Why Does Cryptocurrency and Blockchain Tech Matter? My Role in the Industry
The Face of the New Revolution
As Net Neutrality was struck down by the U.S. government in December 2017, I saw a vision future, the way the internet was intended: blockchain technology would usher a new era of decentralized governance and a new world order that puts control back into hands of the masses.
That might be somewhat of an extreme perspective but to date, Net Neutrality has enabled individuals to access the internet on an equal basis. This allows both your garage startup and your enterprise corporation to build new technology and businesses with equal access to the power of an unprecedented global network.
Now, the government has granted rights to the major media companies to throttle connection speeds to those that pay more (or really however they see fit). The absence of Net Neutrality and corporate protectionism by our government is bringing out a huge alliance amongst the crypto community as blockchain could be the solution that continues to make the internet accessible to all.
The blockchain world and cryptocurrency industry is a $400B — $700B asset class/industry/counter culture made famous by Bitcoin. It has transcended beyond being merely virtual currency to over 1300+ companies leveraging some variation of blockchain protocol technology in just a couple years. Overnight, companies building applications leveraging blockchain have carved out a unique ability to raise millions of dollars on ideas, technical and academic white papers, creating massive global communities on Telegram (a messenger app), while simultaneously withholding any need to forfeit equity ownership in the process. This is a far cry from the traditional startup scene of using a ten-page pitch deck, hockey stick trajectory chart showing potential growth, and investors taking heavy stakes and equity in an entrepreneur’s vision.
(Please note that I interchangeably use “cryptocurrency” and “blockchain” to describe an industry and ecosystem(s). At the time of writing this, blockchain is a very limited piece of the crypto ecosystem as it has evolved beyond the architecture of blockchain and thus it is more pertinent to resort to the nomenclature “cryptocurrency” as a stronger pronoun to refer to the industry that has developed over recent years.)
Crypto is a fascinating world of individuals that range from people supporting illegal activities and staying anonymous, to people actively trying to decentralized governance, redistribute wealth, and reimagine business entirely. The implications of blockchain technology will disrupt nearly every industry: from financial services removing the middleman to redistribution of the power grid energy, to the deconstruction of government bodies.
Furthermore, the core technology features of crypto have ushered in alternative ways of thinking about existing institutions and models. The revolutionary aspects brought forth by the technology do not solely lie in the technology’s architecture and features but also within its socio-economic application: academia’s role in business, venture capital’s role in funding the future, a truly international, borderless community, the decentralized role of a government’s organizational bodies, and an entire removal of middle-men (women) in every industry.
While Bitcoin makes the headlines in the news and FOMO (fear of missing out) sets in with people watching from the sidelines (driving much uncertainty and distrust of the space), there are truly impactful aspects of crypto that you won’t necessarily read about.
My Role in Crypto
Over the past year, I have been busy founding a company called Constellation Labs with four other people. Our focus is to create a distributed operating system where existing applications (like those on your phone) can seamlessly network and communicate with other applications and devices.
For example, iOS is a closed operating system for Apple products and thus applications and consumers are beholden to Apple’s centralized authority to use and create new features and functionality while ultimately giving limited data permissions to the end user. Constellation Labs is creating a decentralized operating system that puts control back into consumers and application developers. Additionally, we use cryptocurrency to tokenize the transactions that exist within our network (don’t think too hard about this, simply think that every transaction that occurs in the world requires a token, a documented exchange, which is simply something to document and record that transaction).
The implications of this technology can lead to new applications that require unprecedented amounts of energy and will now be able to tap into distributed computing while providing universal and basic income for individuals.
What initially captured my attention about crypto was the inherent community that formed around it. Many people of this esoteric community are entrepreneurs that epitomized what I had imagined the early days of Silicon Valley looked like: brilliant individuals in the trenches, a post-modern counterculture, a high level of self-expression, and the not-infrequent “I don’t give a fuck” mentality. This resonated with me as Silicon Valley has become a somewhat monochromatic culture with its prototypical techy personality that focuses on resume ad nauseam.
Furthermore, as I leaned in to learn more about this technology and understand it’s particular nomenclatures, I couldn’t quite put it into a simple box and understand every nuance. It wasn’t easy to dive in but yet I could see the established subculture — so the allure was not solely an intellectual curiosity but an entirely new culture and way of doing things.
An Alice in Wonderland “rabbit hole” is almost imminent when you start learning about the crypto space. To understand crypto, it in no small part requires rewiring your entire brain to understanding a new technology and a new world of new characters, key stakeholders, roles, and responsibilities. It is a revival of the arts; an immersion into sacred geometry and the interconnectedness of everything; a movement to be trustless and transparent; a drive to decentralize control; a shift in a new world order.
The Power of Community
The first characteristic that stood out to me as I leaped into the rabbit hole was this sense of community and the ability to build a community. Working with Constellation, the first initiative last summer was to test our ability to attract and appeal to a community in the crypto world. In just two weeks time, with no personal connections, we had attracted about $200K in interest into an early concept called Rakugo (not Constellation). After a couple weeks, and a clear understanding of scalability issues with existing blockchain tech, our team returned the funds to focus on a bigger vision: Constellation.
This immediately fascinated me as the community was both feedback loops and investors. Community members did not simply believe in what you were doing — they were individuals that had a financial stake in what you were doing. As a result, it was crucial to have a strong community manager as a founder. This was such a different perspective than building a traditional tech company. Up to this point, my understanding was that a community manager sounded like someone that would work with a marketing lead — not necessarily someone on the founding team of a tech company.
But the community in crypto is like the evolution of Facebook likes, Instagram followers, LinkedIn connections — it is an actively engaged community that is reinforcing your ecosystem and is sharing and participating in some capacity to help truly grow the nature of the business. The closest community I’ve found similar to it is in Reddit, where community members are deeply engaged and all committed to the health, accuracy, and longevity of the community for more than cultivating a sense of “influence” in each individual.
My paradigm of understanding began to shift: community was everything and one of the most important pieces to building a crypto company. If you go to Constellation’s Telegram page, you will see roughly 6k people discussing Constellation, asking questions, and it is self-regulated by avid community followers, while moderated by about four Constellation team members.
The Role of Academia
Academia has found a new and pivotal role in private entities in the crypto world. As many famous entrepreneurs, like Peter Thiel and Mark Cuban, are discounting academia and encouraging the youngest generation to take up entrepreneurship and solely focus on developing computer science skills, crypto relies heavily on not only the technical engineering side of things, but also applied economics, physics, sacred geometry, and social sciences like psychology, political science, and anthropology.
Since the beginning of crypto, going back to the founding of Bitcoin, companies and their founders have written white papers with cited sources and a theoretical articulation of the technology to raise funds and build excitement around their project. In fact, our own white paper for Constellation is extremely technical and is not fit for people outside of a decent understanding of physics — trust me, it took me a few reads to just get to a basic understanding.
This emphasis on academic acceptance in crypto companies might be the saving grace to academia right now as they face intense scrutiny on cost structures, ROI, and a lack of parallel participation in the job market. Many students are opting to go to code academies for 3 months and pop out making $70k+ as Silicon Valley and the rest of the world can’t hire developers fast enough. This is way better than going to a four-year college, with loads of debt, and wondering where you fit in this working world. However, these code monkey roles will become commoditized to fulfill the visions of tech companies in San Francisco; conversely, crypto requires a need to connect multiple areas of studies, applied to theoretical, to truly design the future. This gives academia a chance to find a new place in the world, educating and arming intelligent people with a multi-disciplinary understanding that’s crucial for the future.
The Shift in Capital Allocation
This is probably the most talked about topic in the crypto space; every day, headlines read how companies leveraging blockchain or crypto are raising millions of dollars overnight by selling tokens. Well, it is somewhat true. When I first sat down with Brendan, our CEO at Constellation, he explained to me how a token sale works — that is, the way that people buy into your product and provide a company runway is not through selling equity, but instead selling tokens or crypto which can be used on the platform and simultaneously sold/bought on exchanges.
This blew my mind. There was no way that Silicon Valley and angel investors would ever buy some token — I mean, where do you use the token? You can’t take spend it on Amazon or something.
Brendan: Silicon Valley doesn’t work in this capacity. It is the crypto community that is purchasing tokens in advance of their being released to the public which provides the funding.
Ben: Well, how do you access large pools of capital?
Brendan: Look at the market capitalization of all cryptocurrencies. There is a sea of people internationally that is dedicated to investing in projects that will continue to reinforce crypto as a whole.
Selling tokens isn’t as simple as just creating some virtual currency and selling it. A token pre-sale and public sale (known as an ICO — initial coin offering) takes into consideration “token economics.”
Token economics is basically an economics of money — supply and demand. Think of how the Federal Reserve toggles interest rates to control the supply and demand of money while retaining the ability to “print” new currency. Same thing here, although in crypto, you create an absolute supply and you carefully breakdown a circulated supply to the public so as to create the right demand (and value) in the marketplace. You have a particular amount in reserve in case you need to seed the network and community.
The remarkable aspect that I saw in this was the thousands of inbound inquiries to purchase tokens that came pouring in in just three weeks of selling tokens for Constellation. The result of those thousands of inquiries was that we had built enough runway to last us half a decade! The crypto token sale process is extremely fast and if the community foundation is in place to seed conversations, growth, and answer high-level questions about the technology, then you can capture the abundance. Furthermore, this means that we could build our vision without the interruption of pleading for capital. Which bodes the question: Isn’t this what venture capital was supposed to be all about — individuals investing in the future and giving them enough runway to build the vision of the future?
Through our token sale process, we talked with numerous venture capital companies that wanted to learn about the space but really couldn’t invest in crypto. Venture capital has conflicting DNA that does not enable a seamless transfusion: their contracts with investors prevent them from investing in the structure of token sales in many ways: crypto companies are not selling equity (most crypto companies are open sourced products and don’t have a revenue model); they are forbidden against short term holdings or investing in “currencies”; they require a particular amount of due diligence; they require the company to be at a particular valuation or stage; and well, it is just so counterintuitive to the venture model. Sometimes the biggest hurdles weren’t contractual or legal, but ideological.
Over the past several years as a founder in other companies, I have seen a shift in venture capital into something that resembles more of investment banking — the risk and rules of investing are obsolete and manifested with providing proof that a certain business works. This really isn’t venture.
One thing that I truly believe is that traditional venture capital has built incredible companies and brands starting in the 70’s and they will continue to build incredible brands. At Constellation, we are making it one of our initiatives to bridge the gap between crypto and traditional VC as these highly speculative white paper-based crypto companies will need insights and expertise into building incredible organizations. As for right now, it is absolutely fascinating to see the opportunity across true global boundaries and walls come crumbling down in an effort to build incredible projects around the globe.
The Decentralization of Governance
Some of the technical features of blockchain technology have ushered in a social responsibility ethos and discusses decentralized power controls (disseminating power from one authority). As a young adult, I grew up reading Noam Chomsky’s political commentary and was heavily influenced by his research and insight on the influence of central power. Part of the community in crypto is dedicated to building companies and a world that have more transparency, are rooted in trustless networks as we look to public ledgers documenting transactions, and redistribution of wealth and opportunity.
To understand the social implications a brief understanding of how blockchain works are needed: don’t worry I am not technical enough to truly articulate the technical side of blockchain technologies operate. The blockchain is a computer program that leverages a distributed network of computers around the world to communicate on a public ledger. Every interaction and transaction is recorded so that every person and every computer can see when the transaction took place. As a result, no one single entity or person “owns” the transaction history or data stored on the blockchain.
With nearly 60% of the globe accessing information online, we have an abundance of information that is holding traditional institutions accountable. The rise of the crypto world of decentralization has come at a time where strong nationalism and protectionism are spreading globally and governments and their representatives are no longer representing and upholding values in a satisfactory way.
Additionally, major financial institutions have lost trust in the community as pension funds and 401k’s were gambled with in unsecured high-risk mortgages in 2008 (and the years leading up). Furthermore, citizens in nations such as Zimbabwe to Venezuela are looking for alternative ways to secure savings and income outside of centralized control and interweaving of the private and public sectors.
What would happen if there wasn’t a need for a central bank to hold our digital money and no transaction fees in sending and processing funds? What if your savings account was a holding in Bitcoin and/or Ethereum and not available to centralized banks to be loaned out to others while they make the margin spread greater than your savings interest?
My friend recently said to me — “I don’t really get the crypto space — how do you use it?” My answer was simple — yet far from complete: “Can you spend your Apple stock holdings at Safeway? … Would you if you had the option?”. My answer pulls from a reminder of what money really is: a store of value (I will save this and not spend it until I retire); and exchange of value (I can use this to purchase something accepted in this economy); and a mark of value (this is worth that much).
Crypto is not just a virtual currency but it is backed by foundational technology much akin to the dollar being pegged to gold up until the 70’s or oil in present day. The myriad of cryptocurrencies are connected to digital and physical applications that attempt to tokenize various transactions and interconnections. The major cryptocurrencies are building networks that will solve real-world issues, like net neutrality and currency inflation, while ushering in a new wave of businesses reimagined with alternative organizational, development, and principle structures at its core.
This new asset class is also setting new benchmarks and enabling a new wave of entrepreneurship. It is passionately connecting and empowering communities to create powerful feedback loops; it leverages academia’s vast and expansive libraries of knowledge and theoretical trends; is giving “trustless” a positive application in a world of unprecedented transparency, and is decentralizing and redistributing control.