Today’s episode, part two in our two-part series on the Creator Economy, focuses on the new potential revenue streams and fan-engagement models opened up by emerging decentralized technology. It’s a new type of fan club, driven by crypto networks and aiming to give creators more power in the commercial sphere. We talked to two guests deeply immersed in these topics.
Kayvon Tehranian is the founder and CEO of Foundation Labs, a platform for buying and selling limited edition goods. Think of it as a crypto marketplace that creates new revenue streams for creators, and financial incentives for buyers. Before that he was head of product at cryptocurrencies marketplace Dharma Labs, and he has long worked on making crypto more accessible to the mainstream.
Jesse Walden is a former a16z partner who recently launched his own fund, Variant, which focuses on what he calls the ownership economy enabled by crypto. He also previously cofounded the startup Mediachain, which was acquired by Spotify, and is a former music promoter and manager whose focus was on helping artists stay independent.
Kayvon and Jesse talk with host Zoran Basich of a16z about how the emerging crypto models differ from previous attempts to create new revenue streams for artists, and about the role of speculation and hype in creator markets. They also debate whether these new markets will largely be driven by financial motives, or whether cultural factors will be equally powerful in determining the growth of creator markets. And they offer advice to creators interested in exploring this new world, including important practical guidance on expectations and timelines.
Kayvon: There’s now a movement to give these creators more power over the brands and the communities that they’re inspiring or spearheading. In many ways, crypto is the next tool in their toolkit. It’s a very nascent technology and it has a lot of mental model complexity and just general complexity associated with it. So it hasn’t been absorbed yet.
But if you look at what it fundamentally unlocks for folks, it feels like one of those things that’s inevitable. You have record labels or galleries or museums that are brokering a lot of what is considered valuable or how value gets transferred to these folks. And in reality, a lot of those players are going to be challenged by models where the creator can go to their fans or their community or their audience directly and create that economic relationship. That’s going to enable them to potentially be more empowered to pursue their vision and not be brokering deals with folks that are intermediating the relationship between the audience and the creator.
Zoran: So crypto enables creators to bypass gatekeepers. Let’s talk about how that fits, Jesse, with what you call the ownership economy, where the definition of creators becomes very broad.
Jesse: So you zoom out and look at the bigger picture. I think it’s fair to say everyone who interacts with people online today is a creator in some form. Everyone is creating content in the form of Facebook posts, Instagram posts, blogs, newsletters, and so on. And that’s a sort of a very natural evolution of how we use software on the internet. If you rewind the tape, one of the most surprising things about software in the age of the internet is the degree to which it’s created by users or developers who write open-source code that’s available for anyone to consume.
And what you’re starting to see happen now, emanating from the crypto community, is the next logical step in this evolution. We’re going from crowdsourcing code to crowdsourcing content and products that people create on internet platforms to crowdsourcing the actual operations of these internet platforms directly from users. And this has happened first in networks like Bitcoin and Ethereum, which are the first examples of networks that are entirely user-owned and operated. There is no company. There’s just the users of the network running open-source code in order to provide a service that others in the network can use. And in exchange for the work that these users are doing, they’re earning an actual ownership stake in the platform itself.
So this is an example where the creators of value are actually able to own more of the value, and that’s what I call the ownership economy. And I think this idea is starting to move from more technical creators, like developers, to more mainstream or consumer-facing creators. And that’s a pretty exciting idea because it means that creators on the internet, everyday people who use internet products and services, will be able to earn more of the value that they contribute to those products. That’s because cryptocurrencies make it possible to distribute that value at internet scale instantly, to anyone, anywhere in the world. So that’s sort of the fundamental technology unlock.
To make that more concrete, you know, one of the things that’s worked really, really well in Silicon Valley has been giving early employees of new companies, new startups, stock option ownership. And that ownership is a very powerful incentive to get the top performance, the best talent to come and work at your company. To date, that’s not been available to everyone because maybe they don’t live in Silicon Valley, or they’re not U.S. citizens and they can’t be recipients of stock options as a result. Because stock options rely on this sort of legacy realm, there’s sort of paper legal contracts written by lawyers. They’re many pages long. It’s expensive to administer them.
Zoran: And you have to be working for a company or investing in a company in order to receive them.
Jesse: Exactly. And crypto tokens take the same concept and sort of explode the accessibility to literally anyone with an internet connection that can contribute value to building a platform or service. They can earn a similar kind of ownership stake in the product or service that they’re building, but they can do so without the friction of the legacy realm, without lawyers papering contracts. The same ideas can be expressed as code and transmitted over the wire in a standard that anyone can read and participate in.
Zoran: Kayvon, you mentioned the various models there have been up until now for creators. They can try to get into retail. They can self-sell through, e-commerce sites or their own online shops. They can sell their work at galleries if they’re visual artists. A lot of artists and creators have experimented with crowdfunding in recent years. So how is the crypto model different from crowdfunding?
Kayvon: I think it’s certainly evolving out of crowdfunding, but I think it’s going into much broader cultural domains where releasing a record, releasing a art piece, coming up with an idea, they all can be encapsulated through tokens.
And so what we’ve done or introduced is the ability for that token to fluctuate in price. And so the interesting thing here is, you can imagine ideas or products introduced by folks that go viral or do exceptionally well. And instead of it really being baked into this previous static crowdfunding campaign, it’s a live market. So it can go up, it can go down. It’s almost mimicking the stock market in some ways where the market potential of the idea is uncapped. And so there’s this price discovery aspect to it.
That has pros and cons, right? Because on the other end of the spectrum, it also can go down. But I think what’s interesting is you now have this beating heartbeat of the cultural realm that has a stock market-like component to it where products or ideas that are coming from brands and creators are tokenized and tradable and you can gauge the demand or interest or cultural relevancy in this new way.
So it fundamentally appeals to the early adopters, right? So if you’re someone new to a trend or new to a creator or new to a product, there’s actually a financial incentive now to that aspect, because you’re getting in early and the price is lower. And then moreover, as the creator, these markets are something that you control as opposed to the non-crypto context where, when people are reselling things or people are creating markets around you, it’s often not to your benefit. These are things that are happening after the fact. And crypto allows these creators to control that and capture that potential or capture that impact that they create.
Jesse: Kayvon touched on the idea of dynamic pricing in these markets, and I think that’s something worth double-clicking on. So dynamic pricing essentially means there’s a speculative element to participating in these markets. Just like the stock market, you make an investment on the hope and assumption that he price of the asset you’re buying will appreciate in value. And that’s not really been a model that’s been adapted to the cultural realm before. I mean, it’s obviously an element of art collecting. It’s an element of collecting of any kind, whether sneakers or whatever, but you’ve never had 24/7 global markets for cultural assets.
Zoran: Is there a tension between appealing to fans versus speculators? Because I can see two different types of people using a platform like this.
Kayvon: I think there could be. Startups are just constantly in the business of exploring tensions and understanding what’s tenable and what’s not. You know, in my current thinking, in my current exposure, I think inviting speculation into the equation is a net positive and should actually allow creators to explore more wide-ranging ideas and have more mechanisms to bring more creativity into the world. I’ve used speculation as positive where you really are allowing people to come in and take risks essentially in validating that.
Can that be pushed over the edge? Absolutely. But we have a ton of design affordances to fine-tune that,s o we’re not by any means concerned. At least at this stage in the game, where we’re not overwhelmed with demand and volume yet. This isn’t rivaling these players that already exist in the billions of dollars. We’re right now a fledgling project. And I think speculation is absolutely essential to getting it off the ground and to getting a lot of these creators off the ground. This isn’t a platform for Jay-Z, or at least not yet. And so you’re going to need to discover the new Jay-Zs and that takes risk and speculation.
And so I don’t think they’re at tension at this point in time. Can there become a tension at some point? Sure. I would love that design challenge. It’s really a matter of bumping into those realities and we haven’t yet.
Jesse: And I think what’s interesting is if you look at crypto more broadly, and then zoom out another level to just innovation in general, you can find that speculation is often driver of lots of new waves of market activity and creativity.
But that speculation is not done in vain, in that the speculation drives more innovation and drives infrastructure development. So other creators, other innovators see the money rushing in, they too jump in, and the progress accelerates. And so speculation can actually be really useful in driving new markets to maturity. And this is not something that has been made accessible to creators before, this model of injecting speculative cap, financial capital into real production capital.
Zoran: Yeah. Chris Dixon and Eddy Lazzarin talked about the crypto price innovation cycle — prices go up, speculators jump in, hype goes through the roof, and then the prices go down. But in the meantime, all these people have entered the space and started figuring things out and getting ideas, and that tends to sustain over time, even as the prices go up and down.
Kayvon: And I think the same will be true with creators. Creators issuing tokens will go through the same thing. We’ve had markets go up, they go down, but then they’re… if the creator is really pushing them and really seeing them through, they, kind of, recover and then they consistently take off. And I think that it’s cool to see this in a microcosm where that one principle applies to everything from the product development to the creator markets, to the creator tokens, to our even long-term roadmap. So it’s certainly a fundamental tenet to pay attention to or to pay heed to.
Zoran: There’ve been lots of attempts in the past to find new ways of monetization and fan engagement. What’s different today?
Jesse: Back when I started Mediachain in 2014, the idea that any creator would be able to mint their own token and have a trade on a 24/7 global marketplace was kind of unfathomable because Ethereum didn’t exist at that time. And so in order to create a digital token, you have to bootstrap an entire network of miners, like Bitcoin had done, and that was the far more challenging or daunting task than it is to mint a token on top of an existing blockchain like Ethereum.
So I think that technically the infrastructure to support a lot of the ideas of Mediachain is there today. And not just technical infrastructure, also market infrastructure. You know, stablecoins have enabled people to transact in these markets in a medium of exchange that they understand, dollars. The ability to abstract private key management from end users so that the experience of participating in these markets rivals any Web 2.0 platform that also exists today, that didn’t exist back then. So there’s a lot of factors that make now the right time to realize this idea of the universal media library where creators are more valued. And I do think it will be driven by markets first.
Kayvon: We are very, very early in this development and creators are coming with very, very rough mental models of how it works. They know it’s powerful. They know they want this. They know it’s the future. But there is still a lot of education and collaboration necessary.
And then the one thing I would add as well is, we’re also in an unprecedented time right now, where artists are being challenged or creators are being challenged on so many fronts. And the IRL world is shut down in so many different ways. And technology is more and more and more part of these people’s lives. And this is the first technology that, kind of… if the mp3 was this file format that unlocked ubiquitous access to a creator’s work, it did nothing for the monetization in some ways, because it created ubiquitous supply. Tokens do the opposite where they restrict the supply and create a provenance that is then provable, that then creates powerful economic forces that actually then funnel into the creator. So it’s almost this necessary and second wave of technology where now that the creators’ work can be transmitted all over the internet at a fraction of a penny, there’s now a way for these folks to express their work in a way that then actually holds on to value, as opposed to seeing it go down in marginal cost to zero.
That being said, that’s the beginning, in my opinion, right? The future of ideas is vast.
Zoran: There’s so many interesting things about this. The idea that someone can get in early and purchase this token that represents a creator’s work and that token may rise in value — that creates all kinds of incentives for the person who’s purchased the token to become an evangelist, to become a fan, to become a passionat, marketer of this creator. What are the implications of that?
Jesse: The move to independent direct fan-audience relationship, I think, is naturally going to evolve to one that is more financial in nature, where you’re not just backing a creator just simply to get access but also for potential upside. And that may sound, initially, a little bit off, right, because profit maximization is not the sole reason you want to back or support a creator. But I think what will come to be understood about this model is that when you do have exposure to the upside, it can be a very powerful catalyst for new kinds of engagement, where your fans are not just passive consumers or a passive audience, but actively involved in the creation process in some way. And for some creators, that will be unwelcome, but for others that lean into it, it’s a pretty powerful new tool for building community, building audience, and, ultimately, monetizing. A simpler way of saying it is that it’s sort of the new fan club, where instead of just being a member you’re exposed to the upside as well.
Kayvon: I think it’s very, very unexplored, because I will tell you right now, we have 20-plus markets live on Foundation right now. And I think if there’s plenty of education on the creator side to on-ramp into this world, there’s commensurate education on the buyer’s side. And the idea that people have fluency in how this all works and why it’s good and they’re aware of what they’re doing, that’s not there yet.
For the most part, people are playing. We do have a good portion of our audience that’s already crypto-savvy, they understand that a token that’s dynamically priced is going to have a good price early on and they’re ready to go. But as we increase the number of markets, we increase the number of creators, that audience is small. And so, you’re going to need to expand the size of the population that understands what’s happening here and what tokens can do and what they are doing. It’s in the soup right now of figuring that out.
And so I would just go as far as to say it’s very, very unexplored and it’s very, very misunderstood. It’s not something that’s a fluency outside of, I would say, the core crypto audience. But I think the opportunity is actually about the much larger cultural realm that exists outside of crypto, that actually needs to come in and adopt this technology, that’s going to benefit what they’re already doing outside of it.
Jesse: There’s this expression I picked up, the expression is, “You should invest in what’s in the fridge.” So that is, products you actually consume and eat, because you know those products, you understand the quality and it essentially assumes that your taste is good enough to judge whether a product will continue to succeed and whether other people will like it as well.
And I think that the dynamic there, if you invest in what’s in the fridge is, you go from being a mere consumer, to being someone who has a vested interest in the success of the product that you’re purchasing. And that can be a pretty powerful driver of a behavior shift, where you become more loyal. You won’t purchase any other product. You’ll evangelize the product to your friends. You start to play an active role in the success of that brand or company.
And I think what Foundation markets enable is for any fan or anyone who appreciates a creator’s work to take that leap beyond just, you know, backing a creator out of goodwill or subscribing to them on a monthly basis, they can actually invest in what’s in the fridge, so to speak. They can put money behind the creator in a way that can benefit them directly. And that self-interest, whether it’s purely financial or not, I think, can be a powerful driver of more engagement or a new relationship between creators and their audience.
Kayvon: I actually think this won’t start just from a purely financial perspective. If you look at all of these cultural powerhouses, you know, if we go into Supreme, the brand, we go to Basquiat, we go to Chance the Rapper … you can really throw out any cult figure that rose from a very, very small audience initially. There is this now ability for those people to have participated in a way that then allows them to, like, map the financial outcome that happens when they become big and they take over.
And by the way, that’s how culture works. You don’t know what’s coming next. And it’s really interesting to, kind of, create this now mechanism where the early folks and the creator have a tool that’s automatically creating these alignments without them needing to think it through. The chance that it does become the next big thing is low, right? It’s, like, I don’t think you would really hang out with, you know, that early on in a lot of these contexts without, like, a real connection. And it’s cool now to bring that financial aspect to it because a lot of these people weren’t there for that reason. And so they weren’t looking out for that upside. And if we can bring that in just naturally so it works that way, those people actually end up empowered.
Zoran: I wonder if there’s a Big Bang moment for crypto, as it regards, like, creator economies, like, some huge star, you know, decides to take a chance or to experiment with this and put out a limited edition set of artwork or whatever it happens to be.
Kayvon: I’m skeptical of that. I don’t know if I buy into that. I think crypto has already had that many times over now, where Floyd Mayweather comes in, you know, gets in on the ICO boom, Paris Hilton has been in the headlines for doing some crypto art. You know, I think these things are pretty one-off. And I think the culture at large is rightly skeptical to not over-index on them. I mean, are they a scam? Are they just the way to make money? What’s the real thing?
I think this is much more subtle, where you actually really start to work with creators who are stuck in this, kind of, halfway state where they have these enormous audiences, but they don’t know how to monetize because they don’t have the right tool. And one by one, they start to realize that crypto is giving them really solid revenue streams in a way that they just can’t get elsewhere.
And that’s not an overnight change. That’s going to be one creator, five creators, 10 creators seeing real revenue that they’re, all of a sudden, really running their lives off of, and then they’re doing it over and over again, and they’re, kind of, you know, high NPS score, sharing that with other folks who are in the same camp, those folks seeing, “Oh, it works for them too,” right? Where then, all of a sudden, it becomes actually an authentic, “Oh, this actually is solving a problem for a set of people.”
If you come in and you’re already high profile, the chances of you needing to monetize in a new way are not that pressing, right? If you’re anyone in those camps, I promise you, you have probably more offers coming in than you can deal with.
But there is this creator cohort that is using these platforms and doing meaningful work, but they haven’t reached that level of stardom. And if they prove out the technology, there’ll be a flywheel there. And I don’t think that’s overnight.
Zoran: You know, the people who have made a lot of money in crypto, up until now, have been people who were, kind of, very technically savvy or able to, kind of, take advantage of opportunities. You know, currently, you’re seeing things, like, yield farming, etc., which is, you know, technically code is transparent and open, but it’s really not accessible for most people. And one of the challenges of crypto is to become more accessible, easier to use and benefit from.
Kayvon: Absolutely. You heard from Jesse, from Mediachain’s perspective of 2014, what we have at our disposal is rocket science. It’s unbelievable that we can have this platform, that we don’t have to spin up miners. We can just have tokens and they get issued. We have the ability to give you a key to interact with the blockchain and you don’t have to have this complex key management strategy on your end that, you know, you’re writing down your passphrases and storing them all over your house. Real people don’t want to do that. And so we have a lot of these building blocks.
That being said, they’re still rough. And no one has put them together in an aesthetic and experience, in a UX that feels right. You’re, like, okay, cool. Just using the technology. I’m not wading through a textbook on cryptography, which is how I think a lot of people feel, even just doing basic transaction signing in other contexts. I think if you really are talking to creators more broadly — not the ones that are perhaps geeking out on crypto technology —they’re not here to obsess over cryptography. They’re not here to read the manual. They want something that helps them in their work, and their work is not the blockchain. And so we have to democratize to actually unlock this future because it’s not realistic to expect artists crossing every vertical.
I mean, like, let’s take fashion, for example. Why would you want to understand key management in detail and mining in detail if you’re building a fashion line or you’re building a fashion house. These are not diagrams that make sense. We want you to be obsessed about what you’re creating and the value that you’re adding in that domain, and we’re going to go build and obsess over the technology to the point where you just find it useful.
Jesse: I would add here that I think the adoption of crypto is following a familiar pattern for the adoption of new technology platforms, where very often, they start out first being adopted by developers, people who are technologists, people understand the new platform at a very technical level. And then, the next phase of adoption is generally by financiers or people who are getting involved more from a speculative point of view. And I think that’s been true of crypto, and maybe to a bigger degree than other technology platforms, because crypto is a finance innovation. And so not only do we have the general public speculating, we have pretty sophisticated financial actors, Wall Street types, hedge fund types, getting involved with new financial marketplaces that are being built on top of these new rails. And that, when you referred to yield farming earlier, you know, I think that’s one example of what I’m describing where you have pretty sophisticated financial types working with these new marketplaces in order to earn or maximize their profits.
And none of this is intelligible to anyone who is accustomed to using everyday Web 2.0 products, like Airbnb and Uber and stuff like that. It’s still very much in the early adopter phase. But slowly but surely, you’re starting to see the next wave of adoption play out and that’s adoption beyond developers, beyond, you know, financiers, adoption by real consumers. Reddit is running this great experiment right now where every Reddit user has an Ethereum wallet in the mobile app. They don’t need to know that it’s an Ethereum wallet. All that they need to know is that they’re able to earn tokens or earn community currencies, I think is what Reddit calls them, in exchange for contributions they make to the platform, for example, moderating content or uploading content.
You have a whole ecosystem of companies and founders taking the building blocks that others have built before them and, sort of, making them more accessible to a consumer audience. And that’s pretty typical for any new technology platform.
Zoran: There’s so much that’s, kind of, in flux, in developing, where do you see this going in the next 5 to 10 years? Are we moving toward decentralized autonomous organizations, or DAOs, where it’s essentially run entirely or almost entirely by code?
Kayvon: I think everything in Ethereum, when you introduce a token the DAO is… I do think, like, the natural end state for basically anything that goes on in Ethereum. Because essentially what you do is you eventually introduce a token into whatever value-added activity is going on. And you say, “Cool, if you’re wanting to be involved with this, you need to hold this token.” And that aligns incentives because the token goes up in value, just some of the shares in a company, you’re all trying to, like, make this thing more valuable. And it’s just a very fundamental human behavior.
But what happens when you can enable that for everything and everyone, right? And so what I think you end up with is a world in which every brand, every creator that is doing serious volume is themselves a DAO and has token holders that are weighing in and a stakeholder. And so it’s a pretty cool sci-fi future that I think it’s not coming down in the next year. I just want to set expectations. People are already exploring though this idea. They’re already issuing tokens. It’s only a few steps or leaps from there to end up in that future. Again, it feels to us, like, a further afield future, but one that’s inevitable.
What happens when, let’s take a fashion label, like Supreme, is a DAO, where all the people that participate in that brand own it in some way. And so while, you know, it would be difficult to create these communities before, the software is going to enable many, many, many, many more communities to exist that wouldn’t be able to otherwise.
I think of it as the alternative to an IPO in, kind of, the future where this is the future version of the IPO where you can essentially, you know, you start off centralized and then you’re decentralizing through the token. And instead of it being through the centralized New York Stock Exchange or the existing IPO paradigm, you’re doing it through a very internet-native way. And I think that that’s going to be a very, very powerful model that’s proven out again in that 10-year timeframe.
Jesse: There’s a few things I’ll say about that. One is, I authored this post as a playbook for entrepreneurs building in the space on progressive decentralization wherein I advocate for a three-step process to making ownership a keystone of your product experience. First, you have to have a product that people want in the first place. You can’t just put out a token and expect that it’s going to blow up overnight and you’re going to be rich and famous. You have to build something of value first. And once you have that, whether it’s a painting or it’s an internet platform that people are using, you can then start to invite your users to come in and take ownership of that. And the way to effectuate that distribution of ownership is likely by producing a token and giving it to your users or letting them buy it. But it has to be done in that order. If you do it out of order and you start by having a token with nothing tied to it, no product that people want, you’re not going to get very far. You’re going to get hype. Maybe you’ll get hyped. And then it will fizzle out and you’ll be left with a ghost town community that was just there for the pump and the dump.
Zoran: If there’s a creator out there who feels stuck and is interested in exploring new monetization opportunities, what would you say to them to make them consider a platform like yours?
Kayvon: I would lower the stakes. I think people come to blockchain and crypto and they go to Level 1000 on their expectations and their own expectations of themselves. And they say, “If I’m going to issue my own cryptocurrency, it’s got to have this and this and this and this.” If you even think about software, as soon as you make something too complex, it becomes impossible to ship. So come to the table with something really concrete, something that’s small, that gets you started, you’ll be surprised at how flexible the models are. And we’re more in the business of getting people started. Every single creator that’s worked with us so far is already onto their next drop. They’re already thinking about what they’re going to do next. And that’s actually the signal to us.
The ambitions can be huge, but let’s get something going now and today. There’s nothing stopping you from having your own market tomorrow. So start small, start humble and come and play and explore. And then what you’ll find is that you’ll come up with your next couple of ideas and that’s the trajectory that you want to be on.
Zoran: So it will be a process for creators as well. It’s not like, “I’m going to get rich right away and find this magical solution that brings me thousands or millions of dollars.”
Kayvon: Correct. Oh God. Yeah. And the pressure that comes from that is just so unproductive for creativity. The idea that you know the idea that’s already going to make you a million dollars on your market is not going to be available to you tomorrow. It’s going to be available to you in the coming years, and today’s the day to start figuring that out. Our product, to us, is incredibly still undeveloped relative to what it can do. And so we’re trying to be an authentic ambassador of that message. Like, don’t come to the table with your million-dollar token yet. It’s probably not going to happen. But there are plenty of other ideas that really can get you started right now.
Zoran: I don’t know. This anti-hype model you have going on is just so non-crypto. It’s kind of hard for me to get my head around.
Kayvon: I know, I know. If anything, I would want people to take away, we’re long-term focused. And if you’re all hyped and you’re all, “It’s got to go up tomorrow,” you’ll find out how quickly you burn out. And if anything, the teams that have done exceptionally well in crypto have been able to live in a context that’s all hype and just consistently deliver solid, solid products that actually incrementally are adding value. And you’d be surprised how far that gets you over a two, three-year timeline.
Jesse: I would add that there’s also a very strong community and market waiting to receive you there. People who are in crypto today are very excited to see mainstream creators jump in and are pretty welcoming in getting people off the learning curve. I think it’s right to come in with a sort of a playful and open mind. But then realize that there is real potential and real money to be made by trying out these new models because the crypto community, many people in it have been around for a long time. They’ve been through a number of cycles, of ups and downs. They’re ready and excited to see the next wave of adaption happen. So, I think you’ll find that there’s a lot of support waiting for you when you jump in.
Zoran: Thanks, appreciate your time.
Jesse: Thanks for having me.
Kayvon: Talk to you soon.