Sex toys, cybercrime, and cycling sponsorship: The bizarre tale of NextHash
What's the thread connecting cycling with North Korean military hackers and the adult industry? NextHash, Team Qhubeka’s last title sponsor.
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As a cycling season comes to a close, an air of desperation sets in. Riders scramble for teams. Teams scramble for sponsors. Livelihoods are on the line, and due to the sport’s fickle financial model, all it can take is one sponsor to make or break a team.
Sometimes it works out. Sometimes – as the South African-registered Team Qhubeka-NextHash found out a few weeks ago – it doesn’t. But the continuity of it all, really, hinges on sponsorship.
Cycling sponsors come from all sorts of places – grubby governments, benevolent billionaires, bike brands. Often, what they’re advertising is pretty mundane – construction firms, alcohol-free beer, luxury showerheads.
Rare is the team sponsor that invites deeper scrutiny. But NextHash – a mysterious cryptocurrency company that came on as a Team Qhubeka title sponsor on the eve of the 2021 Tour de France – has been a perpetual source of intrigue for the duration of its (fleeting) involvement in cycling.
Since the partnership was announced, it became clear that there were quite a few more questions than answers. Questions like: what is NextHash? Where is it from? What does it do? Who’s behind it? How does it make money? Does it have any money – and if so, will it actually pay up?
Those questions nagged at me, so in late June, after a little digging, I wrote an article that uncovered serious doubts about the company’s financial viability and whether it could feasibly support what was promoted as a half-decade-long, presumably multi-million-dollar, investment in a cycling team.
I hit ‘publish’ and prepared to move on with my life. But within hours, the messages started to appear, from individuals that had worked with or under NextHash founder Ana Benčič.
To say these messages communicated a strong view of Benčič and NextHash would be an almost comical understatement. “I can tell you for sure this is bad for the cycling team,” one message read. “She is like a plague and destroys everything she touches. Have a great day!”
Overdramatic? Perhaps. But what would you have me do, not write back?
Over the months since, after multiple interviews with multiple sources, an arguably more troubling picture has taken shape: one that asks serious questions about the cycling sponsorship model, about the checks and balances around sponsors, and about NextHash itself.
A team’s demise
The final hammer blow for Team Qhubeka-NextHash didn’t come until December.
After the team missed numerous deadlines for the submission of paperwork and finances, the UCI announced on December 9 that it was refusing Team Qhubeka-NextHash a WorldTour license for 2022. The team also didn’t appear on a list of second-division ProTeams. That seemed an ominous sign for a team that has been around in some form since 2007, racing in the Tour de France since 2015, and a fixture of the WorldTour for the last six years.
After a couple of weeks of radio silence, Team Qhubeka principal Douglas Ryder finally called time on the team on December 23. In an internal email to riders and staff, Ryder wrote that “we have tried everything to find sponsors for our team for next season, right up until the last few days, but nothing has materialised in time.”
The official announcement landed shortly after:
ANNOUNCEMENT— Team Qhubeka (@TeamQhubeka_) December 24, 2021
We’re deeply saddened to confirm our hopes to race on the WorldTour in 2022 team are over
Team Qhubeka will continue to move forwards with our Continental team & we have other exciting projects & ideas which will see us changing lives🖐️
That left a handful of riders contracted to a team that no longer exists, and several more without a ride for 2022. Simon Clarke got lucky in finding a team outside of the transfer season; the likes of Domenico Pozzovivo and Sergio Henao did not.
Meanwhile, the Italian-registered Team Qhubeka development team will continue, and Ryder is optimistic about a phoenix-like return as a ProTeam next season, and from there, perhaps, back to the WorldTour once more. “The support of emerging talent is incredibly important for us to rise again in 2023,” Ryder wrote to his team.
But while that ties up one narrative thread, I was left with questions about the circumstances that led to this point. Ryder hinted at them himself in his final letter to the squad: “Our cash flow issues due to sponsors not paying on time, or at all, has really impacted on us.”
Those cash flow issues had publicly manifested in August – less than two months after NextHash came on board – when it was revealed that staff and rider salaries were delayed and the team had asked smaller sponsors to submit their final payments early to bridge the gap.
The temptation may be to pin the blame exclusively on NextHash. But, Ryder told CyclingTips in an interview after the team’s dissolution, it’s not quite that simple: there were in fact three partners that failed to pay up.
The greatest proportion of the missing sponsorship payments was due to NextHash. “Had NextHash paid in full, of course those other two partners wouldn’t have really mattered too much and we would have been OK,” Ryder explained.
(Confusingly, a Team Qhubeka spokesperson told Bicycling in July that NextHash’s agreement was for an annual, up-front, cash payment and that the company had “met the commitments they agreed on with our team so far.”)
Ryder said the company has paid a portion of its commitment – albeit less than half of the total agreement, and nothing since October. “I will say that for sure [the payments are] late and it has hurt our staff and the riders,” Ryder said, adding that the issue was exacerbated by poor sponsor communication.
“We had delays and delays and delays,” Ryder told me. “No question. And even now … where we are today is that we haven’t heard from the owner [Ana Benčič] – we’ve heard from people in her team – but we haven’t heard from the owner for a month.”
Team Qhubeka-NextHash was in a precarious position either way, and the financial strain caused by NextHash didn’t sink the team. But there’s an opposite side to that coin. It certainly didn’t improve matters, becoming a distraction for potential sponsors, riders, and team staff in the pursuit of a sustainable future.
It seems fair to say that the swirl of questions – of uncertainty – around NextHash made for a pretty torrid six months.
In the cruellest way, with the collapse of Team Qhubeka-NextHash, the uncertainty has been resolved. The implication is that the team’s demise will forever be associated with its latest – and last – title sponsor, a blockchain and crypto company with an absolutely bonkers backstory.
We stand, dear reader, on the precipice of a long, deep rabbit hole, involving North Korean military hackers, Slovenian sex toy entrepreneurs, and multiple bankrupt businesses.
The backstory of the sponsorship
Sponsorship-wise, Team Qhubeka-NextHash was a bit of a curious case. Half of its team name came from the South African bicycle charity, Qhubeka, but this was a pro-bono arrangement. A representative from the Qhubeka charity told me that “as a registered non-profit we rely on donations to do the work that we do … we do not have any commitments and we do not make any financial contribution to the team.”
That charity connection has helped provide thousands of disadvantaged people with bikes and justifiably earned the team a lot of good will – but it doesn’t pay the bills.
Over the last few years, the money has flowed from elsewhere, but it has proven to be an unreliable pipeline. After the team’s title sponsors Dimension Data – and then NTT – stepped out at the end of the 2019 and 2020 seasons, the team was left looking into the abyss. For 2021, the team’s continuation was salvaged only by a last-gasp investment from Swiss clothing sponsor, Assos.
The mid-season announcement of a “hugely exciting five-year partnership” with NextHash seemed an unlikely, but welcome, turn of events. But things weren’t as rosy as they first seemed.
To list just a few red flags: according to public documents reported by a website that compiles corporate financial records, as recently as September 2020, NextHash Tech Limited had:
- £40 (nope, not a typo – US$55 / AU$73) in cash assets
- almost £5 million (US$6.8 million / AU$9 million) in liabilities falling due within a year
- a net worth of -£4 million (US$-5.5 million / AU$-7.3 million), and
- assets of -£3.1 million (US$-4.3 million / AU$-5.7 million).
Some more stats. The company shifted its registered London address four times in 14 months. The NextHash website lists 12 entities in 10 countries, and the most recent company accounts list NextHash’s “average number of employees” as just one. A request for more recent financial documents got zero responses.
Those are, I think you will agree, some striking numbers.
The connection with NextHash, Ryder told CyclingTips, was put together by a “credible sports marketing agency” that had brought NextHash into the orbit of a Formula 1 racing team (although a planned F1 sponsorship deal was aborted). When Team Qhubeka-NextHash was unveiled on the eve of the Tour de France, there was relief internally that the team had found a lifeline.
The public reception was a little less positive, with various outlets in addition to CyclingTips – notably Kate Wagner for Cyclingnews and Joe Lindsey for Bicycling – asking difficult questions and finding few easy answers. That left the team feeling a little wounded.
“When we announced NextHash and it was out in the media and people were poking holes in it … of course, it hurt me, you know – in terms of like, ‘oh, shit,’ right?”, Ryder said. “But then I spoke to all the guys that had put the deal together and they were like, ‘No, no, no, don’t worry. This will happen. We will get the money and it’ll be all OK.’ And I said, ‘OK, cool.’ And then, of course, then we just got hit with more and more delays, and promises, and empty promises.”
Eerily, the team’s financial woes were anticipated by one of my sources as far back as July. “Benčič won’t pay for a while”, I was told, “and then she’ll go silent”.
Today, Ryder can see parallels in some of that. “The last call that I actually had with her [Benčič] was in early, early, early December, where a lot of commitments were made. A timeline was put together to pay the remaining instalments. And that hasn’t materialised since then. We’re still waiting and trying to get in touch. We’ve had challenges getting in touch with her.”
That sounds familiar at our end, too. Attempts by CyclingTips to contact Benčič through August and September received only one response – that she was unable to respond until mid-September due to “an accident at the beginning of August”. She suggested she’d get back to us on her return and that her colleague Matjaz Ivanusa, the company’s chief of external relations, would respond to questions in the interim. Neither of these things occurred.
To date that is the only contact we have had with Benčič – as of publication, she did not respond to a follow-up email containing a series of specific questions for this article. Nor did our separate attempts to reach Mr Ivanusa over the past few months yield any response.
In itself, the five-year partnership from NextHash would never have been enough to save the team, but communication around it added to a sense of intrigue. A press release announcing the sponsorship appeared to imply that NextHash would be on board as title sponsor for five years, and it was widely reported as such in the global cycling media. Even the team’s Wikipedia page suggests as much.
At the very least, I think we can say it was ambiguous, as the following highly-scientific poll shows:
Fun quiz/serious question:— Iain Treloar (@IainTreloar) October 12, 2021
From the following press-release, how long would you say that NextHash is title sponsor of this cycling team? https://t.co/jJEzMStAmW
In early October a NextHash representative told CyclingTips that “[NextHash] will be a jersey partner in 2022 and beyond as per our agreement with the team” – a substantial downgrade in investment. Ryder confirmed this arrangement and said that “we didn’t really see the different interpretation”; NextHash was – or should have been – a lifeline for the second half of 2021, but there was a gap that needed to be filled for the team to continue.
While chasing outstanding payments, Ryder simultaneously embarked on a frantic and ultimately fruitless search for a major sponsor to take over the reins. “We spoke to 200 companies, went through 10 sports marketing agencies and we did good in 2021,” he told me, sounding a bit nonplussed. “I’m, of course, incredibly sad that we didn’t find a significant partner to come on board.”
Ryder is left with questions about how things ended up where they did. “It’s just really sad that this has happened because … it’s just there’s unfinished business from last year . We went into [the NextHash deal] trusting … and people might say, well, ‘that’s naive, and you should have done more homework’. Absolutely. But when you look at the context around it, and the time that we had [left] potentially … it was done with all the information that we had and knew of at the time. And of course, trusting in other relationships as well.”
Trust is a fragile thing, but Ryder is holding onto hope. “I don’t believe people intentionally sign contracts because they want to be dishonest or they don’t want to pay. I don’t believe it,” he told me.
“I don’t believe anybody’s like that – I mean, I’ve never come across anybody like that.”
Into the depths
Perhaps I’m a cynic. Back in June 2021, a trawl through Google unearthed public documents suggesting NextHash – a relatively new company that appears to have more addresses than employees – didn’t, at face value, seem like an overly safe bet as title sponsor of a WorldTour cycling team. However, a closer investigation of the companies that had been in the Benčič orbit raises even more questions, some of them potentially damning.
To give a very brief synopsis, we are talking about companies 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 investment. Benčič told media at the time that she’d backed out after performing due diligence on the company; SkillsMatter saw things rather differently.
We’re also talking about companies like the Benčič-owned ABF Limited, which was investigated by Slovenian authorities over allegations that, in partnership with the agency Job Service, it had exploited Slovakian migrant workers. There are no reports available on how this was resolved – the company might very well have been totally cleared – but I would gently suggest that if you find yourself the subject of a state investigation into worker exploitation, there have probably been some whoopsies along the way.
For her part, Benčič refuted the claims and asserted that her company paid over the Slovenian minimum wage. She forcefully characterised criticism of her company at the time as “offensive and populist” and it is unclear how the case was resolved; ABF Limited did, however, go bankrupt in 2017.
Benčič has been described in the media as something of a serial entrepreneur, and indeed there were more companies, too – KonsultFin, Konsult-Eu, EighteenPlus, ABF Turist – with most of them having operated from a couple of addresses in the neighbouring Slovenian cities of Isola and Koper.
It’s a bit of a web. One Slovenian registry lists Benčič as director or representative of 12 businesses. Several troubled Benčič-affiliated companies are listed in financial documents as creditors of the Benčič-owned NextHash. Meanwhile, according to Slovenian website Siol.net, 10 of 11 companies of which Benčič is listed as a “founder, director or procurator have blocked or closed current accounts.”
And then, there’s NextHash.
Crypto and cycling
Slovenia is a tiny country of just 2.1 million people with, in recent years, an oversized influence in world cycling, courtesy of the performances of Tadej Pogačar, Primož Roglič, and Matej Mohorič. In 2021 alone, those three riders picked up two Grand Tour titles, nine Grand Tour stages, two Olympic medals, and multiple one-day races.
Cycling’s not the only thing that Slovenia has become a powerhouse in. The country is one of the leading European adopters of cryptocurrency, with over 1,000 businesses accepting it as currency. And with a small, connected population with a lot of young developers – as well as a supportive government – it’s an environment in which blockchain technology can prosper.
That spills over into cycling, too – and NextHash isn’t even the first such example. The Continental-level team Pogačar rode for immediately before he signed a multi-year, multi-million-dollar deal with UAE Team Emirates was sponsored by a now defunct Slovenian crypto firm, Xaurum. A couple of years later, NextHash became the first crypto brand to take its sponsorship to the WorldTour-level.
To get to the core of the story of NextHash, though, you have to first look to yet another Slovenian cryptocurrency brand, the similarly-named NiceHash. NiceHash – which was founded in 2014 and describes itself as “the world’s leading cryptocurrency platform for mining and trading” – was where Ana Benčič entered the industry, and where the bizarre story of NextHash starts its gestation.
And now, it’s time for this weird cycling sponsorship story to take an even weirder tangent.
Next stop: Hollywood … via Pyongyang.
In late 2014, when NiceHash was just getting off the ground, the Seth Rogen-led film The Interview – which satirised the assassination of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un – was at the centre of a global diplomatic incident. Sony Pictures was targeted by an anonymous hacking collective called ‘the Guardians of Peace’, who leaked unreleased films, sensitive information, and ultimately demanded Sony pull its “film of terrorism”.
In the aftermath, Sony scrapped The Interview’s theatrical release out of fear of terrorist attacks, as it became increasingly clear that ‘the Guardians of Peace’ were, in fact, North Korean military hackers – members of the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), a military intelligence agency of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
North Korea’s military is sometimes characterised as bunglingly old-school, but in this case they were pretty effective – they’d disrupted one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world, forced revisions to one of the most hotly anticipated film releases of the year, and made global headlines.
And the Guardians of Peace weren’t done yet. According to the US Department of Justice, the team of three hackers attempted to steal more than US$1.2 billion in cyber-enabled bank heists, created the notorious WannaCry 2.0 ransomware, developed at least nine malicious cryptocurrency apps, and – in December 2017 – turned their gaze to a certain little crypto company in Slovenia.
That would be the worst Christmas present ever for NiceHash. The North Koreans hacked the company, stole 4,700 bitcoins (valued at the time at around US$80 million) and brought NiceHash to its knees.
OK, we’re back on track.
This was the void into which a charismatic HR professional called Ana Benčič stepped, helming a recovery effort to restore the funds and provide tech and security support.
This was, a source told me, Benčič’s big opportunity. “She’d known about crypto before but didn’t know how to use it for her financial projects. At the time she was dealing with asset management. So she got the opportunity to get a big name, one million users, and huge liquidity from NiceHash. The play was to do exchange for NiceHash users, and it would instantly be in the top 10 exchanges by volume.”
One of the originators of NextHash, a Slovenian called Aljosa Sokic, was part of the security team working with Benčič, and explains that her powers of persuasion were remarkable. NiceHash were desperate, and Benčič & co. told them what they wanted to hear – in exchange for a stake in the company.
“It was like in a movie. She took over 35% of NiceHash in one day,” Sokic said. “She is not such a good tactician, but she is a great salesperson.”
In statements provided to CyclingTips, NiceHash shared its account of Benčič’s arrival and, shortly thereafter, departure from the company:
“Ana Benčič indeed became involved with NiceHash after the security incident in 2017. Obviously times were extremely challenging for us back then, and we were doing all we could to make sure we were able to reimburse our users as soon as possible.
“Ms Ana Benčič approached us at that time, claiming she had investors ready to provide roughly 4,700 BTC in exchange for 35%. Perhaps this seems naive from today’s view point but keep in mind that we were extremely desperate at the time, and so we agreed to it. She was very persuasive and there was little reason to believe that somebody would actually make such promises, without having the actual resources to back it up.
“What followed was that we never got the promised 4,700 BTC, so we filed a lawsuit that resulted in Ana Benčič and her affiliates being removed from the company. Things worked out fine in the end but there is little good we can say about Ms Benčič.”– Joe Downie, NiceHash CMO
There were a series of lawsuits in 2018 – all revolving around the 35% share of NiceHash – which ”all ended by way of settlement in 2019”, Downie explained. “We just hope people do not confuse us [for NextHash], as we are running a profoundly different kind of business.”
The business that Benčič was involved with at the time, Konsultfin, has since morphed into NextHash, which today claims to have 12 entities scattered around the world, from Singapore (although it was struck off almost two years ago) to Malta, Slovenia to Serbia.
Making it even more confusing is the existence of multiple iterations of the same company in different countries. There’s Konsultfin Limited, the UK-registered predecessor to NextHash Tech Limited. There’s a Slovenian KonsultFin, which was rebranded as FinTechInvest before going bankrupt. As of September 2020, a Slovenian entity called 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), while a third NextHash (NextHash plc) is owed more than £1 million (US$1.36 million / AU$1.9 million) [A request for the 2021 NextHash financials went unanswered.]
There is one common thread connecting them all – Ana Benčič – and, like Konsultfin (and its sister company Konsulteu), NextHash seems to be providing (and is provided with) funding for multiple subsidiaries.
Maybe it’s just completely legitimate tax-avoidance; it’s all pretty opaque. But it can also call to mind that illusion with a single ball and multiple cups, where you move the cups around until you lose track of where the ball is: money shifting from one business to another to provide an appearance of financial stability.
At the very least, it seems that there is a pattern of financial instability.
You can see that in the network of Benčič-linked companies that are currently creditors to NextHash, but the corporate adventures of 2017 provide an equally nice demonstration. During that year, one of Benčič’s companies – the holiday rental company ABF Turist – ran foul of Slovenia’s tax department, went bankrupt, and had properties seized to pay debts. As previously noted, an unrelated Benčič business – a workforce company also called ABF – was at the core of the 2013 Slovakian labour investigation, and also went bankrupt in 2017. And in December, NiceHash alleged to CyclingTips, Benčič promised 4,700 bitcoin “that she was nowhere near being able to come up with” as a play for a major stake in the company.
Business relationships sour, and businesses go bankrupt all the time. Those facts in themselves do not imply illegal or immoral conduct. But multiple sources, from several Benčič-related entities, painted a very similar picture: of an ambitious entrepreneur who does not offer a safe and solid bet.
Benčič is, one source explained, “very charismatic, amusing, good company, tactile … she promises the world, but she’ll say anything to get what she wants.
“And as it unravels, you can see she’s completely unempathetic.”
Of sex toys and side hustles
At the same time as her stumbling efforts with ABF Turist, the other ABF, KonsultFin and KonsultEu, and what would become NextHash, Benčič was juggling another plate: EighteenPlus d.o.o., a business in pursuit of more carnal pleasures than blockchain finance.
EighteenPlus was a cutting edge sex-toy manufacturer, established by self-described NextHash co-founder Aljosa Sokic and funded by Benčič via Konsultfin.
Sokic and a small team of engineers and developers, working out of the same building on the same floor as the cryptocurrency team, were focused on remotely operated ‘smart’ sex toys as well as technological development for other manufacturers. One NextHash contractor, speaking on condition of anonymity, described the office environment at that time as “bizarre … One minute you’re talking about cryptocurrency sales and the next you’re surrounded by sex toys.”
EighteenPlus’s marquee product, which was making waves in adult shows around the globe, was a visionary vibrator called the Come-X. It was, according to Venus Adult News (NSFW link, obviously), “the first smart vibrator with 3 powerful vibration zones” with “exciting, not seen before haptic effects that users can arrange into custom vibration patterns in the web sequencer.”
CyclingTips is not in the business of sex toys and I will concede that you were probably not expecting this particular tangent, but bear with me.
The adult industry was apparently pretty into the Come-X. EighteenPlus was nominated for an XBiz Award, a Venus Award, and even had 30 vibrators stolen at a show in Berlin.
Sokic and Benčič would travel to trade shows to hunt for endorsements, and secured the rising adult star Elsa Jean as an ambassador. But while externally EighteenPlus seemed like it was on a pathway to a commercial climax, all was not as it appeared. After “about a year”, Sokic said, the funding from KonsultFin was slowing to a trickle.
Eventually, just on the cusp of launching the Come-X to the public, EighteenPlus came crashing down around its employees – with a corresponding deterioration in the relationship between Benčič and Sokic. ”She [Benčič] didn’t have any money left”, claimed Sokic. The vibrator never hit the market; the Elsa Jean endorsement deal fell apart.
Some EighteenPlus employees were absorbed into what became NextHash but others were not so lucky. One former employee, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that they were strung along with promises of payment for more than seven months – and, eventually, wrote it off as a lost cause.
By the books, EighteenPlus appears to still be active – indeed, NextHash Tech Limited currently owes it £1.4 million – although a search of Slovenian records shows that it closed its bank accounts in 2019.
The individual currently listed as EighteenPlus’ managing director, Mirjan Matic, describes himself on LinkedIn as a sales and marketing specialist at NextHash Group. Sokic, along with Matic, are still listed as representatives of the Californian ‘romance products’ entity EighteenPlus LLC, although its filing status is now cancelled, and the company’s social media presence has laid dormant since February 2019.
Remember the ball and the cups from earlier? Sokic believes that Benčič is not always transparent about her involvement with companies – acting via intermediaries, but often the one pulling the strings.
A NiceHash representative seemed to give credence to this theory: “It is to be noted that Ms Benčič was never directly involved [with the NiceHash deal] … as she worked through Konsultfin as a proxy (in December 2017 and early 2018 she definitely made the decisions for Konsultfin, although she was not formally the representative of the company).”
[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 trail of collateral damage
If things look fishy inside Slovenia, they look worse out of it. Phil Lawrence – an affable Scot based in Tallinn, Estonia – was co-director of an Estonian offshoot of NextHash, Nexinterexchange OÜ, which holds the license for NextHash to trade as a crypto exchange – a crucial part of NextHash’s product offering. But there was a problem: the company couldn’t get a bank account.
Since the explosive 2017 Danske Bank money-laundering scandal, Estonia’s regulators had tightened their grip on foreign financial institutions, meaning Nexinterexchange couldn’t exchange money through the country. “There was no way [NextHash] would be able to take cash in from punters,” Lawrence explained. “So what [Benčič] did was this: if you went to deposit into the company, she asked them to please deposit to this account in Slovenia but mark the reference for Nexinterexchange.”
“A crypto exchange cannot accept an exchange by a third company in a third country,” Lawrence continued. “A crypto license is for operating transparently.”
We’re at risk of losing ourselves in financial jargon, but Lawrence summarises it thus: as a violation of international banking laws. “The very fact that she was soliciting funds from investors on a licensed Estonian exchange but using a third-party bank account in Slovenia at Delavska Hranilnica [a Slovenian bank] to collect funds is simply illegal,” he said. [A Q&A for companies looking to set up a crypto exchange in Estonia confirms that an Estonian bank account, board, and representatives is a necessary requirement due to the Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing Prevention Act 2017, which explicitly mentions crypto companies.]
In 2018/19 the crypto license for Nexinterexchange was suspended in Estonia, although the reason for the suspension is unclear; the company 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] financial directives and address the worldwide markets.”]
When it gets personal
Corporate concerns are one thing, but at times the personal implications were substantial, too. Although NextHash now appears to be a one-person show, it was, at the peak of its powers, the employer of dozens of “genuinely decent, well qualified and seriously experienced people” – Lawrence’s words – spread over several countries.
Some of these people spoke to me, on or off the record, to tell me their accounts of working with Benčič – who is tellingly described in a company whitepaper as being driven by “NO PROMISES, but FACTS”.
I was told of staff from India who’d moved with their families to Singapore to work for NextHash, and were shortly thereafter fired – “she hired and fired at a whim … as soon as your value was no more, you’d be kicked to the curb,” one source told me. “She’s absolutely ruthless,” said another.
There was Lawrence, who told me that Benčič “leaves human collateral damage in her wake without a second thought.”
And there are social media accounts from others – including former CEO Daniele Mensi – who, after leaving NextHash due to “extreme disagreement from all standpoints”, strongly criticised the company in several (now-deleted) tweets.
How much of this is accurate versus grievances from former employees is hard to fully discern, given Benčič’s refusal to respond to questions, but there are clues to an abrasive business ethos in her own caps-heavy company bio, which reads that “her life philosophy is to FIRST DO IT, then COMMUNICATE, TEACH and CRITICIZE (if necessary).”
There’s another common theme to most of these stories, too: missing money.
Lawrence told me that he knows of at least 10 people that are owed money – “ranging from €2-3,000 up to six figures”. He claims he himself eventually gave up on chasing €30,000 that he was personally owed, compromised with Benčič down to €15,000, and still hasn’t received that. A NextHash contractor I spoke to was also allegedly out of pocket – he estimates that he’s short around £7,500. An EighteenPlus engineer told me that they were still owed more than €15,000 in wages. Aljosa Sokic claims to have lost “about €200,000, at least”.
There’s some concern among each of these sources that by going on the record, they will be tied to Benčič by association. But as Lawrence put it, “I would rather air what I know now and avoid more people getting hurt.”
[NextHash did not respond to specific questions about unpaid wages and entitlements to any entities associated with Benčič.]
And what of those that are investing in the NextHash ecosystem of crypto offerings? There’s a pretty neat parallel to the experiences of the former Benčič employees who spoke with CyclingTips. In the sparsely populated Nexinter Telegram channel – an encrypted messaging service popular with fringe groups and the crypto community – an increasing sense of desperation appears to have set in.
At the time of the announcement of the cycling sponsorship, screenshots viewed by CyclingTips showed almost universal dissatisfaction or confusion. “We have already missed the bull run in global crypto market,” wrote one user. “It’s a scam project. Needs to be reported. Ran away with the money,” reads another message.
The end of an era
As for the cycling team, its fleeting brush with the crypto world seems to have been equally ill-fated, with little apparent attempt by NextHash to capitalise on the connection – even during the major drawcard of the Tour de France: a cursory couple of social media posts, no press release, no grand website unveiling.
But just as the team was on the brink of folding, after months of virtual silence from its naming rights sponsor, NextHash released a flurry of releases on its website signposting its plans for the team to “raise more funds and awareness for the Qhubeka Charity … through cryptocurrency tokens and cycling NFTs.”
As recently as December 28 – after the team’s closure had been confirmed – a baffling article on the NextHash website talked up how “a new partnership between NextHash (a cryptocurrency blockchain platform) and the South African cycling team Qhubeka has been announced and is rumoured to introduce NFTs into cycling soon.” [Multiple brands and athletes have already introduced NFTs into cycling over the past year, but sure.]
“The Team Qhubeka NextHash partnership has been beneficial for both parties,” another article claims.
Staff and riders of the cycling team may beg to differ. After bearing NextHash’s name for the last six months of its existence, having weathered late payments and media speculation and the indignity of a ‘no’ from the UCI, it’s unlikely that they’ll remember too much of their partnership with NextHash fondly.
In the dying days of the 2021 season, a well-liked team’s six-year stint in the WorldTour came crashing to a messy end. Doug Ryder faced the bruising task of conceding defeat – for now – and will start 2022 still chasing missing sponsorship payments while trying to recalibrate his place in the sport.
Hanging over it all is the cloud of the WorldTour-first blockchain sponsorship which, even by the most charitable interpretation, fell some way short of expectations. “Maybe we could have had a better partner in the space,” Ryder conceded, with a hollow laugh.
And what of NextHash? Although the company’s cycling association was seemingly brief and ill-fated, its time in sports sponsorship has not yet come to an end. Enter the Cricket Non-Fungible Token:
On the very same day that the UCI called time on Team Qhubeka-NextHash’s license, the Slovenian cryptocurrency firm announced its next venture: a series 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] project developed by NextHash is undoubtedly the next big thing in the NFT space,” the NextHash website reads. “This is the market you want to be in.”
And just like that, another industry seems to be lining up with Ana Benčič – the enigmatic, and possibly flawed, figure behind an enigmatic, flawed business empire.
Only time will tell what this new metamorphosis will bring, but on past experience, it doesn’t seem like good vibrations are on the way.