More than 15 years ago, the Philadelphia Stock Exchange, which was acquired by Nasdaq in 2008, and another since-sold exchange called HedgeStreet, both announced they intended to offer something called event contracts to investors. The idea was to allow people to bet “yes” or “no” on questions about future events that were structured as all-or-nothing options, and to pay a fixed amount when an outcome either occurred or did not.
At the time, it was a novel but controversial idea; it also failed to generate enough interest from investors to succeed. Now, Kalshi, a young, New York-based, 33-person startup is testing the waters anew and it’s doing so with the help of some heavyweight investors that include Sequoia Capital, Henry Kravis, Charles Schwab and SV Angel that have collectively provided the company with $36 million in funding to date.
Their enthusiasm ties in part to a major hurdle that Kalshi — founded by former MIT classmates and researchers Tarek Mansour and Luana Lopes Lara — overcame last year by winning approval from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to run a derivatives exchange.
Mansour says Kalshi’s small team worked closely with the agency at every turn to ensure it would pass muster. “This was quite the process, as the more problems you face, the more problems emerge,” he says now of the process. Bringing aboard a former head of clearing at the CFTC as Kalshi’s head of regulation also helped, he says.
Kalshi is also emerging during a time when people are consuming more, and sometimes narrower, news stories through their social media feeds and elsewhere.
That matters, suggests Lopes Lara, because the “contracts are pretty much tied to news and things that are going on in the world and relevant in the world right now.” Indeed, though a tie-up with a social media platform would probably be ideal, one way the startup is getting in front of information junkies is advertising on the question-and-answer site Quora. (Other, more “partnership-based” tie-ups are coming, add the founders.)
In the meantime, Kalshi is on a mission to prove it can entice a new generation of traders — both retail and institutional, accredited and unaccredited — to bet on all kinds of possible outcomes, like whether or not Turkey will join the European Union by June of next year (which is one contract on the platform currently).
It is seeing some traction. Since launching in March, the platform has attracted 4,000 users who have agreed to its “yes” or “no” contracts that have just two outcomes and that pay either 100% if an investor bets correctly and zilch if the investor bets wrong. It’s a respectable but conservative amount of users.
The founders suggest things will begin to pick up at a faster clip this fall, given that Kalshi has a “few avenues for acquiring users and growing our user base,” says Mansour. One if these is its consumer product, for anyone who wants to enter into a contract at its website.
More significantly perhaps, Kalshi also has “a few brokers that we’re going to partner with . . . to allow people to trade event contracts the same way they trade stocks, or commodities, or options on their preferred brokerage app,” says Mansour, adding that “by brokers, I mean the Fidelities and Charles Schwabs of the world.”
Adds Lopes Lara, “People who use Robinhood or Coinbase or other brokers are our first target, given how much they already understand about investing and are interested in these types of questions and event-based thinking for their investments.”
What interested parties should know not to expect are event contracts around sports outcomes (“that’s very much like gambling, and we don’t [facilitate] that,” says Lopes Lara.)
Owing to federal regulations, certain other areas are also very much off limits, including events contracts tied to geopolitical events, like whether a war will breakout, and political events. (For example, though users might be tempted to bet on whether or not California Governor Gavin Newsom will be recalled in September, they’d have to drum up that action elsewhere.)
As for what happens if Kalshi takes off and other brokerages or other large financial institutions attempt to create their own event contract offerings, Mansour insists that it wouldn’t be so easy for them. “A lot of the work that we’ve done over the last two-and-a-half years is [intellectual property]. Every single detail of operations was built for event contracts. It would take a bit of time — especially for some of these bigger institutions — to really get into the space.”
Only time will tell.
Other investors in Kalshi include Y Combinator and Tinder cofounder Justin Mateen, a co-founder of dating app Tinder. Alfred Lin, the former Zappos executive turned Sequoia Capital investor, sits on the company’s board.