The Permissionless DAO

Why onboarding people into a DAO is so hard

Onboarding community members into a Decentralized Autonomous Organization (DAO) isn’t like hiring people at a traditional company. One of the main reasons this is so is that DAOs are “permissionless.” Much the way you don’t need permission to send transactions on a public blockchain, you also generally don’t need permission to join a DAO.

Like many other DAOs these days, the Token Engineering Commons (TEC) is experiencing the challenges of running a permissionless organization. In this article, we’ll explore why onboarding is so tough in these new organizations and how the TEC uses a combination of automation and personal touch to engage new members in our mission.

What is Permissionless?

Being permissionless is not quite the same as being open. Permissionless access is not personal. It comes through meeting certain criteria — like possessing a subway token. The decision to let you onto a subway platform isn’t about you; it’s about whether or not you hold a token.

Permissionless access to a DAO works in a similar way. In some cases, entry is “token-gated,” which means that, like a subway, you need a token to get in the door. There are also DAOs that allow free entry but that restrict access to certain rights and resources based on one’s ownership of tokens.

It’s too early to lock in on exactly what does or doesn’t define a DAO, but permissionlessness does seem to be a pretty good marker. Traditional organizations require us to obtain permission before doing work for them, usually in the form of a hiring decision. Even giant corporations, with finely-tuned processes for hiring tens of thousands of people, still choose who gets in the door on an employee-by-employee basis.

Permissionless organizations displace employment as the front door to work.

The Rise of the Permissionless Organization

Permissionless organizations emerged out of companies like Google, Netflix, and Amazon. Their websites and apps made it easy to search the web, watch movies, and shop, all without any assistance from employees. End users used these “automated self-service platforms” to serve themselves without asking anyone’s permission. This openness to end user contributions unleashed previously unimaginable scales of operation and value creation — and made these companies the richest on the planet.

The next step in permissionless organizations came with gig economy platforms like Uber and Instacart. These companies extended automated self-service to allow certain end users to get paid by serving others, through driving cars, picking up food, and doing various other errands. Like Google and the others before them, these firms invested heavily in simplifying and routinizing the processes that were critical to their work.

Not all workflows are so easily commoditized, however, and a wide chasm eventually emerged between platform-building employees and platform-using gig workers. Employees fulfilled less routine, more complex work through increasingly technical — and competitive — hiring decisions. Meanwhile, gig workers made their contributions through permissionless, automated, onboarding processes, running at Internet scale.

DAOs and Complex, Permissionless Work

DAOs represent the next step in the evolution of permissionless work. We’re still in their early days, but this new type of organization looks like it will play an important role in growing more complex forms of permissionless work.

To be clear, I’m not saying that DAOs will magically solve the problem of identifying talent for complex work. What I am saying is that they will change the way we do it. Rather than using recruiting processes to filter people out, one-by-one, before they get in the door, DAOs tap large pools of people and engage them with progressively more challenging work over time. The binary yes/no hiring decisions of traditional organizations thus give way to a more graduated process of meeting people where they are at and exposing them to increasingly challenging work over time. DAOs could thus end up becoming wonderful new platforms for personal and professional development.

The Cultural Build of a Warm DAO

Creating this pathway for more complex contributions in a permissionless organization won’t be easy. It’s not like the earlier phases of permissionless organizations, where we could simply throw more data and computing power at a problem and hope machine learning solves it. Machine learning and automation are important, but not nearly enough by themselves in a DAO.

Engaging people in more complex — and valuable — work requires tapping deeper human drives. Compensation is of course important, but it too is insufficient for cultivating high-level contributions. The intuition, inspiration, passion, and empathy required for complex work draw on deeper sources of meaning. Our commitment grows, too, when we feel part of something bigger than just themselves. This is why so many people working in DAOs emphasize the importance of “vibes.”

DAOs are living, human communities. They scale with permissionless, automated systems, but they won’t grow engagement, leadership, or complex expressions of work without investing in culture.

The Token Engineering Commons addresses this challenge with a two-pronged investment in what we call a “technical build” and a “cultural build.” I’ve even heard some in our community describe our work as that of a “warm DAO” — a term that I absolutely love.

Vibes of a Warm DAO

Automated Welcome

The TEC and other DAOs are now learning how to engage newcomers at permissionless scale, but with the personal touch needed for more sophisticated forms of work. To this end, the TEC set up a working group we call ‘Communitas.’ Much of our initial focus has been on balancing automation with the need for human contact. We’re still figuring it out, but a few things are becoming clear.

The first is that when it comes to automating onboarding, it makes sense to concentrate our investments on Discord. It’s far from a perfect tool, but the TEC — like many DAOs — has found Discord to be well-suited to permissionless onboarding. People can drop in from anywhere in the world at any time, without needing permission to enter. After a quick, automated verification to make sure they’re human and that they acknowledge the terms and conditions of our community, newcomers gain instant access to pretty much everything on our Discord server.

Granting immediate, essentially unrestricted, access to our Discord server supports the core TEC community value of transparency. It also makes it easy for newcomers to explore our organization on their own terms, another key aspect of being permissionless. Transparency is not without its challenges though. Imagine walking into a company and instantly seeing every document and conversation that’s ever been had — all at once. To help manage this information overload, we built a bot to guide people’s attention toward some helpful first steps. The image to the left shows version 1.0 of this simple bot, which we expect to develop over time as we learn more about what newcomers actually need.

Keeping it Warm

None of what I’m describing is revolutionary, but what does set us apart is the way we complement our automated onboarding with a human touch. As part of our welcome, we invite new members to fill out a short survey, asking what brings them to the community, how experienced they are in Web3, why they’re interested in the TEC, and a couple of practical questions like how they’d like to be addressed and their time zone. This information helps our (human) guides in reaching out personally to every new community member within a few days of their arrival. I still remember being contacted like this when I joined, and it made a huge difference to me.

Another technique we plan to roll out allows us to tag people with Discord ‘roles’ based on the emojis they click at the bottom of a post (see image on the left). Inspired by the team at Forefront, the first place we’ll use this trick will be to automatically update people’s profiles to reflect their preferred pronouns. Once in place, we’ll all be just a click away from relating to others the way that helps them feel most welcome.

Permissionless, Infinite Organizations

Building a warm welcome is just the first step. Ultimately, our success as a community will depend on how we translate that welcome into valuable, sustained engagement with the TEC mission over time.

One of my favorite books is James Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games. In it, he explores the difference between ‘finite’ and ‘infinite’ players. At one point, Carse mentions that finite players must be selected in order to play — in other words, they need to be given permission. This is the path of a finite game, but not of the infinite game.

“Finite players play within boundaries; whereas infinite players play with boundaries.” — James Carse

I’ll let you decide what an infinite game ultimately means to you but I’d like to suggest that permissionlessness plays a key role. An open world reaches out in freedom, fairness, and infinite potential. Openness also enables sovereign individuals to join together as something bigger than just themselves. Permissionlessness is thus a doorway to growing together. It is a principle to be treasured and deeply understood, and it is part of what makes Web3 such a revolutionary movement.

Shout-Out

I’d like to acknowledge the work done by members of the TEC Communitas Working Group in our first wave of investments in TEC onboarding. Here is to @tamarandom and @vegaypatino for their leadership in Communitas and this project, in particular. Here’s to @muninn23 and @LexBirdie for their great thinking, planning, and guidance in this work. Here’s also to @Vyvy_viM, our master of bots, for his great contributions in making all this tech work. And finally, here’s to @natesuits, @saunic8, @AL0YSI0US, @csggene3, and @durgadas, for their feedback, insights, and overall encouragement throughout this process.

If you are interested in learning more or perhaps even in getting involved in TEC Communitas, or in the TEC more broadly, please drop by our Discord channel.

More Resources:

What does “permissionless” mean? by Peter Van Valkenburgh

Permissionlessness by Kelsie Nabben and Michael Zargham

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