us to rise once more in 2023,” Ryder wrote to his workforce.

But whereas that ties up one narrative thread, I used to be left with questions in regards to the circumstances that led thus far. Ryder hinted at them himself in his remaining letter to the squad: “Our money move points resulting from sponsors not paying on time, or in any respect, has actually impacted on us.” 

Those money move points had publicly manifested in August – lower than two months after NextHash got here on board – when it was revealed that staff and rider salaries were delayed and the workforce had requested smaller sponsors to submit their remaining funds early to bridge the hole. 

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Team Qhubeka-Nexthash vehicles on the 2021 Tour of Britain. Ryder says that the Continental workforce will be capable to take in the defunct WorldTour workforce’s service course and gear. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

The temptation could also be to pin the blame solely on NextHash. But, Ryder advised CyclingSuggestions in an interview after the workforce’s dissolution, it’s not fairly that easy: there have been in actual fact three companions that did not pay up.

The biggest proportion of the lacking sponsorship funds was resulting from NextHash. “Had NextHash paid in full, of course these different two companions wouldn’t have actually mattered an excessive amount of and we might have been OK,” Ryder defined.

(Confusingly, a Team Qhubeka spokesperson told Bicycling in July that NextHash’s settlement was for an annual, up-front, money cost and that the corporate had “met the commitments they agreed on with our workforce to date.”)

Ryder mentioned the corporate has paid a portion of its dedication – albeit lower than half of the overall settlement, and nothing since October. “I’ll say that for positive [the payments are] late and it has damage our workers and the riders,” Ryder mentioned, including that the difficulty was exacerbated by poor sponsor communication.

“We had delays and delays and delays,” Ryder advised me. “No query. And even now … the place we’re as we speak is that we haven’t heard from the proprietor [Ana Benčič] – we’ve heard from folks in her workforce – however we haven’t heard from the proprietor for a month.”

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Screenshot: Benčič’s Twitter profile

Team Qhubeka-NextHash was in a precarious place both approach, and the monetary pressure brought on by NextHash didn’t sink the workforce. But there’s an reverse aspect to that coin. It actually didn’t enhance issues, turning into a distraction for potential sponsors, riders, and workforce workers within the pursuit of a sustainable future.

It appears truthful to say that the swirl of questions – of uncertainty – round NextHash made for a reasonably torrid six months.

In the cruellest approach, with the collapse of Team Qhubeka-NextHash, the uncertainty has been resolved. The implication is that the workforce’s demise will without end be related to its newest – and final – title sponsor, a blockchain and crypto firm with a completely bonkers backstory.

We stand, pricey reader, on the precipice of a protracted, deep rabbit gap, involving North Korean navy hackers, Slovenian intercourse toy entrepreneurs, and a number of bankrupt companies.

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Some riders had been capable of safe contracts after the workforce’s woes turned obvious – equivalent to Giacomo Nizzolo, who bought a lifeline from Israel Start-Up Nation in late October, and was on various workforce duties in Jerusalem by early November 2021. (Photo by Ilia Yefimovich/image alliance through Getty Images)

The backstory of the sponsorship

Sponsorship-wise, Team Qhubeka-NextHash was a bit of a curious case. Half of its workforce identify got here from the South African bicycle charity, Qhubeka, however this was a pro-bono association. A consultant from the Qhubeka charity advised me that “as a registered non-profit we depend on donations to do the work that we do … we don’t have any commitments and we don’t make any monetary contribution to the workforce.”

That charity connection has helped present 1000’s of deprived folks with bikes and justifiably earned the workforce rather a lot of good will – however it doesn’t pay the payments. 

Over the previous few years, the cash has flowed from elsewhere, however it has confirmed to be an unreliable pipeline. After the workforce’s title sponsors Dimension Data – and then NTT – stepped out on the finish of the 2019 and 2020 seasons, the workforce was left wanting into the abyss. For 2021, the workforce’s continuation was salvaged solely by a last-gasp funding from Swiss clothes sponsor, Assos. 

The mid-season announcement of a “massively thrilling five-year partnership” with NextHash appeared an unlikely, however welcome, flip of occasions. But issues weren’t as rosy as they first appeared.

To checklist only a few crimson flags: according to public documents reported by an internet site that compiles company monetary information, as just lately as September 2020, NextHash Tech Limited had:

  • £40 (nope, not a typo – US$55 / AU$73) in money belongings
  • virtually £5 million (US$6.8 million / AU$9 million) in liabilities falling due inside a yr
  • a web value of -£4 million (US$-5.5 million / AU$-7.3 million), and 
  • belongings of -£3.1 million (US$-4.3 million / AU$-5.7 million). 

Some extra stats. The firm shifted its registered London tackle 4 instances in 14 months. The NextHash web site lists 12 entities in 10 countries, and the most recent company accounts list NextHash’s “common quantity of staff” as only one. A request for newer monetary paperwork bought zero responses.

Those are, I believe you’ll agree, some hanging numbers.  

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Screenshot: NextHash web site.

The reference to NextHash, Ryder advised CyclingSuggestions, was put collectively by a “credible sports activities advertising company” that had introduced NextHash into the orbit of a Formula 1 racing workforce (though a deliberate F1 sponsorship deal was aborted). When Team Qhubeka-NextHash was unveiled on the eve of the Tour de France, there was reduction internally that the workforce had discovered a lifeline.

The public reception was rather less optimistic, with numerous retailers along with CyclingSuggestions – notably Kate Wagner for Cyclingnews and Joe Lindsey for Bicycling – asking tough questions and discovering few simple solutions. That left the workforce feeling a bit wounded.

“When we introduced NextHash and it was out within the media and folks had been poking holes in it … of course, it damage me, you already know – in phrases of like, ‘oh, shit,’ proper?”, Ryder mentioned. “But then I spoke to all the fellows that had put the deal collectively and they had been like, ‘No, no, no, don’t fear. This will occur. We will get the cash and it’ll be all OK.’ And I mentioned, ‘OK, cool.’ And then, of course, then we simply bought hit with extra and extra delays, and guarantees, and empty guarantees.” 

Eerily, the workforce’s monetary woes had been anticipated by one of my sources way back to July. “Benčič gained’t pay for some time”, I used to be advised, “and then she’ll go silent”. 

Today, Ryder can see parallels in some of that. “The final name that I really had along with her [Benčič] was in early, early, early December, the place rather a lot of commitments had been made. A timeline was put collectively to pay the remaining instalments. And that hasn’t materialised since then. We’re nonetheless ready and making an attempt to get in contact. We’ve had challenges getting in contact along with her.” 

That sounds acquainted at our finish, too. Attempts by CyclingTricks to contact Benčič by way of August and September acquired just one response – that she was unable to reply till mid-September resulting from “an accident at first of August”. She steered she’d get again to us on her return and that her colleague Matjaz Ivanusa, the corporate’s chief of exterior relations, would reply to questions within the interim. Neither of these items occurred.  

To date that’s the solely contact we have now had with Benčič – as of publication, she didn’t reply to a follow-up electronic mail containing a sequence of particular questions for this text. Nor did our separate makes an attempt to achieve Mr Ivanusa over the previous few months yield any response. 

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Screenshot from the preliminary announcement of the workforce’s new sponsor.

In itself, the five-year partnership from NextHash would by no means have been sufficient to avoid wasting the workforce, however communication round it added to a way of intrigue. A press launch asserting the sponsorship appeared to indicate that NextHash can be on board as title sponsor for 5 years, and it was extensively reported as such within the international cycling media. Even the team’s Wikipedia page suggests as a lot.

At the very least, I believe we are able to say it was ambiguous, as the next highly-scientific ballot exhibits:

In early October a NextHash consultant advised CyclingSuggestions that “[NextHash] can be a jersey companion in 2022 and past as per our settlement with the workforce” – a considerable downgrade in funding. Ryder confirmed this association and mentioned that “we didn’t actually see the completely different interpretation”; NextHash was – or ought to have been – a lifeline for the second half of 2021, however there was a niche that wanted to be crammed for the workforce to proceed.

While chasing excellent funds, Ryder concurrently launched into a frantic and in the end fruitless seek for a serious sponsor to take over the reins.We spoke to 200 firms, went by way of 10 sports activities advertising companies and we did good in 2021,” he advised me, sounding a bit nonplussed. “I’m, of course, extremely unhappy that we didn’t discover a important companion to return on board.”

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Team Qhubeka-NextHash on the Primus Classic.

Ryder is left with questions on how issues ended up the place they did. “It’s simply actually unhappy that this has occurred as a result of … it’s simply there’s unfinished enterprise from final yr [2021]. We went into [the NextHash deal] trusting … and folks would possibly say, properly, ‘that’s naive, and it’s best to have accomplished extra homework’. Absolutely. But whenever you take a look at the context round it, and the time that we had [left] doubtlessly … it was accomplished with all the data that we had and knew of on the time. And of course, trusting in different relationships as properly.”  

Trust is a fragile factor, however Ryder is holding onto hope. “I don’t consider folks deliberately signal contracts as a result of they need to be dishonest or they don’t need to pay. I don’t consider it,” he advised me. 

“I don’t consider anyone’s like that – I imply, I’ve by no means come throughout anyone like that.”

Into the depths

Perhaps I’m a cynic. Back in June 2021, a trawl by way of Google unearthed public paperwork suggesting NextHash – a comparatively new firm that seems to have extra addresses than staff – didn’t, at face worth, seem to be an excessively secure wager as title sponsor of a WorldTour cycling workforce. However, a better investigation of the businesses that had been within the Benčič orbit raises much more questions, some of them doubtlessly damning. 

To give a really transient synopsis, we’re speaking about firms just like the UK-based SkillsMatter, which became insolvent after NextHash and Benčič pulled out of a £2.5 million (US$3.5 million / AU$4.6 million) angel funding. Benčič advised media on the time that she’d backed out after performing due diligence on the corporate; SkillsMatter saw things rather differently.

We’re additionally speaking about firms just like the Benčič-owned ABF Limited, which was investigated by Slovenian authorities over allegations that, in partnership with the company Job Service, it had exploited Slovakian migrant employees. There aren’t any stories accessible on how this was resolved – the corporate would possibly very properly have been completely cleared – however I’d gently recommend that if you end up the topic of a state investigation into employee exploitation, there have most likely been some whoopsies alongside the best way.

For her half, Benčič refuted the claims and asserted that her firm paid over the Slovenian minimal wage. She forcefully characterised criticism of her firm at the time as “offensive and populist” and it’s unclear how the case was resolved; ABF Limited did, nonetheless, go bankrupt in 2017.

Benčič has been described within the media as one thing of a serial entrepreneur, and certainly there have been extra firms, too – KonsultFin, Konsult-Eu, EighteenPlus, ABF Turist – with most of them having operated from a pair of addresses within the neighbouring Slovenian cities of Isola and Koper.

It’s a bit of an internet. One Slovenian registry lists Benčič as director or representative of 12 businesses. Several troubled Benčič-affiliated firms are listed in financial documents as collectors of the Benčič-owned NextHash. Meanwhile, in response to Slovenian website, 10 of 11 firms of which Benčič is listed as a “founder, director or procurator have blocked or closed present accounts.” 

And then, there’s NextHash.

Crypto and cycling

Slovenia is a tiny nation of simply 2.1 million folks with, lately, an outsized affect in world cycling, courtesy of the performances of Tadej Pogačar, Primož Roglič, and Matej Mohorič. In 2021 alone, these three riders picked up two Grand Tour titles, 9 Grand Tour phases, two Olympic medals, and a number of one-day races. 

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Primoz Roglič on his technique to Olympic gold in Tokyo.

Cycling’s not the one factor that Slovenia has develop into a powerhouse in. The nation is one of the main European adopters of cryptocurrency, with over 1,000 businesses accepting it as foreign money. And with a small, linked inhabitants with rather a lot of younger builders – in addition to a supportive authorities – it’s an atmosphere through which blockchain expertise can prosper. 

That spills over into cycling, too – and NextHash isn’t even the primary such instance. The Continental-level team Pogačar rode for instantly earlier than he signed a multi-year, multi-million-dollar cope with UAE Team Emirates was sponsored by a now defunct Slovenian crypto agency, Xaurum. A pair of years later, NextHash turned the primary crypto model to take its sponsorship to the WorldTour-level. 

To get to the core of the story of NextHash, although, you must first look to but one other Slovenian cryptocurrency model, the similarly-named NiceHash. NiceHash – which was based in 2014 and describes itself as “the world’s main cryptocurrency platform for mining and buying and selling” – was the place Ana Benčič entered the trade, and the place the bizarre story of NextHash begins its gestation.

And now, it’s time for this bizarre cycling sponsorship story to take a good weirder tangent.

Next cease: Hollywood … through Pyongyang.

The hack

In late 2014, when NiceHash was simply getting off the bottom, the Seth Rogen-led movie The Interview – which satirised the assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un – was on the centre of a world diplomatic incident. Sony Pictures was focused by an nameless hacking collective referred to as ‘the Guardians of Peace’, who leaked unreleased movies, delicate info, and in the end demanded Sony pull its “movie of terrorism”. 

In the aftermath, Sony scrapped The Interview’s theatrical launch out of worry of terrorist assaults, because it turned more and more clear that ‘the Guardians of Peace’ had been, in actual fact, North Korean navy hackers – members of the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), a navy intelligence company of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). 

North Korea’s navy is usually characterised as bunglingly old-school, however on this case they had been fairly efficient – they’d disrupted one of the largest leisure firms on this planet, pressured revisions to 1 of essentially the most hotly anticipated movie releases of the yr, and made international headlines. 

And the Guardians of Peace weren’t done yet. According to the US Department of Justice, the workforce of three hackers tried to steal greater than US$1.2 billion in cyber-enabled financial institution heists, created the infamous WannaCry 2.0 ransomware, developed at the very least 9 malicious cryptocurrency apps, and – in December 2017 – turned their gaze to a sure little crypto firm in Slovenia. 

That can be the worst Christmas current ever for NiceHash. The North Koreans hacked the corporate, stole 4,700 bitcoins (valued at the time at around US$80 million) and introduced NiceHash to its knees. 

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(Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

OK, we’re again on observe.

This was the void into which a charismatic HR skilled referred to as Ana Benčič stepped, helming a restoration effort to revive the funds and present tech and safety help.

This was, a supply advised me, Benčič’s huge alternative. “She’d identified about crypto earlier than however didn’t know how one can use it for her monetary initiatives. At the time she was coping with asset administration. So she bought the chance to get a giant identify, a million customers, and big liquidity from NiceHash. The play was to do trade for NiceHash customers, and it will immediately be within the prime 10 exchanges by quantity.”

One of the originators of NextHash, a Slovenian referred to as Aljosa Sokic, was half of the safety workforce working with Benčič, and explains that her powers of persuasion had been outstanding. NiceHash had been determined, and Benčič & co. advised them what they wished to listen to – in trade for a stake within the firm.

“It was like in a film. She took over 35% of NiceHash in sooner or later,” Sokic mentioned. “She shouldn’t be such a very good tactician, however she is a superb salesperson.”

In statements supplied to CyclingSuggestions, NiceHash shared its account of Benčič’s arrival and, shortly thereafter, departure from the corporate: 

“Ana Benčič certainly turned concerned with NiceHash after the safety incident in 2017. Obviously instances had been extraordinarily difficult for us again then, and we had been doing all we may to verify we had been capable of reimburse our customers as quickly as attainable. 

“Ms Ana Benčič approached us at the moment, claiming she had traders prepared to supply roughly 4,700 BTC in trade for 35%. Perhaps this appears naive from as we speak’s view level however remember that we had been extraordinarily determined on the time, and so we agreed to it. She was very persuasive and there was little motive to consider that any person would really make such guarantees, with out having the precise assets to again it up. 

“What adopted was that we by no means bought the promised 4,700 BTC, so we filed a lawsuit that resulted in Ana Benčič and her associates being faraway from the corporate. Things labored out high-quality ultimately however there’s little good we are able to say about Ms Benčič.” 

– Joe Downie, NiceHash CMO

There had been a sequence of lawsuits in 2018 – all revolving across the 35% share of NiceHash – which ”all ended by approach of settlement in 2019”, Downie defined. “We simply hope folks don’t confuse us [for NextHash], as we’re operating a profoundly completely different form of enterprise.”

The net

The enterprise that Benčič was concerned with on the time, Konsultfin, has since morphed into NextHash, which as we speak claims to have 12 entities scattered world wide, from Singapore (though it was struck off almost two years ago) to Malta, Slovenia to Serbia. 

Making it much more complicated is the existence of a number of iterations of the identical firm in several nations. There’s Konsultfin Limited, the UK-registered predecessor to NextHash Tech Limited. There’s a Slovenian KonsultFin, which was rebranded as FinTechInvest earlier than going bankrupt. As of September 2020, a Slovenian entity referred to as NextHash d.o.o is a creditor to the UK’s NextHash Tech Limited to the tune of £400,000 (US$547,000 / AU$760,000), whereas a third NextHash (NextHash plc) is owed greater than £1 million (US$1.36 million / AU$1.9 million) [A request for the 2021 NextHash financials went unanswered.]

There is one frequent thread connecting all of them – Ana Benčič – and, like Konsultfin (and its sister firm Konsulteu), NextHash appears to be offering (and is supplied with) funding for a number of subsidiaries.

Maybe it’s simply utterly respectable tax-avoidance; it’s all fairly opaque. But it could additionally bring to mind that phantasm with a single ball and a number of cups, the place you progress the cups round till you lose observe of the place the ball is: cash shifting from one enterprise to a different to supply an look of monetary stability. 

At the very least, it appears that there’s a sample of monetary instability. 

You can see that within the network of Benčič-linked companies that are currently creditors to NextHash, however the company adventures of 2017 present an equally good demonstration. During that yr, one of Benčič’s firms – the vacation rental firm ABF Turist – ran foul of Slovenia’s tax division, went bankrupt, and had properties seized to pay debts. As beforehand famous, an unrelated Benčič enterprise – a workforce firm additionally referred to as ABF – was on the core of the 2013 Slovakian labour investigation, and also went bankrupt in 2017. And in December, NiceHash alleged to CyclingSuggestions, Benčič promised 4,700 bitcoin “that she was nowhere close to having the ability to provide you with” as a play for a serious stake within the firm. 

Business relationships bitter, and companies go bankrupt on a regular basis. Those info in themselves don’t indicate unlawful or immoral conduct. But a number of sources, from a number of Benčič-related entities, painted a really related image: of an bold entrepreneur who doesn’t provide a secure and stable wager.

Benčič is, one supply defined, “very charismatic, amusing, good firm, tactile … she guarantees the world, however she’ll say something to get what she needs.

“And because it unravels, you possibly can see she’s utterly unempathetic.”

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The new Team Qhubeka-NextHash package on the 2021 Tour de France, shortly after the announcement of a partnership that put a little-known cryptocurrency firm on the worldwide stage. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

Of intercourse toys and aspect hustles

At the identical time as her stumbling efforts with ABF Turist, the different ABF, KonsultFin and KonsultEu, and what would develop into NextHash, Benčič was juggling one other plate: EighteenPlus d.o.o., a enterprise in pursuit of extra carnal pleasures than blockchain finance.

EighteenPlus was a innovative sex-toy producer, established by self-described NextHash co-founder Aljosa Sokic and funded by Benčič through Konsultfin. 

Sokic and a small workforce of engineers and builders, understanding of the identical constructing on the identical ground because the cryptocurrency workforce, had been centered on remotely operated ‘sensible’ intercourse toys in addition to technological improvement for different producers. One NextHash contractor, talking on situation of anonymity, described the workplace atmosphere at the moment as “bizarre … One minute you’re speaking about cryptocurrency gross sales and the subsequent you’re surrounded by intercourse toys.”

EighteenPlus’s marquee product, which was making waves in grownup exhibits across the globe, was a visionary vibrator referred to as the Come-X. It was, according to Venus Adult News (NSFW hyperlink, clearly), “the primary sensible vibrator with 3 highly effective vibration zones” with “thrilling, not seen earlier than haptic results that customers can prepare into customized vibration patterns within the net sequencer.” 

CyclingSuggestions shouldn’t be within the enterprise of intercourse toys and I’ll concede that you just had been most likely not anticipating this specific tangent, however bear with me. 

The grownup trade was apparently fairly into the Come-X. EighteenPlus was nominated for an XBiz Award, a Venus Award, and even had 30 vibrators stolen at a present in Berlin.

Sokic and Benčič would journey to commerce exhibits to hunt for endorsements, and secured the rising grownup star Elsa Jean as an envoy. But whereas externally EighteenPlus appeared prefer it was on a pathway to a industrial climax, all was not because it appeared. After “a couple of yr”, Sokic mentioned, the funding from KonsultFin was slowing to a trickle.

Eventually, simply on the cusp of launching the Come-X to the general public, EighteenPlus got here crashing down round its staff – with a corresponding deterioration within the relationship between Benčič and Sokic. ”She [Benčič] didn’t have any cash left”, claimed Sokic. The vibrator by no means hit the market; the Elsa Jean endorsement deal fell aside.

Some EighteenPlus staff had been absorbed into what turned NextHash however others weren’t so fortunate. One former worker, talking on situation of anonymity, mentioned that they had been strung together with guarantees of cost for greater than seven months – and, finally, wrote it off as a misplaced trigger. 

By the books, EighteenPlus seems to nonetheless be lively – certainly, NextHash Tech Limited at the moment owes it £1.4 million –  though a search of Slovenian information exhibits that it closed its financial institution accounts in 2019.

The particular person at the moment listed as EighteenPlus’ managing director, Mirjan Matic, describes himself on LinkedIn as a gross sales and advertising specialist at NextHash Group. Sokic, together with Matic, are still listed as representatives of the Californian ‘romance products’ entity EighteenPlus LLC, though its submitting standing is now cancelled, and the corporate’s social media presence has laid dormant since February 2019.

Remember the ball and the cups from earlier? Sokic believes that Benčič shouldn’t be at all times clear about her involvement with firms – appearing through intermediaries, however typically the one pulling the strings.

A NiceHash consultant appeared to offer credence to this concept: “It is to be famous that Ms Benčič was by no means straight concerned [with the NiceHash deal] … as she labored by way of Konsultfin as a proxy (in December 2017 and early 2018 she positively made the selections for Konsultfin, though she was not formally the consultant of the corporate).” 

[Sokic claimed that Benčič has drawn the attention of investigative bodies, but whether this claim is true, or merely sour grapes between associates-turned-rivals could not be determined. NextHash did not respond to a request for information about whether any Benčič-associated entities were under investigation by Slovenian authorities.

Likewise, representatives of Slovenia’s Financial Administration department declined to provide comment on “questions concerning specific taxpayers due to the protection of tax secrecy”. 

An email to the generic Slovenian police media address was forwarded to a local representative in Koper – a department local to NextHash’s headquarters, despite no specific mention of any city in the media request. The Police, too, declined to comment due to the “Personal Data Protection Act”.] 

A path of collateral injury

If issues look fishy inside Slovenia, they give the impression of being worse out of it. Phil Lawrence – an affable Scot primarily based in Tallinn, Estonia – was co-director of an Estonian offshoot of NextHash, Nexinterexchange OÜ, which holds the license for NextHash to commerce as a crypto trade – an important half of NextHash’s product providing. But there was an issue: the corporate couldn’t get a checking account. 

Since the explosive 2017 Danske Bank money-laundering scandal, Estonia’s regulators had tightened their grip on overseas monetary establishments, which means Nexinterexchange couldn’t trade cash by way of the nation. “There was no approach [NextHash] would be capable to take money in from punters,” Lawrence defined. “So what [Benčič] did was this: in the event you went to deposit into the corporate, she requested them to please deposit to this account in Slovenia however mark the reference for Nexinterexchange.”

“A crypto trade can’t settle for an trade by a 3rd firm in a 3rd nation,” Lawrence continued. “A crypto license is for working transparently.”

We’re in danger of dropping ourselves in monetary jargon, however Lawrence summarises it thus: as a violation of worldwide banking legal guidelines. “The actual fact that she was soliciting funds from traders on a licensed Estonian trade however utilizing a third-party checking account in Slovenia at Delavska Hranilnica [a Slovenian bank] to gather funds is solely unlawful,” he mentioned. [A Q&A for companies looking to set up a crypto exchange in Estonia confirms that an Estonian checking account, board, and representatives is a mandatory requirement as a result of Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Prevention Act 2017, which explicitly mentions crypto firms.] 

In 2018/19 the crypto license for Nexinterexchange was suspended in Estonia, though the explanation for the suspension is unclear; the corporate has since reemerged. [NextHash failed to respond to specific questions about the company’s dealings in Estonia, but claims on its website to “fully comply with the all [sic] monetary directives and tackle the worldwide markets.”]

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Cryptocurrency comes at an environmental value, consuming huge quantities of electrical energy. Here, a employee installs a row of Bitcoin mining machines at a mining facility within the US. (Photo by MARK FELIX/AFP /AFP through Getty Images)

When it will get private

Corporate considerations are one factor, however at instances the non-public implications had been substantial, too. Although NextHash now seems to be a one-person present, it was, on the peak of its powers, the employer of dozens of “genuinely respectable, properly certified and significantly skilled folks” – Lawrence’s phrases – unfold over a number of nations. 

Some of these folks spoke to me, on or off the document, to inform me their accounts of working with Benčič – who’s tellingly described in a company whitepaper as being pushed by “NO PROMISES, however FACTS”.

I used to be advised of workers from India who’d moved with their households to Singapore to work for NextHash, and had been shortly thereafter fired – “she employed and fired at a whim … as quickly as your worth was no extra, you’d be kicked to the curb,” one supply advised me. “She’s completely ruthless,” mentioned one other. 

There was Lawrence, who advised me that Benčič “leaves human collateral injury in her wake with no second thought.” 

And there are social media accounts from others – together with former CEO Daniele Mensi – who, after leaving NextHash resulting from “excessive disagreement from all standpoints”, strongly criticised the corporate in a number of (now-deleted) tweets.

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Screenshot of a now-deleted Twitter trade, June 2021.

How a lot of that is correct versus grievances from former staff is tough to completely discern, given Benčič’s refusal to answer questions, however there are clues to an abrasive enterprise ethos in her personal caps-heavy company bio, which reads that “her life philosophy is to FIRST DO IT, then COMMUNICATE, TEACH and CRITICIZE (if mandatory).”

There’s one other frequent theme to most of these tales, too: lacking cash. 

Lawrence advised me that he is aware of of at the very least 10 folks which are owed cash – “starting from €2-3,000 as much as six figures”. He claims he himself finally gave up on chasing €30,000 that he was personally owed, compromised with Benčič all the way down to €15,000, and nonetheless hasn’t acquired that. A NextHash contractor I spoke to was additionally allegedly out of pocket – he estimates that he’s brief round £7,500. An EighteenPlus engineer advised me that they had been nonetheless owed greater than €15,000 in wages. Aljosa Sokic claims to have misplaced “about €200,000, at the very least”.

There’s some concern amongst every of these sources that by occurring the document, they are going to be tied to Benčič by affiliation. But as Lawrence put it, “I’d reasonably air what I do know now and keep away from extra folks getting damage.”

[NextHash did not respond to specific questions about unpaid wages and entitlements to any entities associated with ​​Benčič.]

And what of these which are investing within the NextHash ecosystem of crypto choices? There’s a reasonably neat parallel to the experiences of the previous Benčič staff who spoke with CyclingSuggestions. In the sparsely populated Nexinter Telegram channel – an encrypted messaging service fashionable with fringe teams and the crypto neighborhood – an growing sense of desperation seems to have set in.  

At the time of the announcement of the cycling sponsorship, screenshots seen by CyclingSuggestions confirmed virtually common dissatisfaction or confusion. “We have already missed the bull run in international crypto market,” wrote one person. “It’s a rip-off undertaking. Needs to be reported. Ran away with the cash,” reads one other message. 

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Telegram screenshot from the Nexinter channel.

The finish of an period

As for the cycling workforce, its fleeting brush with the crypto world appears to have been equally ill-fated, with little obvious try by NextHash to capitalise on the connection – even throughout the main drawcard of the Tour de France: a cursory couple of social media posts, no press launch, no grand web site unveiling.

But simply because the workforce was on the brink of folding, after months of digital silence from its naming rights sponsor, NextHash launched a flurry of releases on its web site signposting its plans for the workforce to “increase extra funds and consciousness for the Qhubeka Charity … by way of cryptocurrency tokens and cycling NFTs.”

As just lately as December 28 – after the workforce’s closure had been confirmed – a baffling article on the NextHash web site talked up how “a brand new partnership between NextHash (a cryptocurrency blockchain platform) and the South African cycling workforce Qhubeka has been introduced and is rumoured to introduce NFTs into cycling quickly.” [Multiple brands and athletes have already introduced NFTs into cycling over the past year, but sure.]

“The Team Qhubeka NextHash partnership has been useful for each events,” another article claims

Staff and riders of the cycling workforce could beg to vary. After bearing NextHash’s identify for the final six months of its existence, having weathered late funds and media hypothesis and the indignity of a ‘no’ from the UCI, it’s unlikely that they’ll bear in mind an excessive amount of of their partnership with NextHash fondly. 

In the dying days of the 2021 season, a popular workforce’s six-year stint within the WorldTour got here crashing to a messy finish. Doug Ryder confronted the bruising process of conceding defeat – for now – and will begin 2022 nonetheless chasing lacking sponsorship funds whereas making an attempt to recalibrate his place within the sport.

Hanging over all of it is the cloud of the WorldTour-first blockchain sponsorship which, even by essentially the most charitable interpretation, fell a way brief of expectations. “Maybe we may have had a greater companion within the area,” Ryder conceded, with a hole giggle.

And what of NextHash? Although the corporate’s cycling affiliation was seemingly transient and ill-fated, its time in sports activities sponsorship has not but come to an finish. Enter the Cricket Non-Fungible Token

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Screenshot: NextHash web site.

On the exact same day that the UCI referred to as time on Team Qhubeka-NextHash’s license, the Slovenian cryptocurrency agency announced its next venture: a sequence of NFTs with the English T20 cricket captain, Eoin Morgan [Morgan’s management did not respond to a request for comment]. “The cricket NTF [sic] undertaking developed by NextHash is undoubtedly the subsequent huge factor within the NFT area,” the NextHash web site reads. “This is the market you need to be in.”

And identical to that, one other trade appears to be lining up with Ana Benčič – the enigmatic, and probably flawed, determine behind an enigmatic, flawed enterprise empire.

Only time will inform what this new metamorphosis will deliver, however on previous expertise, it doesn’t seem to be good vibrations are on the best way.

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