Blockchain for Idiots

This is the first in a three-part series describing the worst possible way to start a company which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone.

I started programming because I wanted to run a company. I have been “entrepreneurial” my whole life, in the sense that I have a gross inability to follow direction, sit still, or evade the allure of risk. I read stories about tech entrepreneurs who had built world-changing empires out of garages with nothing but a laptop and a good idea, and I figured myself capable of the same. Of course, when I picked up Python for the first time, my ego was swiftly cut into ribbons and I embarked on the rewarding journey of Becoming a Programmer. I spent the next few years learning everything I possibly could about computing.

At the very beginning of 2017, I started working for a boutique software development firm based in Cleveland, OH. They worked on really interesting projects, and had assembled a team of software developers with diversity of talent I have seen nowhere else (I was by many measures the runt of the litter). Working there, I was challenged in ways I never had been before, given the opportunity to work remotely and manage my own schedule (this changed my life), and was the happiest I have ever been. I also met Adam Gall, my friend and co-founder at decent.

The greatest city in the world.

When I started working at the firm, I was very involved in local software meetups in Cleveland. I co-organized a few, and talked Adam into starting one of his own. Being very interested in blockchain software and cryptocurrencies, I was excited to hear that his meetup was going to focus on those topics and the education of our local community. “Crypto CLE” quickly became the central gathering place for any and all people in Northeast Ohio who wanted to talk crypto. Since then, attendees have come as far as California, New York, and Florida to learn and share knowledge. It was here that Adam shared with me his talent for teaching, and I saw the amazing things that could happen when people were given friendly access to technology.

Around this time, I started receiving text messages, phone calls, and emails about bitcoin. From everyone. The mainstream media started talking about bitcoin. Every day. All of a sudden, a very small corner of the internet turned into a household topic, and it seemed that the entire world erupted in conversation around the emerging technology. I saw, for the first time in my own life, a highly technical subject “going mainstream”. This is when I called Adam, got lunch at Herb’n Twine, and formed our business.

Life is like walking up an escalator moving in the opposite direction. You have to keep moving just to stay in place, and it can take a lot of work to get anywhere. Opportunity is a moment where that machine works in your favor, and when it arrives, it’s time to sprint. I had spent my entire life planning to be an entrepreneur, and the day after we formed our business, I woke up and felt that shift. Nothing had changed about me or anything around me, but the last mental limitation I viewed as necessity — my job — suddenly felt temporary and fragile compared to what life could be like. Adam sunk in the first (and only) investment ever made into our company — $1000. We got to work. I cut all my expenses down to a bare minimum, sold off all but my most prized possessions, and moved into a $300 / month attic.

Our first (comical) “business plan” was to be a friendly, local bank of cryptocurrencies. So many people came to the meetup who didn’t know how to acquire crypto, and beyond that, most folks who already owned some knew nothing about secure storage or the difference between holding cryptocurrencies on exchanges versus in a wallet. We wanted to sell cryptocurrencies to locals at a premium and teach them about how the technology worked in the progress. Shortly after deciding on this course of action, I spent a late night researching terms like “Know Your Customer”, “Anti-Money Laundering”, and “Money Transmitter”. Suffice it to say, we couldn’t afford to start a bank and I realized our trillion dollar idea was a non-starter.

In those days we planned many different products, but none of them ever launched. We spent days of every week at Loop, designing logos, reading about blockchain technology, researching startups, and arguing about when Bitcoin would finally stop its “bull run”. Every idea I came up with was awful, we didn’t have time to build out any of our own projects because we were so busy with our day jobs, and Adam’s family was expecting a new baby. Unable to find a way to make any money for the newly minted decent, we decided to formalize an event, similar to the meetup, but longer and with a catered lunch.

The next few months were spent canvassing businesses around Cleveland, getting coffee with folks who wanted to learn about crypto, and selling tickets to the event. While our company today doesn’t require that level of direct sales, I am glad that the first dollar we made was the result of pounding pavement. I have worked many different jobs in my life, but none have been as rewarding as selling those tickets.

A few weeks before the workshop, the budding decent team hopped on a life-changing ride called StartupBus. StartupBus is a hackathon where developers, designers, and entrepreneurs from all over North America hop on charter busses and spend 72 hours building a product while driving across the country to New Orleans. The result is an emotional ride, compressing the first few months of starting up to a few, sleep deprived days. StartupBus gave us the confidence we needed early on to take the leap of faith, and I wouldn’t be writing this if it wasn’t for the bus. Go ride it.

StartupBus 2017, on a pitstop in Asheville for some fresh air.

When we returned to Cleveland, the workshop was a success. We turned a (very small) profit for the first time and experienced executing an entrepreneurial venture requiring sales, advertising, and sourcing talent. This learning experience was massive. Even though we hadn’t figured out how to start a “real” business, Adam and I were both very optimistic for the future, and figured that someday we might be able to quit our cushy jobs and do something cool. I was heading out of town for a month to visit family, and we agreed to finally build a product when I returned. Maybe it would work out.

After a couple weeks vacation, I was getting ready to head back home when I got a phone call. It was from my employer at the time, letting me know that by the time I got back to Cleveland, his company would no longer exist. I no longer had a job, and neither did Adam (who was equipped with a new mouth to feed).

It seemed that as programmers we were faced with two choices: get 9-to-5 jobs working at an insurance company for the rest of our lives, or push our luck to never have a job again.

Somewhere in an alternate reality.

In the next article of this series, I’ll tell you what we decided to do.