Aliens, Jedi & Cults 👽🧙🏼‍♂️🔮

A mental model for potential

Richard Burton
Mar 7, 2019 · 5 min read

I want to explain some of the experiences I have had that very few people can relate to. I have been lucky enough to stumble across a few rocket ships before anyone else cared. This has helped me build up a mental model for things that have potential.

Stripe

In 2010, I started a little company selling custom apparel on the internet. I integrated Wufoo, Google Checkout & PayPal to sell around 100,000 sweatshirts to students. In 2012, I read a blog post about a little company called Stripe. I instantly understood the value of what they were doing and decided to apply for a job there. I researched every single person in the company. I learned their names, read their tweets, sifted through their blog posts, and found spelling errors in their writing. I was completely focused on getting a job there. When I met John Collison and we started white boarding together, I knew two things: this guy is going to be a billionaire and I am definitely going to get this job.

The short time I spent at Stripe had a profound impact on me. It showed me what was possible when a few brilliant people get together and make something people want. My tiny contributions were highlighting how behind Stripe was on mobile and vigorously recruiting my good friend, Lachy. Stripe gave me a mental model for potential. An alien founder assembles a group of Jedi to start a cult and go on a mission together.

Patrick is the alien. John, Orla, Darragh, Ludwig & Greg were some of the Jedi. The developers raving about Stripe formed the cult. The mission was to grow the Gross Domestic Product of the Internet. It seems to be working.

Bitcoin

I joined Hacker School (now known as The Recurse Center) in 2013 to try and become a better at making things. I was the worst programmer there and the best poker player. It was a wonderful place to learn new things.

While I was poking away at Objective-C, one of my friends showed me Bitcoin. I remembered reading about it on Hacker News a while ago and I was curious to learn more. I Googled “How to buy Bitcoin” and found my way to a Bootstrap-powered website called Coinbase.com. I sold some Apple stock and picked up some Bitcoin.

Then I started reading more about the project and began to appreciate the potential. The founder, Satoshi, was clearly an alien. The people working on the protocol were Jedi. The project had assembled a cult-like following online. It ticked all of my boxes.

Ethereum

The next time this mental model lit up like a bonfire was when I stumbled across the Ethereum team in 2014. Vitalik was the alien, Gavin and his technical crew formed the Jedi, the forums were filled with a cultish throng of devotees, and the mission was to create a decentralized world computer. I helped out for couple of months until I ran out of money. The mockups I whipped up were used to pitch Ethereum to the crowd sale investors. It seems to be working.

An early interface concept for Ethereum. It is all about the people and their protocols.

Plaid

I had similar feelings when I applied to work at Plaid in 2015. Zac Perret, the CEO, had the alien vibe flowing strongly. He had assembled a team of Jedi to build out the API, and they were on fire.

Monzo

I attended Mondo’s hackathon in 2016 and I was instantly excited about the team and their culture. They were thoughtfully and methodically crafting a new bank in the UK. Watching Tom Blomfield lead his team of Jedi and cult of crowd-funders to success has been inspirational.

Alfred.app + Mondo (now Monzo). Open banking through APIs is a step in the right direction.

Polkadot

When Ethereum took off like a rocket in 2017 I went to meet Gavin Wood and find out what was happening. He told me that the next step of development was an Interchain that would connect blockchains together.

Chris Downer and I mocked up a few ideas for the Polkadot team and tried to consult them on design. We earned some DOTs for our time.

The logo Chris Downer made for Polkadot

Inter-operability is a huge theme now. If we want to slide assets between blockchains, we need the Interchain to function.

Uniswap

In May I hosted an event called #BUIDLWEEK. The goal was to counter-balance the shilling going on at Consensus.

I had the pleasure of meeting Hayden Adams. He was grinding away on an un-censorable decentralized automated market maker. I had no idea what that was but the alarm bells were going off with Hayden and so I tried to help out in what little way I could.

It has been amazing to see the cult-like following develop around Uniswap. We are all Unishillers who constantly promote the project with memes.

How Maker and Uniswap do business development.

Maker

I stumbled across Maker in 2017. I checked out some of the forums and lurked in the chat rooms for a little bit.

The more I heard about Rune, the co-founder, the more he seemed like a veritable Alien. He was assembling a tribe of folks to help build MakerDAO.

It really started to become clear how their project was going to unlock so many new things.

I met with Richard from their team in Prague last year and decided to take an $MKR position soon after. Their progress has been breathtaking.

Over $300 million is locked up in Maker, Compound & Uniswap. Some people call this stuff #DeFi. I have no idea why.

Asymmetric Correctness

This model has misfired plenty of times. I have been wrong about lots of projects. The beauty of it is that the downside is limited and the upside is unlimited. If I am wrong, I lose some of my time or capital. If I am right, I make a 10–1,000x return. Very few people appreciate asymmetric bets. If you look at my pile of failed ventures and investments, they amount to a tiny fraction of the few that have succeeded. This also means that I can make lots of mistakes as long as I manage to make one big decision right every now and then. Asymmetric correctness is a painful thing to pursue, but I love it.

If you are searching for a project with potential, watch out for the alien founder, Jedi team, and cult following of people on a messianic mission.

👽🧙‍♂️🔮

Balance

Interfaces for the open source financial system.

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