The pandemic has changed society forever — and in many cases, not for the better. But when historians look back in a few decades, will they see this period as a turning point in the transition from an economy dominated by corporations to a new crowdsourced model where participants are incentivized with tokens to grow a project and share in the profits?
It may sound far-fetched given that mega-corporations dominate the present reality, but imagine a world in which Uber drivers and their passengers own and operate a decentralized rideshare network. Or one where Airbnb property owners, guests and even the cleaning staff share in the success of the cooperative business.
“What has happened over the last 10 to 12 months would have probably taken 10 to 12 years had it not been for the pandemic,” explains Michael Anderson, co-founder of Framework Ventures. A VC fund, Framework Ventures has raised $115 million for two investment funds and is a major DeFi player, getting in early on Chainlink, Synthetix and Yearn.finance.
Anderson says the concept of a decentralized collective effort has become normalized by working from home.
“That kind of concept of working for a company where you show up every day, and there’s an office […] that’s kind of been broken down,” he says. “It forces people to have questions as to do we need that going forward?”
The “Uber as a Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAO)” concept has been around since at least 2016 when blockchain project Arcade City started talking it up in the wake of a successful fundraise for the ill-fated The DAO. However, it’s now finally beginning to capture the zeitgeist. This month alone, Bankless co-founder David Hoffman wrote a long discussion on the topic called “The Future of Work,” and Bloomberg’s Joe Weisenthal touched on it in his “There’s a New Vision for Crypto” piece. Meanwhile, tech billionaire Mark Cuban tweeted at the end of May that DAOs taking on corporations was the “ultimate combination of capitalism and progressivism.”
The future of corporations could be very different as DAOs take on legacy businesses. It’s the ultimate combination of capitalism and progressivism. Entrepreneurs that enable DAOs can make $. If the community excels at governance, everyone shares in the upside. Trustless can pay
— Mark Cuban (@mcuban) May 31, 2021
The DeFi sector has been at the bleeding edge of the rise of DAOs and Digital Organizations (DOs), which are similar but are less governed by code and aren’t autonomous. They enabled a cooperative model and collective ownership of protocols, becoming popular in DeFi as a form of governance and as a way to crowdsource development.
Yield farming may have begun life with a poor reputation as guerilla marketing-meets-Ponzinomics, but it quickly became clear it was a great way to reward the most active participants in a community with tokens and often a share of the revenue. In turn, this incentivizes the best participants to help grow the protocol, bringing ever greater numbers into the project.
“That ownership element is what has the power,” explains Anderson. “And the best communities are the ones where you’ve got the earliest adopters, brought in from the get-go, and they become your biggest supporters, they become customer support, they become business development.”
If it works in DeFi, there’s no reason it can’t work in other industries and economies. Any marketplace could potentially benefit, and that doesn’t mean simply tokenized versions of eBay or Uber. Anderson uses the example of a clothing production line in which the sourcing of materials, the creation of clothing, distribution and sales could all be incentivized and organized through this new model.
“I think what we’ve seen over the last few years is a peak of corporations. And what I think we now have with the formation of DAOs is almost as a replacement for a limited liability corporation or a corporation in general,” he says. “It’s a replacement of incentivization layers, like equity and stock options, with tokens.”
“It’s mostly DeFi, but expanding beyond that, I think you can start to take this model into any marketplace. I think it ultimately becomes a really unique way of incentivizing participation.”
The model has plenty of advantages: being decentralized means that anyone, anywhere in the world who has an idea for building on top of the protocol — or who figures out a better way to do something — can jump in and reap the rewards. The process of iteration and evolution speeds up, too. No longer must you wait for the grinding gears of a corporation to grudgingly accept a new way of doing things. It simply happens via an efficient competition that produces the best outcome for a collective.
“Ultimately, that makes things more efficient and scalable, but also more fair and open,” Anderson explains, adding that it enables anyone, anywhere, to compete with tech entrepreneurs in San Francisco or Silicon Valley, who previously had the advantage of being in close proximity to capital.
“Breaking down those walls is really exciting, for the future of the world, but also the future of work.”
“Community ownership, I think, is a fundamental difference and a fundamental innovation,” he says. “And that’s why I love tokens. It is a completely new design space; we’re just scratching the surface as to how we can use these in different and novel ways.”
More equitable than equity
In a way, DAOs and DOs are a modern spin on older concepts around partnerships, co-ops and collaborations, made a thousand times more efficient by technology. And while our mental models for this sort of ownership currently look a lot like handing out equity, Anderson expects that to change as the use of tokens grows and evolves.
According to Andersen, having a clear vision of the future — or a strong thesis about how things may evolve in the future — is one of the things that separates Framework Ventures from many other investors in the space. Unlike the short-term, price-oriented thinking that predominates in crypto, Anderson and co-founder Vance Spencer believe in looking at where digital finance is headed over a timeframe of five to ten years and place their bets accordingly. They are popular guests on DeFi-themed podcasts as a result of their inspiring and well-reasoned thoughts about the future.
Framework’s first big success came before they’d even formalized the fund, with Anderson and Spencer developing a thesis around the need for smart contracts to access secure, reliable real-world information, which informed their investment in decentralized oracle network Chainlink:
“Mass adoption of interesting smart contracts will require data feeds that are secure, external to the blockchain (i.e., interest rate data from a bank), and maintain privacy when incorporated into a smart contract. Data feeds that meet these conditions are not currently available.”
Their investment thesis — which my short summary can’t really do justice — paid off well. Anderson brings up the example of Don Valentine, the late venture capitalist who founded Sequoia Capital, who invested in Apple after having a similar epiphany that personal computers would one day be in every home and on every office desk. This is the secret to successful VC investing, Anderson says.
“Finding the pieces that fit into that vision and into that new world, I think, is actually the easy part,” he says. “The hard part is being able to discern, you know, what that future state looks like.”
A long time ago in the startup world
Anderson grew up in Palo Alto, California, the “epicenter of the startup world,” and attended Yale University in Connecticut. He was planning to study electrical engineering or computer science and play college football. But in September of his freshman year, the fourth-largest investment bank in the United States — Lehman Brothers — collapsed and filed for bankruptcy. That event led to his fascination with finance and his degree in economics and computer science.
In the aftermath, he’d hear firsthand accounts of the turmoil on Wall Street from the family members of his friends, and he’d pore over reports in the New York Times and WSJ. He learned about the intricate and arcane nature of mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations.
“Once you start to really dive into how in-depth and complicated it gets, I don’t think there’s anyone that actually understands the entire system,” he says. “You could spend a lifetime trying to figure it out.” He gravitated towards fintech as a potential solution.
“Software is the eighth wonder of the world in my mind. How can we build software that expedites or emphasizes the power of finance?”
He was initially torn between pursuing a career in technology or finance and dabbled in both. While interning at Apple in 2011, he was dismayed to discover a company that creates such elegant products was organized like a “stodgy kind of corporate opaque institution,” in which even many of the department heads didn’t know what product was launching next. He realized he was unlikely to make an impact there.
Anderson also spent three months as a summer analyst at Barclays Bank, where he researched companies considering going public like GoPro and Dropbox.
“I was tired of covering them, and I realized that I just wanted to go work for them,” he explains. “And so that’s ultimately what led me to Dropbox.”
He spent three years at Dropbox and another two at Snapchat, mostly in the role of product manager. There he learned how to take an idea from conception to production, keeping users’ needs in mind as the product scaled up to millions. This knowledge would later prove to be a key experience in how he approaches the growth of crypto networks, none of which yet operate at consumer tech levels.
Despite mining Bitcoin during college, Anderson didn’t truly fall down the crypto rabbit hole until he read the Ethereum white paper in 2015 and a light went off in his mind. Shortly afterward, when he was moving to Los Angeles to work for Snapchat, a friend sent him on a “blind roommate date” with Vance Spencer, then working for Netflix. The pair bonded over Ethereum pretty much from question one.
“Our kind of friendship grew very, very quickly. We started to have an informal investment partnership together, where we were looking at different angel opportunities, and it just kind of grew from there.”
Top Shot in all but name
It’s one thing to develop a clear vision of the future, and it’s another to profit from it. As with most things, timing is everything. Unfortunately, Anderson and Spencer were about three years ahead of the market in 2017 with their first venture, Hashletes, essentially an NFL version of the outrageously popular NBA Top Shot.
Collectible NFT player cards enabled users to enter fantasy football games and win prizes. One of Anderson and Spencer’s contentions about NFTs, which we’re only starting to see come to fruition in 2021, is that NFTs need to have utility as well as provide digital ownership.
Hashletes was the first app in the iOS store connected to Ethereum, but the project only lasted a season and a half, killed off by high licensing fees and a lack of interest or understanding about NFTs at that time. Anderson and Spencer sold the business to a sports holding group in New York.
“It’s definitely hard to push something, especially when you know that this idea should be working but the infrastructure, the technology just isn’t there,” he says. “[American entrepreneur] Marc Andreessen has said that there are no bad ideas, it’s just the wrong time. So, there’s a little bit of that. You know being too early is also the same as being wrong.”
“I’d say we definitely built our empathy toward entrepreneurs in the space. And that’s what gave us a lot of the insight into how we wanted to build Framework and why we wanted to build Framework.”
Given the newfound interest in NFTs this year, Framework Ventures is once again pursuing the space.
The pair’s template for success was created with their initial investment into Chainlink when it cost 11 cents during the ICO in 2017. Anderson’s investment thesis is still online, explaining why they had a price target of $10–$20 for the 11 cent token. It’s already blown past that: At around $25, the token represents a more than 22,000% return in about three years.
“We made probably 20 to 25 different investments as angels prior to starting Framework, but Chainlink was definitely the best performing out of those. But I think it’s the one that we have the most close relationship with, just because of the breadth with which they can expand into all the different industries.”
They formalized the partnership afterward, with the Link investment leading to many more, including Aave, dHedge, Synthetix, Yearn.finance, Dodo, Edgeware, Fractal, Futureswap, Kava, Pods, Primitive, Teller, The Graph and Zapper. “It’s how we’ve got to know all these other teams. Chainlink oracles are usually the commonplace choice,” he says.
The importance of community
Another premise is that in a decentralized, open-source world — in which any protocol can be cloned and see its liquidity siphoned off — it’s the quality of the community around a project that’s more important than almost anything else.
“The community is something that has the real kind of defensible moat,” he says. “And so community development for us is paramount. We like to say, you can evaluate the team, you can evaluate the product, you can evaluate the market, but the most defensible elements of any investment are going to be the core team and then how that transitions into the community and community ownership.”
Rather than mere investors, they’re active participants in the community, too, if highly influential and cashed-up community members. A sister entity called Frameworks Labs has 17 software engineers building tools and systems to increase growth and engagement for projects they’ve invested in.
“We’re one of the larger Chainlink nodes in the network. We’re one of the larger Graph nodes. We’re active traders if we’re investing in an exchange, liquidity providing,” he says. “It just means that we’re rolling up our sleeves being one of the larger users, one of the largest suppliers for most of the investments that we make; it’s kind of how we define our edge.”
Anderson and Spencer see this as a perfect alignment of interests, and it’s why this new decentralized organization model can take some of the power back from the tech monopolies and corporations that dominate everyday lives.
Back when the internet began to spread, utopian visions of its potential to democratize the world and give the power back to individuals dominated. What actually happened, of course, was the development of addictive algorithms, filter bubbles and cancel culture, thanks to tech monopolies like Google and Facebook.
It might be another utopian vision, but perhaps the DeFi/Web 3.0 model can succeed where the internet failed. Anderson points out he used to live just down the street from Google. He says, “Google had this famous line of: ‘Don’t be evil.’ Well, blockchains enable something even better, which is: ‘Can’t be evil.’”
“When you build cryptographic guarantees around transparency and decentralization, you know, there isn’t the ability for a corporation to extract value in the same way.”
Radical transparency means the best projects with the most well-thought-out incentives will attract the sharpest minds, and those that hold 50% of the tokens back to dump on retail in the future will get shunned.
“I think you don’t really get that far with those types of models because everything is transparent and the incentives are aligned with the users of the product, the users with the networks, more so than anything I’ve seen in the previous tech generations.”