Why this article?
When you grow, you change. Change can be confusing to the people you have worked with and for. I have seen that my founding my own company Blockchain Workspace has confused people I have worked with and I think a clarification is both in order, as well as an opportunity to explain how my actions fit in with themes that have always run through all my work. It also gives me a chance to highlight a few of these themes which will hopefully inspire a few others.
My humble beginnings
In 2013, I joined a vibrant new community, that had gathered around the then very new Nxt Cryptocurrency Platform. As I have no coding background (although I am an advanced user of computers and have been since 1984), I needed to find another niche to make myself useful in that community. This was before formalised ICOs and the attendant “sig campaigns”, so instead, I decided to organise stuff.
The first thread in which this community operated was a mess. The community frequently had the feeling that nothing was happening because the thread was almost unreadable, so I started a blog to organise all material each day. One sure-fire way to lose your energy is feeling like nothing is happening, and in this way, I intended to make sure we stayed focused and saw that actually a lot of things were being planned and done each day. I am still rather proud of this simple, yet effective contribution.
The crypto space was largely meritocratic at that time, something that I still love. It was my kind of “mining”: expending time and energy to make our project stronger and secure it. I was noticed and slowly was more involved in steering the community. The blog ended when we finally had our own forum, which we started to disconnect from the larger bitcointalk and stand on our own feet as a community. I became an admin of this forum, and am to this day.
I enjoy organising and empowering people. Most people have learned to not jump in, but get things perfect first go. I’ve always been a jumper. Jumping in and doing things teaches you things you cannot figure out on paper or in your mind. If you make mistakes, you can learn and adapt, which is always preferable to not acting at all.
Empowerment is more than just saying “you can do it”. For me, it means teaching people that they have the means to do something without permission from an outside authority. A lot of people are hamstrung by being taught that they should not even think of doing something new, because others will invariably better at it. When you have a good idea and you enjoy working on it, you should pursue it and not feel too small to do so.
Early on, I met a few other people online who shared my background in promoting and organising, and we conceived, first informally, of a “Nxt Foundation”. We were very careful in defining what such a foundation should do, and at first it was just conceived as a puppet organisation to be able to sign off on documents to be able to set up booths at conferences. We soon expanded my blog idea into online taped meetups. You can still see these in all their amateurish glory here. The point of all of this was to create some kind of project memory. In order to know where you could be going, it’s useful to know where you have been. In large open source projects, this is vital to avoid duplicating work or to learn from previous mistakes.
Eventually, we incorporated the Nxt Foundation (after a lot of internal disquiet over perceived centralisation issues) in 2015.
We learned one thing since then: no matter how you frame it, and how you try to dodge it, once you are “an organisation”, you will be seen as responsible for things. We envisioned the Foundation as being in no way “the voice of the community” as we could not speak for everyone: this was the Bitcoin Foundation’s mistake in our view and we didn’t want to repeat it.
We quickly found out that it’s almost impossible to not be made responsible, even if you do not want to be. Nevertheless, we have always felt that organisations in our industry should not be leading, but rather have the function of catalyst, nothing more.
Even though we cryptocurrency is an open source and free software movement, I have found that many people do not really know or understand this movement. It is hard to do so when cryptocurrency and blockchains are so intricately connected with value. This leads to a situation where market capitalisation is frequently mistaken for a measure of quality. I have found this often to be untrue. It is entirely possible for promising projects to receive little attention and projects with flawed fundamentals to rise to the top on shaky assumptions. Over time, I am sure this will change.
I have always been an advocate of openness and sharing. Our whole industry has a decidedly counter-intuitive aspect to it, which for many people is hard to grasp. I remain convinced that fencing ourselves off from what is going on around us is going to hurt us and that reverting to known top-down governance structures will stifle innovation, even if it will yield profits in the short term.
In 2016, things began to change. Other projects, most notably Ethereum, worked with a much better funded and much more formally organised structure. As such, many projects, including Nxt were faced with the choice to adapt or stay the same. As Foundation, we chose to adapt and with my co-founder Dave Pearce, I led a crowdfunding effort on the Nxt Platform. This would allow us to professionalise and also have a working budget. During 2015 and 2016 we were able to step up our activities.
Meanwhile, the developers of the software also started to keenly feel the funding problem, and though they themselves could sustain themselves, scaling the project remained a problem. In order to enable them to monetise their copyrighted code, they wanted to put their IP into a legal entity. I was approached by them, because of my earlier work, because they also needed a director to run the business. During the second half of 2016, we worked to set up a holding company to safeguard their IP with the aim to ensure a sustainable development of the Nxt code.
During the same time, the dev team worked with the Foundation to launch their new blockchain Ardor to which we allocated many of the crowdsourced funds.
I took this position, because I felt it was the right one for the project. Both Foundation and devs considered an ICO undesirable for several reasons. ICOs are at best in the grey area of the law, if not outright selling securities, which we felt was too dangerous in the longer term. We also felt that we should not be diluting loyal existing holders of the Nxt tokens. This left the devs with going for a more traditional method of funding: hard work and investments. For this, a legal entity was needed.
After Jelurida was incorporated, I noticed that the core devs and I had a difference of opinion on how to run the business. This became apparent over time and for a few months, we worked on getting the company bootstrapped. However, I eventually felt it would be hard, if not impossible for me to continue to implement policy I did not feel comfortable about, so we parted ways.
To me, companies are not inherently bad, nor are they anathema in open source. Creators have every right to try and monetise the fruit of their labour. That also doesn’t mean that a company is the only way to do this. I am extremely interested in all efforts to find new ways to do business. The knee jerk reaction of most is to revert to what is known and works. The challenge lies in resisting this urge and still try to find ways to make a living without building restrictive walls around our products. I think that we see a lot of interesting ways of exploring these questions in the blockchain industry and feel more at home in the more high risk, but pioneering business than in running a traditional venture.
I’ve never been a maximalist of any kind. I think it’s a historically misguided position to take with regards to any technology. The idea that only one instance of an innovation will be the only one has never happened, and to proclaim this after just a few short years into development is ludicrous.
I also believe it is stifling to innovation, and that our industry needs to embrace so-called competition and learn from them. Instead of getting angry at people doing something better, we should take a hard look at our own projects and adapt. Blockchain industry is meant to be disruptive, and frankly, calling other projects names is a sign of weakness and misunderstanding progress.
Of course, any new innovation always is attended by plenty of malafide hucksters willing to take advantage of the general lack of knowledge to push their flim flam products. In my view, the only way to combat this in the long term is education of everyone involved in the industry. In order to educate people, looking at everything and learning is even more necessary.
My own contribution to this has been the founding of an education enterprise Blockchain Workspace with a partner, which offers training to non developers and which also trains trainers.
Apart from this, we are also creating collaborative spaces, starting in Amsterdam with the Blockchain Lab for Public Good, where we offer space to public blockchain projects in a non-partisan atmosphere. Sharing ideas and contributing and learning together is key here.
It can be really disappointing when projects start to exhibit the behaviour they claim to want to eradicate. Since the end of 2013, I’ve seen a minority of people from the Bitcoin community start spouting the same kind of arguments against “altcoins” that the financial institutions had been levelling at them. The same can now be seen from communities of some of the more successful second generation blockchains against projects starting now. It just gets old, and it’s not productive at all.
There is a rich history to the Open Source and Free Software movement and unless we become familiar with it, we are bound to lose touch with it or repeat mistakes. I’ve seen people in projects move more and more to protectionist stances, attacking forks and clones up to even threatening to sue them. I think that is a grave mistake, and it cuts off any project from the vast resources of developers who be able to add their talents to projects.
The overarching theme of all my work is not exclusive to blockchain, but has rather more overlap with the creative arts. I have noticed that there is relatively little knowledge on how to build and empower communities in the industry at this time. Most communities have to rely on a “play it by ear” approach which can sometimes backfire spectacularly. Developers on the whole are indifferent to this part of the work and generally have little to no patience with people who are new to topics.
If there is any merit to my work over the last three years, for me it’s in being able to make people enthusiastic and to convince them that they too can make something of value. The marketing and PR I’ve done definitely take a second place, as they are mainly tools to get people’s attention. I also believe the fact that, even though I have worked almost exclusively for the Nxt Community, the fact that I have always advocated reaching out to other projects and talk and learn from them is one of the more constructive attitudes to have.
Whether we recognise it as such or not, the blockchain movement is essentially a creative movement: we’re setting out to create something new. This means we cannot afford to play by the old rules and methods, however safe that may seem: if we do, we’ll just end up with what we already had, and be co-opted into the large players who already occupy that space.
However, if we accept we are moving in unknown territory, we also realise we will most likely make tons of mistakes, which are part of the process. We can then also confidently explain that we don’t have all answers when posed the question and don’t need to feel forced to have all the answers ready yet. Lastly, we can also know that whatever we create, it will come from an unexpected direction, which means existing players will not be able to anticipate this.