MOSCOW – Natasha writes "Frank, 11:20 a.m." on a slip of white paper and hangs it on the pin board behind the counter next to "Nina and Katya, 10.55 a.m.," "Sergei, 11 a.m." and other names. Then she opens an antique cabinet filled with dozens of old alarm clocks and watches, all different, but with one thing in common – none of them work.
Symbolism plays a big role at the Clockface Café. Every guest puts their clock of choice – on which time has stopped – on their table. It may seem paradoxical, but the idea is for this to make you forget time even as the tab here is contingent on how much of it you spend in the café. Every minute costs two rubles, which means an hour costs 120 rubles ($3.80).
You could order, say, a frothy Caffè Americano, drink up in ten minutes, and leave. That would be quite a deal – even at cafés in inexpensive neighborhoods you’d pay more, and this one is on Moscow’s fancy Tverskaya Street, between Pushkin Square and the Kremlin.
But that’s not what people do here. Guests ensconce themselves on couches and armchairs in and among Singer sewing machines, a piano, lamps with fringed shades, a portrait of Pushkin, shelves of Jack London books – spread over nine small rooms. The net result is part artsy café, part chill out lounge, and part grandma’s living room.
For their money they get coffee, tea, toast, biscuits, and as much as they want. They also know that no matter how much time they actually spend here, there’s a ceiling on tabs – nobody can be charged more than 480 rubles ($15.25).
The idea has really caught on and there are now many imitators – so-called “anti-cafés” that also charge by the minute and hour. But Ivan Mitin was the first one to come up with the idea, and he’s asked me to meet him where his other Moscow Clockface Café is, two subway stations away.
Up a narrow iron spiral staircase and I’m in what looks like messy student digs from the 1960s. Mitin, 28, is just back from London. This is where it all started he says, in this very room, three years ago. He started inviting friends and neighbors, who in turn brought their acquaintances, and he had an old suitcase he left open for people to throw in whatever amount of money they could.
"More and more people kept coming, 50 a day, so the space quickly developed into a café." A year later he opened the first Clockface Café next door. Now there are two in Moscow, others in St. Petersburg, Rostov, Kazan, the Ukraine. And soon, Mitin hopes, Berlin and London.
Why is it so successful? "I’m not selling my customers tea and coffee,” Mitin says. “I’m selling them time.”
It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.
PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.
Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.
Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.
Share capital of one billion
The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).
The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.
Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.
While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.
The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down
Raising Initial Coin Offering
Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.
For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."
What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".
Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.
Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.
Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.
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