LeBeau on Blockchain: “You Can’t Pioneer and Have an Identity Crisis at the Same Time”
The SingularDTV CEO talks taking risks, the pitfalls of innovation, and whether Satoshi’s dream of blockchain is still alive.
When SingularDTV launched in the fall of 2016, the blockchain world was a very different place. Before phrases like “regulation” and “institutional adoption” became buzzwords in the community, back when the mission of decentralization was driven by philosophy as much as speculation on profit, SingularDTV’s founder team of Zach LeBeau, Arie Levy-Cohen, Kim Jackson, and Joe Lubin set forth on an experiment to change the way artists create and distribute their work.
Now, almost two years later, with a global team nearing 100, two decentralized apps — Tokit and SingularX — up and running, a slate of high-profile films being released through the platform, and applications like Rentalist and Ethervision rearing towards release, that experiment has grown into the infrastructure of an emerging industry — decentralized entertainment — and the future looks brighter than ever.
But the path that SingularDTV took to get to this promising vista has been filled with tribulations as much as success. The explosive and symbiotic growth of blockchain, Ethereum, and SingularDTV has come with growing pains, iterative roadmaps, and challenges to the very core of the philosophy of decentralization that may yet not have been answered. In an industry and world that is so often concerned with instant gratification and the immediacy of dreams over the steady slog of development, we sat down with SingularDTV CEO Zach LeBeau to discuss taking risks, the pitfalls of pioneering, and whether Satoshi’s dream of blockchain is still alive.
You’ve referred to growing SingularDTV as trying to ‘build the plane while flying it at the same time.’ What has that been like?
It’s actually kind of ridiculous to try to analyze when you’re pioneering, because then you’re not pioneering anymore. You don’t have the variables to make up the equation to analyze in the first place because you’re making it up as you go. The SingularDTV endeavor has been borne purely from this core energy of intention. From the beginning, Arie and myself have been like the booster rockets. We’re the ones that stick our necks out, that take the risks, that spend the money. You have to do that. As soon as you get conservative, you’re not pioneering anymore. There are parts of this company that are way more fiscally conservative, that are waiting to take over in a more steady, responsible, measured way, towards the mainstream. But we’re not necessarily at that point yet. We still have to take the risks to achieve that. I think what we’ve learned is that it takes a specific kind of mindset to achieve different chapters of the journey.
What was it like when Ether began its rise last year, and how did you go about approaching the situation in the right way?
Before we did our TGE, we debated whether or not to try to raise more than $7.5 million in ETH. I felt that it would be immoral and unethical to change our price. We had budgeted out four things for our MVP, and we were certain we could achieve those. But Arie and I were also 100% certain that Ether would skyrocket. Rather than lead on the wrong foot with the cryptosphere by upping our raise, we spent as little as possible between October of 2016 and February of 2017 — when we had earmarked as the beginning of the rise. When that upward trend started, we weren’t surprised by it. It was something that we were counting on. But the reality of when it started to rise, that was a different thing entirely. We realized that we could actually start building everything we had dreamed of.
Are there any ideas or perspectives you’ve re-addressed over the course of SingularDTV’s development?
When we started out, we didn’t want to be too early, too late. We can’t become Napster or Myspace. We didn’t want to break ground and become obsolete. But today’s enterprise and startup culture is far too focused on a totalist mentality, and we realized we were looking at things with too centralized a mindset. It would be great to have a healthy, vibrant industry of multiple decentralized entertainment companies with compatible content. That’s not how it is right now. There’s not permissionless-compatibility between Netflix and Amazon. It’s siloed. It’s centralized.
There are so many competitors to SingularDTV that have come and gone that have tried to launch over the past couple of years. We’re waiting for the ones that’ll make it, that’ll become relevant, and hopefully form a coalition with them so we can all build a decentralized entertainment industry together. That’s how we’re gonna get people from the legacy, traditional world to migrate and decentralize faster.
The blockchain world is undergoing change quickly, with institutional and legacy actors moving in fast. What does that mean for the future of decentralization?
To me, the initial dream for blockchain is in question. This entire thing was about power to the people, the redistribution of freedom and liberty and wealth to the individual, no matter their socioeconomic background. The actual point of being able to empower individuals and remove gatekeepers and intermediaries goes directly against established regulations and securities laws. If we don’t find some way to gracefully change policy or make things more progressive, then what’s going to happen is that it’ll be only one small step towards real power to the people. What’s happening now is that we’re adding to the 1% with technologists and those closest to the cryptoquake that’s happened since 2008.
It seems at times as though the blockchain space is in a moment of identity crisis…
You can’t pioneer and have an identity crisis at the same time. You have to know who you are. That’s the core. We’ve always known where we’re from and who we are. We have to keep that no matter what. We can’t pivot our identity. We might be able to pivot our strategy, but we can’t change our core selves. That’s what’s going to help, hopefully gracefully, change policy into something more progressive. I see out there — I deal with lawyers and accountants and other people in the cryptosphere so often — they’re the ones spinning around back and forth in this grey kind of purgatory. We’re not in that space. We see the light, and we’re moving towards it. Everyone is so used to instant gratification in life in general now, but especially in the cryptosphere, that people tend to forget that things take time to build and grow.
So who makes up the SingularDTV audience going forward towards Ethervision?
We’re an entertainment company: Music, TV, film, books, games, apps, etc. That’s what Ethervision is going to offer to the world. At one point in time, the audiences of a David Lynch or Steven Soderbergh — who don’t know anything about crypto — those numbers will end up dwarfing the actual crypto community. A couple years from now, the majority of the users of Ethervision may not even know that the cryptosphere exists. That said, I don’t ever want to let go of the core crypto community. I think they’re going to grow with us, even when the mainstream does come in to use Ethervision.