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The Story of the Pillar Project

This project started in 1997 at a lecture I gave at Stanford University, in which I explained a concept called the open web, where data was published to the web itself, rather than being trapped in databases on big web sites. Twenty years later, it has turned into the Pillar Project, which is now raising money via a token sale on the Ethereum blockchain.

This is a personal story, one that illustrates the nonlinear development of most projects. It is meant to go with a series of essays I’m writing on early-stage venture funding and project finance.

From Push to Pull
In 2010, after two years of writing and two publishers, my book Pull came out. It was my fifth book, and by far the best, but it sold the fewest copies because the Semantic Web didn’t take off. The premise of the book is that all this “digital transformation” we hear about is mostly about recreating our old paper processes in digital form. Here’s a fun video I made back in 2010:

What made sense then, and still hasn’t been done, is to transform business from a supply-chain/push model to a demand/pull model. I believe this is a one-time transformation that will put all markets on a completely different path, and the open web is a big part of that. If you haven’t seen it, now is the time to watch my video on the personal data locker:

At that time, I gave several keynote speeches and was even interviewed by National Public Radio. And the question kept coming up every time: how are you going to secure your personal data locker? If everyone has his own data locker, won’t that be less secure than keeping your assets with a bank or other web site run by professionals? I kept answering that we could use the same technology to secure a personal data locker that we use to secure your bank account, but interviewers just thought the whole thing was too risky (by the way, they were right — banks are routinely hacked and lose money).

Over the next several years, I was asked to be on many boards of advisors of companies working on personal-data projects. I went to the Internet Identity Workshops, which were spearheaded by Kaliya Hamlin, Doc Searls, and Phil Windley, and they still have them every six months. They set up the Personal Data Ecosystem web site. I was interviewed for the excellent World Economic Forum report, Personal Data: The Emergence of a New Asset Class. I talked with many investors, and they all said I was trying to “boil the ocean,” that the project was too big and too risky. In 2011, I made a short video explaining why I thought the personal data locker should get more attention:

So I spent four years of my life promoting the open semantic web and the world of pull; instead we got Facebook, SnapChat, a banking crisis, and more silos. I took a bit of time off and then built a web site dedicated to rationality in business, including a YouTube channel on Bayesian reasoning, which I learned in 2016 no one wanted.

Security Problem Solved
Then came blockchain. After reading a few issues of the ConsenSys blog, I was immediately sucked in. I started learning everything I could, writing, and working my way into the community. In 2016, I started a company called Twenty Thirty with a few cofounders, and we tried to raise capital.

We explained to investors that we knew what we were doing and wanted to reduce risk by building a portfolio of projects, similar to ConsenSys but in a very open community and using all blockchains.

Even though I was against it, we met with some venture capitalists, which was a complete waste of time. They are looking for tall, white, charismatic 25-year-olds who have traction with a specific niche product. We spent months last fall contacting investors, and no one was interested.

In December, we changed our approach. I raised $50k from friends and were incorporated in Zug on January 5th. I’m grateful to our early investors for helping us set that up — it was an important step.

Starting the Community
On January 1st, I launched our little web site, and even though it’s not much, it works — people started signing up for our newsletter, and we created an online community that became our 20|30 Slack. We didn’t have any money to pay anyone, but they still wanted to help us get 20|30 off the ground. At that time, I wanted to create the CryptX index, so a bunch of people started programming and others started building the web site. Soon, we launched the TokenFactory web site, which helped explain beta investing to crypto-investors.

But we still didn’t have a product. Fortunately, a company in India offered to give us three people full-time to build the CryptX system for free, and that product is now in testing. The CryptX token is a single token that represents the value of about the top 50–100 cryptocurrencies, which involves creating a system that can interact with many blockchains and several exchanges.

The First Token
As investors were still uninterested in our project, we decided to have a token sale to raise money. The first token was going to be a discount token for all future 20|30 products, forever, including a discount on the CryptX index. Several people got excited about it, and we started planning that token sale. After about a month of getting ready, I realized it wasn’t going to work, that my assumptions about the math were wrong, and that you can’t practically use a discount token because the token standards aren’t that far along (though there is new progress in that direction). Here’s something that will never see the light of day:

The Second Token
Then, we realized that several projects were multi-chain, and that perhaps the best multi-chain exchange is ShapeShift, which is awesome. Other multi-chain exchanges also have their own APIs. To help us build the CryptX and to help others do multi-chain projects, we had the idea to build a multi-chain system that you could plug any exchange into, so you could keep your APIs and swap exchanges out and let exchanges compete.

This was a good idea. Exchanges want vendor lock-in through their APIs. An open-source system would let customers keep their APIs and let exchanges compete for their business (the pull model again). So we started in on that one, and I wrote a fairly extensive white paper. It involved a multichain wallet talking to a multichain system that included a way to plug in various exchanges and choose your exchange on the fly. We were bridging the gap between today’s software and all the exchange APIs, giving clients an open-source alternative that naturally gave them the power over exchanges.

We have some smart technical guys on our team, we call them the curmudgeons. They reviewed the white paper and said “Look, this is a good idea, it’s a needed system, but the token model is fairly superfluous. You could just as well use ether to power it.” This all went down in a Zoom meeting with the whole team watching and discussing whether to go ahead or not. And it was at that meeting that I said, “Okay wait a minute … what if we forget about the server side and just create a wallet that has its own tokens that lets you do things with it.” Then I spent about 10 minutes giving the scenarios from Pull that showed how everything changes when you manage your own data. And right then, both curmudgeons said, in their typical understated tone, “that could work.” So everyone told me to get busy and rewrite the white paper to make the Pillar system into a multichain wallet that evolves to become the personal data locker. And I realized that the time had come.

Another thing happened. We were coordinating our token launch in our slack, when a guy called Justin Poirier came in, read the white paper, and said it just didn’t look like we were passionate about the project. He said maybe it was viable, but he was looking for projects where people were really invested in and enthusiastic about the mission, and perhaps we should rethink it from that standpoint.

This all crystalized the Pillar project, because I didn’t have to explain much before the excitement level started to rise visibly. They all watched my video and read the piece I’d written on Medium.com several years ago, and they started organizing around the purpose. Amazingly, at the same time, people started coming into our slack, saw the energy, and asking if they could help.

The Third Token
So I started writing, and it came naturally, because I had been trying to get the personal data locker off the ground for so many years. I had written so many white papers about it that I changed the name to the Gray paper, just to do something new. And, as I started fleshing it out, the team got more excited. The curmudgeons started to get involved (we joked that 1/1-millionth of a pillar token will be called a curmudgeon). And we started building the web site.

This was also a nonlinear process, with many people contributing and most of the ideas and experiments being discarded. The great thing was that people kept coming into our slack offering to help. Soon we were about 20 volunteers working on the web site. People offered to help do research, set up WordPress, do fact checking, write smart contracts, set up social media programs, and more. Our Slack was so active, we had do start a second slack just for the Pillar project. And the impressive thing was that these volunteers — people around the world who mostly had day jobs — were totally committed. They weren’t going to give up, no matter what got in our way. I said we would set aside 3 percent of our Pillar tokens for the marketing effort, and people appreciated that, but it wasn’t why they were doing it.

I designed a logo for the project, which you’ve seen already, and a logo for the token:

Advisors started coming on board. Others who had read the book and watched my progress over the years wanted in. We have a few who have the experience in the mobile space to help us reach out to executives at companies that make tablets and phones. We have a diverse group of advisors who will be working hard to help us bring the system to life.

I worked with a group of people to get the web site in good shape. At the same time, I found Mordy at VideoSparks, and he and I worked for a fast week to put this explainer video together, including professional narration:

We shipped the web site last weekend:

I finished the gray paper and put it on Medium.com. I dedicated it to the team, and to Justin, whose comment helped us find our direction.

The Pillar project is open-source. It’s a remarkable time to try big open-source projects, like Civic, Sovrin, Tezos, Cosmos, Omega One, Status, and others, because the token model aligns all the incentives from funders to end users. It isn’t going to make us rich. It’s going to change the world, and that’s even better.

Already, investors have been sending us money to buy our tokens in advance, which has helped us finance the marketing effort. After a successful token sale, all the people interested will come together in Slovakia to plan how we will work together to build it. (Note — this was an amazing week; see the YouTube videos from Poprad.)

Nonlinearity = Unpredictability
Business, like life, is nonlinear. A quick look at the price of ether or reading any of Nassim Taleb’s books will convince you that business is a complex adaptive system, in which black-swan events and unpredictability drive. I heard the guy who had spearheaded Pokemon Go interviewed, and he said “Yeah, it only takes twenty years to create an overnight sensation.” Watching any successful project behind the scenes often shows a chaotic, nonlinear process driven by uncertainty and reaction more than planning and sharp execution. I talk about this in the gray paper: our job in the Pillar project will be mostly about overcoming customer reluctance than building perfect code. I’ll be writing much more about this, to help other projects work in an agile way and let customers pull their products into existence, rather than pushing them out, fully formed. I am working on a series of essays to help understand tokens, project finance, how to create a better funding ecosystem, and how to help those open-source projects who have raised money spend it wisely. Please subscribe to our newsletter at 2030.io to learn when these and other things come out.

I said in my book that, “If someone someday shows you a personal data locker, and it looks very much like your familiar desktop and apps, it isn’t the personal data locker.” Now, through a series of happy accidents, a determined volunteer workforce, a strong token market, excited investors, and a few curmudgeons, the personal data locker is finally in the right place at the right time. You can bet we will be focusing on customer adoption and doing fast experiments rather than building lots of complex code. Keep it simple. Pull, not push. As Diego Rodriguez of IDEO says:

Prototype as if you are right; listen as if you are wrong.

It is an honor to work with people across the globe who are so charged up, believe so much in this project despite its rocky gestation period, and are willing to work so hard to see the Pillar project come to life.

Pillar Timeline

  • 1997 — Basic concept for open web
  • 2005 — First personal data locker white paper
  • 2008–2010 — book production
  • 2010–2014 — book and concept promotion
  • 2014 — Crowdfix proposal on Medium.com
  • 2015 — Blockchain start to become viable solution
  • 2017 a) — Team, gray paper, web site, token sale
  • 2017 b) — Slovakia meeting, office in London, open-source community
  • 2018 a) — Pillar wallet launches, first devcon meeting, partners join
  • 2018 b) — Early use cases, build data platform, integrations
  • 2019 a) — Pillar wallet gets voice, services launch to become profitable
  • 2019 b) — Personal assistant ecosystem, medical records and prescriptions
  • 2020 — First Pillar-powered phone launches

If you want to know what happened next, read Twenty Years and Three Months to Create an Overnight Sensation, part of The Token Handbook.

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David Siegel

David Siegel

10.8K Followers

Provocateur, professional heretic, slayer of myths, speaker of truthiness to powerfulness, and defender of the Oxford comma.