For those of us who like to stay on the breaking edge of new technology, we all know that there are certain individuals who have been fortunate enough to ride multiple paradigm shifts and come out on top. In this week’s interview, we chatted with James Young, the unofficial MetaCartel CTO who’s experience growing web-based companies since the early 2000s has given him a vast amount of wisdom surrounding the adoption of innovative solutions.
He’s an avid member of a number of promising DAOs and has helped pave the way for an exciting year of product growth through the launch of the Abridged SDK — a solution to help make crypto onboarding as easy as possible.
Here’s a quick take on what we talked about:
- How high-speed bandwidth allowed internet products to thrive
- Building Farmville
- Why Ethereum was so exciting early on
- Parallels between the .com and ICO booms.
- How (and when) web 3 products will reach the mainstream
- Why DAOs Matter: Launching 1 Million DAOs
- The evolution of Moloch DAO
- Starting MetaCartel DAO
- Advice for 20-something-year-olds
As you can tell, we covered quite a lot in this discussion so let’s get right into it!
How did you start your career in tech?
I first started experimenting with video streaming while I was attending Berkley’s Multimedia Research school in the late 1990s. At this time I was most concerned with figuring out what was possible, rather than what would make the most money. When it came to streaming, high-speed bandwidth had yet to become a thing. A few years later, YouTube happened.
I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t see it coming. Bandwidth was expensive and the video ad model was non-existent. Their growth was fascinating as it showed me how to invest in aggregating demand, while revenue followed.
Long story short, video as an industry got really hot. One of my company’s, ClickTV, got acquired by Cisco since we were one of the first people to start using AWS. In those days, streaming was extremely computational expensive as you had to buy and manage your own servers. No one really knew what “cloud computing” was and we were able to use that to our advantage.
Where’d you land after ClickTV?
I bounced around for a bit and ultimately ended up at a gaming company named Zynga. I was one of the lead developers of a game called Farmville which ended up seeing a lot of traction in the mid-2000s. Seeing as I was only given 6 weeks to deliver the game, the first version sucked.
However, thanks to my knowledge of outsourcing infrastructure, we were able to scale. At the time, no one realized just how much of a giant Facebook really was. They had just started expanding outside edu domains and the traffic they were pushing to games like Farmville was insane. Seeing as most of the games couldn’t handle the traffic, Farmville gained a ton of attention due to its ability to keep up with demand.
FarmVille - What started in 2009 as a farming game is now...
What started in 2009 as a farming game is now a global community of farmers👨🌾 harvesting happiness for a decade🎊…
One big lesson I learned was that more data leads to more feedback — You just have to exist. If you can exist and you can survive you can get better.
What was it that attracted you to web 3?
Seeing as I had so much experience (and trouble) dealing with both physical and virtual servers, the notion of Ethereum as a “world computer” immediately stuck with me. The notion of uploading code was quite fascinating. By deploying a smart contract, you don’t have to worry about servers or any of that as computation is distributed.
How did you get involved with web 3?
After I learned about Ethereum, I became very interested in layer 2 solutions. I worked with Consensys to write the adChain whitepaper — one of the very first projects to introduce the idea of Token Curated Registries. I quickly realized that no one was dealing with scalability (something that I knew was extremely important) so I helped launch Spankchain, a layer 2 solution designed to handle high throughput for a specific purpose.
Since then, I kept realizing that there was a huge usability hurdle, specifically with user onboarding. For this reason, I started Abridged, a development shop providing tools to optimize the onboarding experience.
Layer 2 is great, but it’s like building a huge stadium in a desert. You need to build the roads and the infrastructure so they have a need for scalability in the first place. That’s why we developed an onboarding SDK to help other people get to the stadium.
What were some of the biggest fallacies back in the early 2000s that you saw with more recently with ICOs?
The biggest fallacy is that “if you build it and they will come”. A perfect example of this is Kosmo. They were doing exactly what Uber Eats and Doordash are doing today 15 years ago.
I think a lot of those companies were (and are) too early. Even if it sounds logical, you need an outside stimulus that these solutions are actually being demanded by everyday users, and that the technology is capable of suiting those desires.
I don’t think ICOs are inherently bad, they are mostly misguided. There were a lot of people speculating in a public market that didn’t have a solid revenue plan. ICOs gave teams funding without there being an established community — something very similar to .com startups in the early 2000s, funding prior to real revenue.
Where are some areas that you think the blockchain ecosystem could improve?
In the blockchain ecosystem today, there’s a huge echo chamber of people talking to each other. You gotta get outside that echo chamber if you want to find real data and real solutions. The worst thing you can do is just stay on crypto twitter. We shouldn’t always be talking about what’s possible. It’s more about delivering software and showing usage through numbers.
ICOs were about throwing money and hoping that a community forms. In doing so, everyone is financially incentivized which makes it way less real. Communities need trust that’s established without initial financial motivation. There needs to be a purpose.
What we’re seeing with web 3 products today is maybe a drop in the bucket of what we saw with big web 2 services. The reality is daily usage is nowhere close to where it needs to be. I encourage people to either exit and come back in 10 years or figure out use-cases that matter.
What’re some aspect of blockchain and cryptocurrencies that excite you?
I really love the idea of tokens binding you to a particular community. Steve Jobs “think different” campaign was so powerful because it pitched the notion that any individual was capable of making big changes — and that the personal computer allowed them to do that.
Whereas web 2 was amazing for connecting people, I think web 3 unlocks the ability for a global positive-sum game. We’re essentially taking our online interactions from single-player to co-op games, and blockchain is reducing the coordination costs to do so.
So how do we get there?
During Joe Lubin’s talk at DevCon, he delivered a goal of getting “a million developers” to build on Ethereum. I think the real road to mass adoption is one million DAOs. In order to get a million people to believe in something, you can’t rely solely on people that are only technical.
What we need is a “printing press” equivalent for tokens so that non-technical people can start picking up “books” to become literate on crypto. We need to go to communities that need crypto that are inherently struggling and let them loose. Most importantly, tools have to be easy to use and targeted towards non-developers, something we’re just now starting to see emerge.
Are there any takeaways from the early days of companies like Instagram and Youtube that we can learn from?
Successful companies were able to shift as they were growing. Instagram started as a loyalty app and pivoted to a photo app. Go where the demand is.
Right now there’s a huge barrier to adoption due to the whole notion of decentralization. Metamask user onboarding is a very scary experience for non-technical users. It introduces a crypto paradox — make sure you don’t lose your private key, or else you will lose all your money. BUT, don’t write it down in too many places or else someone will find it, and steal all your money. It seems like a lot of these web 3 products are so technically focused there’s no empathy for the people they’re trying to reach.
Emerging pattern for product design: decentralization of fundamental features should be positively correlated to user…
I think It’s ok for there to be a custodian in the early days. We can shift to decentralization over time. Unfortunately, there’s such a strong stance on decentralization that you start users off in advanced mode instead of easy.
Hopefully, we can learn to ease off on the decentralization. I certainly agree that it’s a slippery slope but centralization is not necessarily bad. The fact that I can’t leave Facebook with my likes, friends, and content is bad. The lock-in itself is what sucks. Centralization is not bad as long as there’s an exit. Let’s focus on how we can decentralize systems gradually over time once we’ve identified where demand really is.
Let’s talk more about DAOs. What fascinates you about them?
In a perfect world, you should be able to work and hang out with whoever you want. In the future, I envision that people wouldn’t work for one company, they will work for hundreds of them. Even though you’re working for yourself, you’re helping a hundred different corporations.
Your expertise becomes your value and I believe that DAOs enable this framework.
More generally, you can have written code rule. People play by the rules and you know it will be executed. As such, blockchain becomes a focal point — it provides another aspect of coordination mechanisms. So what can it help us coordinate?
Can you talk a bit about the founding of Moloch DAO and how it’s changed over time?
Originally Moloch was supposed to be a VC firm on the internet, Much like the original DAO 1.0.
We experimented with a number of different token economies (voting tokens, loot tokens) while we worked on Moloch over the course of two years as a side project. During this time, we realized that there were a ton of layer 2 projects that were never going to ship. We took a step back and decided to look at what mattered — deploying capital where it was needed. We needed to go to market so went live at last year’s ETHDenver.
Moloch Summoning Guide
Moloch whose mind is pure machinery!
Moloch whose blood is running money!
Moloch whose code is a coordination…
Once Vitalik YOLO’d $100k to ETH 2.0 grants we thought hey — let’s use this as an opportunity to brush Moloch off and dumb it down as much as possible. Whereas we had originally planned on having two tokens, we made it one — a membership and proposal token tied together. We decided to go with grant-giving to minimize legal issues — there was no expectation to make money.
This process further reiterates my point that you just gotta ship. We originally thought it was gonna fail. Flash forward to today and we have over $1M worth of capital going towards developers and projects who deserve it.
How did this lead you to help with MetaCartel?
I was in talks with Peter about forking Moloch DAO from the very beginning. Once I heard that Vitalik and the Ethereum Foundation were interested in Moloch I told Peter that he needed to announce MetaCartel before they joined.
If you announce it after then everyone’s gonna think you’re a follower. The social signal comes BEFORE. In doing so, I was able to show him how to deploy MetaCartel DAO. We took Moloch’s framework and deployed it with a new mission. Instead of having a 100 ETH filter we reduced it to 10.
What are you doing for MetaCartel today?
One of the things that I noticed (and like) about MetaCartel is that there is a lack of core technical members. As such, I’ve taken an initiative with a number of technically based projects. For example, I’m working with Everest to build a slightly modified TCR with help from members of the Graph. Similarly, I’m working on an open-metrics dashboard initiative to collect and aggregate useful dApp data. This way we can discuss not in theoretics, but in real usage.
I see these processes leading to a graduation stepping stone framework. Over time I think more killer dApps will be incubated through MetaCartel and follow a series of steps to help with tracking, funding and growth.
Another focus of mine is building a chatbot to make it easy to do crypto. I’m using MetaCartel as a testing ground for this bot. For example, you can ask the chatbot questions — What are the current proposals of the DAO? Or, Chatbot, I want to vote yes on this proposal. By delivering a simple command-line interface for users, you don’t have to worry about UI/UX, it’s all chat-based.
Complexity makes you prone to bugs. The simpler the better. The creation of a DAO is not hard to write, it’s a human coordination problem.
We want to reduce the communication overhead to minimize coordination risk. This way we can get to best practices FASTER.
I was a huge fan of text-based adventure games growing up. With DAOs and tokens, we’re using game-like rules and exchanging real-world value. For the first time in history, we’re starting to see game value come out into the real world.
What recommendations would you have for 20-something-year-old dabbling in blockchain?
The “next big thing” is always going to be changing. No matter what industry you’re in, the only thing that keeps you motivated is your interest and your passion. If you chase money you will never find it — you may quickly gain it but you will lose it just as fast.
More than ever in the history of time, you have to learn to lean into whatever is going to keep you interested. Seeing as things are always changing and moving in unpredictable ways, you might as well always do what you like.
As you find yourself and what/who you want to be, just focus on that. Don’t worry about money or social status because that will come. You should always want to pursue your passion. Find a niche that you’re the best at that no one else can compete with. The rest will fall into place.
Paul Graham explains this extremely well in The Bust Ticket Theory of Genius.
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For those of you still with us, thanks for taking the time to read. We hope you enjoyed this interview as much as we did! We’ll continue to shine the spotlight on members of MetaCartel in the coming weeks. In the meantime, be sure to stay up to date with all we’re doing through our new newsletter and on Twitter. Until next time!