Posted on Feb 20, 2024Read on

Why I Got Into Crypto

Spending my days, as has become habit, thinking about such esoteric notions as tokens and token designs, blockchains and blockchain communities, digital ownership and digital wealth, and the nature of the web -- its uses and misuses -- as a whole, I find myself asking, How’d this happen? How is it, I mean, that I’ve become so fixated, indeed positively obsessed, with such arcane concepts as these? Though I’ve always had an interest in the history of computing, I’m far from a computer scientist. I’ve never really considered myself a technologist. Neither have I ever particularly cared about the nature of finance, minus a few fleeting thoughts about capital formation and its mechanics. And yet here I am. Thinking about computers. Thinking about people. Thinking about money. And about how it all intersects. So how did this happen? How is it that I find myself here? -- “into crypto”, as it were.

When people are asked how they got into crypto, the response is usually self-aggrandising; an effort to assert one’s dazzling intellect, their preternatural prescience. “It all began with the Bitcoin whitepaper,” many a podcast guest will answer. “I realised straight away that this was the future of the Internet, money and society”. While for some small number of people, this response represents a bona fide experience, for many more it’s a post-hoc construction, an affectation, if not an outright lie. Here I hope to be more candid. When I first read the Bitcoin whitepaper, I hadn’t the slightest clue what it was on about. Even the title stretched my neurons. Although by the time I read the whitepaper I’d almost certainly heard enough about Bitcoin to know it was some kind of magic internet money, the term “digital gold” might have even been in use by then, but it was still hazy, hard to pin down. It was around 2013 or 2014 and my friends were using it to buy illicit recreational substances on Silk Road, some kind of marketplace on the ominous-sounding ‘dark web’. Listed next to compounds that made you chew your face off and dance all night were far darker manifestations of the lord’s chemistry, along with ammunitions and fake IDs and everything else you might imagine could be bought and sold in the corner of the web that is so-called ‘dark’. And all of this was bought and sold with this thing --- almost certainly illicit itself -- called “Bitcoin”. So I had some context. But still, when I first read the paper, it all went straight over my head. I remember seeing some math in there, astonished that someone, somewhere out there, actually understood it. I was ~19, a couple of years out of high school, doing not a whole lot.

Maybe a year later, I found myself hearing more about this Bitcoin thing, this ‘dark web money’. Having appreciated in value considerably, people were obviously finding it interesting, and speculating that it might be worth quite a bit more in the future. I remember an interview with Chamath Palihapitiya on Youtube where he seemed pretty pumped up about it. Maybe this thing has legs, I thought. Maybe there’s money to be had. Maybe it’s the future.

I studied Bitcoin further. It became a minor, albeit short-lived obsession. I remember pitching it to my old-man at the time (I obviously wasn’t especially convincing as he never bought any). “One day a single BTC could be worth hundreds of thousands,” I claimed. I even wrote a blog post where I tried to grapple with the underlying concepts and concluded that it might be worth a lot in the future. I still had only an elementary understanding of the core concepts, but I found it all immensely compelling, even if I couldn’t fully articulate why.

I first bought Bitcoin to buy some Modafinil (it was all the rage in SV at the time) as a study aid from a site called ‘Modafinil Cat’. They were advertising a 20% discount for orders that paid in BTC. I figured that was incentive enough and so I bought some off a local exchange and wired through the BTC. It was my first ever cryptopayment, and I think I paid ~2BTC for a fairly large amount of Modafinil. As it turns out, it wasn’t the best deal. Not only did it cost me approx. $100k (in today’s terms), I didn’t like the Modafinil, either (it gave me migraines), and ended up giving most of it away to a friend.

Interestingly, I never thought to invest my own money in Bitcoin, not back then. It was something I found intellectually curious, and wouldn’t mind evangelising to other people or making grandiose price predictions about. But somehow it didn’t occur to me that I should buy and hold some for myself. I didn’t have anything to my name, for starters, and I guess the thought of it being worth a lot someday was too distant, not real enough, only a vague and distant possibility. Above all, I think it was the passivity that put me off. That is, if I was going to do something with money, if I was going to invest it in something, I wanted it to somehow reconfigure my life in the present. Give me something to do. Something to sink my teeth into. The prospect of taking money I didn’t have and parking it in something I couldn’t do anything with didn’t light me up. So I didn’t (much to my future self’s regret).

I then became interested in other things and Bitcoin became something of a memory. It was an intellectual fling, a brief affair, satisfying but not enough to keep me faithful. Eventually I started an agricultural business and that became my obsession. It wasn’t until a few years later that I started thinking about “crypto” again, although at that time I’m not even sure if I’d heard the term. It was around 2017, and Ethereum was going through ICO mania. I wasn’t quite sure what Ethereum was so I watched a TechCrunch interview with Vitalik. I can’t remember what I made of the interview but the general notion of using this decentralized platform to facilitate crowdfunding campaigns I found fascinating. The rainbows and unicorns was an interesting look, too.

As all entrepreneurs invariably do, I’d developed an appreciation for the essentiality of capital, how it harboured the capacity to make or break dreams. While venture capital was the default means by which an ambitious founder sought to finance their startup, there were some fairly obvious compromises that such capital necessitated, I’d concluded. For starters, venture capital is predicated on the prospect, and sometimes reality, of excess returns. VC doesn’t go after 2-3x returns, it chases 10, 100, 1000x multiples. It wasn’t a function of greed, as was typically assumed (though certainly there’s no shortage of it, either). Rather, because of the nature of the business, the power law distribution of startup success, they require disproportionate returns, as a matter of survival. In the cases where an entrepreneur and a VC seek the same thing, this arrangement works just fine. However, I wasn’t so sure that’s what I wanted for my business. I’d become, as it were, idealistic. I’d been drinking the Yvon Chounaird ‘responsible company’, business-as-a-force-for-good kool-aid. The business I was building was intended to help pay the food system forward, to render it at once more sustainable and equitable. Perhaps this mission was commensurate with exponential growth. Perhaps exponential growth was even a moral imperative. But I wasn’t sure at the time and didn’t want to gamble the integrity of the cause for the sake of some funding. At the same time, though, more money would’ve been great.

A few things struck me about ICOs. First, and most fundamentally, it represented an alternative means of financing a project that wasn’t beholden to the logic of venture capital. Moreover, it broadened the space of possible investors to include the entire Internet. This was of course the proposition of crowdfunding, in general, but Ethereum and ICOs seemed to take this principle to the extreme by making it truly Internet-native, issuing -- in exchange for capital -- assets (i.e. tokens) that weren’t (yet) subject to the same securities regulation that stymied, in my opinion, traditional crowdfunding platforms. Most idealistically, it also represented a means of financing a project in a way that was, potentially, far more aligned with a business or brand’s customer base -- by enabling customers to become investors; to own, before the majority of the returns had already been realised, their favourite companies. In this sense, ICOs seemed radically egalitarian. It seemed to portend a world of truly customer-owned brands. At the time, I was building a consumer brand, and so all my thinking was brand-centric. ‘Imagine Nike if Nike was owned by all its early customers,’ I thought.

With these thoughts already in mind, I remember going for a hike with some friends, in the Tasmanian wilderness, under the influence of ~100mg of lysergic acid. After the sun had set, I found some moments to myself while starring at the stars, and found myself making contact with the prospect of listing this new-age brand of mine on this open, decentralized platform that was Ethereum. As psychedelic visions tend to be, the experience was cosmic in its grandiosity. It felt revolutionary. Fundamentally novel. A new paradigm. Instead of eventually listing on something like the Nasdaq, which felt so parochial, mired in the trite politics and false boundaries of nation states, I’d open up my enterprise to the entire world. A brand for the Internet. I went to sleep that night deeply content, convinced I was onto something, though when I woke I returned to the sober realities of trying to make a business a business.

Around this time I’d also been digging into Austrian economic canon, reading the likes of Rothbard and Hayek. Hayek, with his notion of the ‘denationalisation of money’ was especially relevant to the emerging crypto context. Indeed what seemed to be taking place, in crypto, was precisely Hayek’s ideal of a competitive, private market for non-sovereign monies. Bitcoin and Ethereum were the early instantiations, but surely new monies would emerge, and it was my suspicion that the monies of the future would be tied, in some way, to global brands. Imagine Apple or Nike coin. It all seemed so obvious, inevitable even.

As exciting and subversive as these thoughts were at the time, nothing much came of them. It wasn’t until mid 2021 that I finally dove deep into crypto in earnest. There was a couple of catalysts. First, the market was pumping. Prices were skyrocketing and talk of crypto was inescapable. It wasn’t that I particularly cared about the prices, as I didn’t own anything and wasn’t planning on buying, but it seemed to affirm that something genuinely interesting was going on here. The market was, I figured, signal. Secondly, NFTs were taking off. Cryptopunks were my first study. And what I found interesting about them was how they might be used, again, in the consumer brand context. What I had been trying to build was a digitally-native brand, and NFTs seemed to represent a fundamentally new category of digital object that could be used in various ways by digitally savvy brands. They could, I figured, be used to complement physical products -- i.e. buy a physical and receive a digital -- or to represent, in some fashion, community and culture.

In the background of all this, I was working on a rebrand for the business. There was to be a new site, new product lines, new packaging. A fresh new look. There were, to my mind, some obvious complementarities between what I was seeking to build, and what crypto was coming to represent: something futuristic, subversive, digital. But the essential idea was this: as an aspiring Internet-native brand, wouldn’t it be interesting if we were to attach ourselves to crypto -- as emerging Internet culture -- in some fashion? While we were selling, of all things, health food products, I figured we could, by incorporating crypto, carve out a really interesting, future-forward aesthetic niche. The most obvious idea was to accept crypto as a form of payment, and, in so doing, assert ourselves as a bona fide “crypto-company”. I was following the success of Foundation at the time and dug the vibe of the Ethereum symbol, so I decided we would prioritise $ETH.

As it happens, accepting crypto, at the time, was far from an easy proposition. Especially in exchange for physical products. In the process of my research, though, I find myself captivated by the ideas circulating the cryptosphere. There was the philosophical conversation around money, i.e. what makes money “money”, and the idea of its reinvention, the idea of “imbuing money with values”. That was exciting. Above all, though, there was (and remains) this notion of a blockchain as a coordination technology; a tool for facilitating human cooperation.

While it’s a relatively abstract notion, the idea of ‘human coordination’ was something I’d already become rather interested in, prior, that is, to my foray into crypto. At some point, it occurred to me -- however banal or self-evident the thought might seem -- that the fundamental predicament of the human condition, the existential dilemma, is a matter of coordination. At the individual and societal level, the essential question is this: What are we to do? With all this time, attention, energy, money. Steering the world towards ‘better’ or ‘progress’, I’d come to appreciate, is ultimately an issue of effective coordination; that is, of putting our resources towards those things which promote the Good, and avoiding those which bring about its opposite. By implication, effectively all of the problems we grapple with, as a society, can be reduced to our failure to coordinate; our failure to do what needed to be done to avoid such problems in the first place, or remedy them once they had arisen.

This is of course a great abstraction, but it is, I’ve found, a helpful one nonetheless. On this view, the entire arc of human progress can be viewed as the continual evolution of increasingly sophisticated coordination technologies. Money. The State. Rule of law. The corporate form. All of these constructs are institutions (in the broad sense) that help facilitate the voluntary cooperation of human beings.

This notion of coordination struck me as especially powerful as it was precisely what I was trying to do with the company of my own. In the abstract, I was trying to leverage the company to effect some positive impact in the world; to work at the intersection at what was profitable, as a business, and what was socially and environmentally important. However, what struck me was how there was, amongst the space of possible impact, a thinner-than-ideal overlap between what was commercially viable and what would be most impactful. Many things that would be impactful would not be profitable, and vice versa. For everything that existed outside of this nexus, there was the non-profit. But as a construct, the non-profit was even more limited in what it could do, dependent upon external sources of funding as they are. Surely there are more flexible institutional constructs, some amalgam of non-profit and profit that was better adapted to the set of problems the world is facing?

What I discovered in blockchains, or what I think I have discovered in them, is an institutional form that obeys an entirely alternative, and far more flexible, social and economic logic to that of more traditional structures. Where companies and NGOs are relatively constrained in terms of their financing -- either they make a profit or they receive donations -- blockchains, enabled by tokens, were able to realise a far broader space of economic configuration. I came to see tokens as a fundamentally novel and infinitely flexible technologies for capturing and representing value. By virtue of their programmability, their being instantiated purely in software, they could represent, in principle, a far broader set of possible value constructs and economic arrangements. They could represent social, cultural, even environmental value -- in a tangible, economic sense -- in fundamentally new ways. By expanding the space of what we can value, perhaps we could more reliably represent, in our economics, that which we ought (or purport) to value. Such things as planetary health, for instance. Viewing the existence of ‘negative externalities’ as the fundamental flaw of free market economics, as I did (and continue to), perhaps this new means of representing and distributing value was the missing piece, I figured.

People talk about being ‘nerd-sniped’ by crypto. And indeed I was. After ~6 months of working, effectively full-time, to incorporate crypto in some fashion into my existing business, I decided I was better off reimagining the business, from the ground up, in light of these new ideas. Instead of building a business, I would build a blockchain (or something on a blockchain). After some negotiation, I sold my share of the business back to my co-founder and set-out to realise this new, crypto-inspired vision. And here I am, still trying to figure it out, some couple of years later.

Since first deciding to commit to this crypto thing, my thinking has evolved substantially. The ideas that got me here are still there, but there’s also a new set of constantly evolving concepts that keep me going. Ultimately, I think crypto represents a socioeconomic shift at the very heart of the web; a shift that will fundamentally transform the nature of money and finance, as well as the dynamics of Internet products / services, generally. If this holds true, what we build here and now will define the balance of digital power, the nature of Internet life, for decades (perhaps centuries) to come. Naturally, given this view, I consider working in crypto today something of an opportunity of a lifetime. While this is a conviction that has taken years to develop -- that is to say, it’s not exactly what got me interested, in the first place -- it’s nonetheless what keeps me here, what keeps me going.

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