10 Things to Expect When Moving from a Traditional Startup to a Blockchain Company
I’m better at talking than writing, so feel free to email me if you want to grab a beer or coffee to discuss any of this (or anything else) in person!
Exactly two months ago I started at Origin Protocol, a company building an open-sourced technology for decentralized peer-to-peer marketplaces with a mission to fight censorship, reduce or remove fees, and more fairly distribute value.
I knew that a blockchain company like Origin would be different than what I was used to, but I’ve been so intrigued by the differences that I decided to share them, alongside some of my thoughts.
Before jumping in I first want to thank both Redbeacon co-founders Yaron Binur and Aaron Lee, both Datanyze co-founders Ilya Semin and Ben Sardella, and all of the customers, investors, advisors and employees of both companies for giving me platforms to learn an incredible amount about startups in a relatively short period of time.
Between venture-backed home services marketplace Redbeacon and bootstrapped B2B SaaS offering Datanyze, I experienced the various stages of a startup through two distinctly different lenses that gave me important perspective for my new journey into blockchain.
I was also fortunate to work as an individual contributor, player-coach, manager and executive across sales, marketing, product and operations, building my confidence to thrive in almost any startup role or environment.
Despite this confidence, however, I was hit with a lot that I didn’t see coming; here are some examples (in no particular order) of unexpected differences between the world I knew and the world I find myself in today:
1. Crypto Is Global By Default
At my last two startups, the general strategy was to start small and local, then grow into other areas when appropriate — this applied to both the location of the core team and the geographical markets the product was offered in or sold to.
Redbeacon, which started with a small office in San Mateo, was first available only in San Francisco before expanding to a few more cities; within a year after our acquisition, we had started two 50+ person call centers in Manila and Atlanta, employed a group of engineers in Turkey, and launched in dozens of cities across the US and Canada.
Datanyze started in the founder’s apartment with mostly US-based customers but quickly grew to teams in both San Mateo and St. Petersburg, Russia, serving customers all over the world.
In crypto, the market is inherently global and blockchain teams often stay true to the decentralized credo by building a distributed team of contributors all over the world.
The Origin team has core members in San Francisco and Boulder, extended members across the United States, and contributors spanning the globe.
In fact, it didn’t take long for the Origin community to translate our website and whitepaper into 17 different languages (without us offering compensation), a sign that interest in viable blockchain projects is not confined to any borders.
While some markets have proven to be leaders in mining (China), investing (China and more recently Silicon Valley), and adoption (Korea), there is no clear winner as the unofficial crypto capital of the world (although there is an interesting attempt to build one).
Joining a blockchain project means you will likely interact with people from all parts of the world, which if you’re anything like me, adds a very appealing perk to the job.
2. 24/7 market = 24/7 work
“Crypto never sleeps.”
This is a famous adage in the community and although I knew cryptocurrencies traded all hours of the day, I didn’t take a lot of time to think about how this would affect my day-to-day at work.
In B2B SaaS especially, its not uncommon for people to work weekends and grind it out startup-style, but for the most part you can send out a bunch of emails on Friday and expect that most won’t be read, let alone replied to, until Monday.
When I go to sleep at night, the rest of the community is working hard to fill my inbox by the morning.
Between 24-hour markets and its global nature, the crypto world moves perpetually and there are never moments of rest.
3. Time Moves Faster In Cryptoland
Similar to the mind-melting time warps of distant planets described in one of my favorite space movies of all time, Interstellar, the world of crypto operates on a completely unique time paradigm.
Due to the incredible amount of hype, people are rushing into the blockchain space in droves, creating a firehose of new information and opinions about technology, business models and everything in between (especially regulation!).
This has a significant impact on many things, namely the price of cryptocurrencies which can fluctuate wildly; a 30% swing in a stock is basically unheard of, but it’s just another day in crypto.
The two months I’ve spent at Origin have felt closer to a year, and I’d encourage anyone thinking about joining a blockchain company to make the jump soon in order to gain knowledge and momentum as quickly as possible.
This being said…
4. You’re Not As Behind As You May Think
One possible reason things are moving so incredibly quickly in crypto is that we are actually in the earliest stages of a massive shift.
While the jury is still out on whether blockchain today is more like the internet of 1985 or 1999, there seems to be little doubt that we are indeed at the very, very beginning of something big.
Consider that today’s second biggest blockchain, Ethereum, was proposed by then-19-year-old Vitalik Buterin in 2013, funded (through one of the first ICOs) in 2014 and launched less than 3 years ago in 2015!
Once I realized just how early the entire landscape is, I started to also understand that this meant I would be able to catch up pretty quickly relative to the long time horizon of blockchain.
The technology is in its infancy (but improving at lightning speed), experts are few and far between, and the vast majority of the world has no clue what blockchain is.
With a little curiosity and a strong desire to catch up, you can quickly learn at worst enough to be dangerous and at best enough to be an expert in your space as long as you get started sooner than later.
5. The New Business Model Changes Everything (Including Your Compensation)
Going into my interviews, I had a solid grasp of how blockchain technologies would inevitably dis-intermediate peer-to-peer marketplaces, but it wasn’t until I dug deeper that I realized how blockchain was already doing much more than cutting out overzealous middlemen.
One of our core beliefs at Origin is that the value created in marketplaces should be more evenly spread out, rewarding not just founders, investors and early employees, but also early adopters, evangelists, and non-employee contributors.
Spreading value more equally across a network is no easy task, but fortunately cryptocurrencies and the token economic models they enable are making this redistribution much more doable.
Here are the juicy details:
REDACTED BY OUR LEGAL TEAM.
Unfortunately, due to the uncertain regulatory environment in the U.S. and associated risks we face, I had to remove all sorts of interesting information on cryptoeconomic incentive structures and how they completely change things at all levels of the business.
If you want to chat more about his in person, shoot me an email.
6. A Mixed Crowd With Much Worse Gender Diversity
There are a host of interesting archetypes in the crypto community, from the full-fledged anarchist to the blockchain bro to the seasoned entrepreneur, and it’s often tough to know what kind of crowd you’re walking into.
Despite this representation of the full spectrum from this particular angle, the overall community lacks diversity in many other ways.
Technology companies are already widely criticized for their gender imbalances, which is prevalent in all stages of the employee funnel, from how many women are hired into a company to the difference in what they’re paid compared to their male counterparts.
The industry average of women in the workplace is about 30% overall and 15% in technical positions, and I’d be surprised if in crypto it was even half of that at 15% and 7.5% respectively.
As seen in the picture at the beginning of this post, Origin’s core team has room for improvement in our current early stage (although to be fair, we have several female advisors and extended team members), something we are very conscious about and keep top of mind during our hiring discussions.
7. Spammers, Scammers and Scares, Oh My!
“There are only two types of companies: Those that have been hacked and those that will be hacked.” ~Robert S. Mueller, III, Director FBI
Probably one of the biggest surprises and certainly the most frightening is the fact that crypto companies are always under attack, and by joining one you’re exposing yourself personally.
The first thing I did when I joined Origin was run through an intense security checklist, changing passwords, adding two-factor authentication (“2FA”) to all accounts, and even calling AT&T to put extra security measures to ensure my phone number is never ported (three weeks after I did this a crypto founder in our co-working space had this happen to him!).
Regardless of these paranoid efforts, I’ve already witnessed an incredibly amount of varied and sophisticated attempts, from phishing emails to numerous fake Telegram profiles of Origin team members, the latter being one of many reasons we decided to build an open-source Telegram bot and release it for free to other crypto projects to help them fight attackers.
In order to not sound too alarmist, I think it’s important to realize that this is in a lot of ways a good thing in that it forces you to understand and better prepare for the reality of the world we live in today as a technology-dependent society.
8. Different Tools and Technologies
It’s funny how quickly I became accustomed to the tools and technologies I used, so much so that I didn’t expect much change on this front.
For example, I got so accustomed to LinkedIn while selling B2B SaaS that I was caught by surprise when a lot of people I met did not use it, instead asking for my Facebook, which is basically inactive, or Telegram, which I joined specifically for the crypto community.
Another interesting and somewhat-related difference is that the updates my Twitter and LinkedIn networks were sharing became much less relevant overnight, forcing me to make some adjustments to keep my social feeds useful.
Origin also recently made a conscious decision to switch from Slack, the gold-standard messaging app in Silicon Valley, to Discord, an open-source communication platform initially built for gamers that has recently been adopted by the crypto community.
But the most fascinating difference is the new technology stack powering decentralized applications, or DApps, in a way that will fundamentally change how value is shared across a network.
Rather than monopolies monetizing the data stored in their siloed databases, DApps are powered by public blockchains, in Origin’s case allowing for marketplaces that are “truly peer-to-peer and not peer-to-giant-corporate-monopoly-to-peer” to use the words of my colleague, Coleman.
Origin’s demo DApp (which requires other crypto-specific tools to use that you can read about here) is powered by the Ethereum blockchain, which stores all mission-critical transactions, and the InterPlantary File System (“IPFS”), which stores all of the static data of our marketplace listings like the images, text descriptions, etc. — note that I didn’t mention servers or databases!
9. Titles Matter Even Less
“If You’re Offered a Seat on a Rocket Ship, You Don’t Ask What Seat. You Just Get On.” ~Eric Schmidt in 2001, when he was Google’s CEO
Generally titles don’t matter too much at early-stage startups, but I’ve noticed that they seem to matter much less in crypto.
Despite being hired for business development, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time on fundraising, recruiting talent, and even contributing some code (all Origin team members are encouraged to submit pull requests to one of our open-source repos).
There are a lot of known things to do, as well as many unknown unknowns, so its important to stay flexible and not let your title give you blinders to other areas of the business that could use your attention, especially as things progress form one stage to the next.
10. The Dust Has Not Come Close To Settling
When something with as much hype as blockchain comes along, a lot of different types of people ride the wave, which unfortunately means that we will likely see not just the next Zuckerbergs, but also the next Madoffs.
The amount of money being raised today through ICOs is mind-boggling, leading to a deafening amount of noise that can make it tough to separate the legitimate projects from those that are either ill-intentioned or ill-equipped.
The jury is still out on which people will execute and which will fall victim to the risks of raising too much money too soon, and it will likely take a considerable amount of time to truly understand who is who.
More projects will falter in the coming months and years, but some will rise to show the real impact blockchain can make on the world.
At Origin, the unfortunate truth is that we are likely in the top 1% of projects simply because we have a great team that has already shipped a working product.
Rather than resting on our laurels, however, we’re working hard to be “uncommon amongst uncommon people” by remaining incredibly transparent about our process, being disciplined with capital, and staying heads-down on building product.
11. The Mission Is Extremely Rewarding
In honor of Spinal Tap’s amps, I’m going to make sure this top ten list “goes to eleven” and leave you with one last thought, perhaps the most important of all.
After spending several years in B2B SaaS at Datanyze, I knew that I was looking for something specific with my next move, something I believed could have a real impact on the world at large rather than helping rich technology companies get richer (which is appropriately one of the main battles we’re fighting at Origin).
With each new day, I realize more and more the impact that the decentralization of marketplaces will have on the world.
While dis-intermediating multi-billion dollar Goliaths like AirBnB and Uber is what generally comes to mind to people when hearing about what Origin is building, the greater opportunity might in fact be the people that actually cannot uses services like these due to a lack of access to traditional financial systems like banks and credit cards.
As the next billion people come online, it is entirely possible that they end up leapfrogging these traditional systems before ever using AirBnB or Uber.
There are people whose first home or ride-sharing experience may be on a cryptocurrency-based, decentralized marketplace (hopefully powered by Origin!), and in my humble opinion, this is certainly something to be excited to wake up for each and every morning.
Learn more about Origin:
- Web: originprotocol.com
- Telegram: t.me/originprotocol
- Discord: originprotocol.com/discord
- Reddit: reddit.com/r/originprotocol/
- Facebook: facebook.com/originprotocol
- Instagram: instagram.com/originprotocol
- Twitter: twitter.com/originprotocol
- YouTube: youtube.com/c/originprotocol
- Email: email@example.com