The importance of staying true to your values
aka don’t abstract away the point of the thing
There are two specific moments that have stuck in my head while building around onchain music. Both are different, but share similarities, in that they were disagreements with regard to bending toward incumbents, and, I think, now, that I was on the wrong side both times.
June 2017, at a JAAK offsite in Berlin. The ICO boom was going strong, Status had just halted the Ethereum blockchain due to overloading capacity with so many people trying to get in on the initial auction that morning (remember those days?). We had brought the entire team together to plan world domination after a successful Tech Stars Music programme. A key topic for debate was how to utilise the contacts that we had in place to sell a blockchain future to the major labels. But one of our developers disagreed, with a quote that I’ll never forget, “Why are we doing this? Fuck Warner”. At the time I thought that he was wrong, a “decentralisation maxi”. But in hindsight, he probably wasn’t.
October 2022, on Discord while viewing a potential wedding venue for this summer. neume was growing and I was searching for the route to take it to what I’ve been calling “escape velocity”, i.e. self-perpetuation (in funding, community, and development). I proposed some form of token to manage governance/treasury decisions as well as a defined roadmap for potential investors. Tim reacted negatively, believing that this was against the core values that we had defined neume under, and left the project. At the time I thought that he was wrong, a “decentralisation maxi”. But in hindsight, he probably wasn’t.
The term “decentralisation maxi” is used as an insult. Implying that the person cares only for chaos and complexity, and doesn’t need to think about the business case. But what links both of the situations above is that external forces put pressure on the core values that had formed the social fabric between collaborators. In the former, asking for permission was a red line, and in the latter, removing the freedom for hackers to dictate their own direction within the project. They weren’t being “decentralisation maxis”, they were just being true to their values.
I also don’t think that the proposed solutions were wrong to be put forwards, in either situation. They made sense at that time. But I do think that sight was lost of the values that some people had at their core, and so they were alienated. And when those values are something that the project is formed around then it is a fundamental issue.
Defining your values
I’m the last person that’s going to suggest that your team should sit around a whiteboard and come up with some generic shite that defines you as a collective. I’ve done that enough times around corporates to know that the answer is always “honesty”, “quality”, and “determination”, or words to that effect. Or if you work in music then there will almost certainly be an “artist first” type slogan included as well.
Generic common values are the same as having no common values.
I also don’t think that this is something that should or can be forced. Setting out to “define your values” will always be painful and pointless, as everyone will just say what they think other people want to hear.
We have a pretty good solution here in the UK; the pub. Spending real-life time together with your collaborators is, unfortunately, a post-covid rarity. But there really is no substitute in terms of really understanding what is driving each of you.
But, however you decide to do it, getting to know each other, and what is really important to each of you, is going to be essential to make sure that you stay true to the common surfaces of issues as things start to get hectic.
Calling out a team that is building in crypto for engaging in “decentralisation theatre” is an all too common accusation. In essence, it is saying that you are exploiting the value without contributing to the cause. Short-term profit-seeking. And in most cases, it’s probably accurate.
And yet, the nuance is that true decentralisation is fucking hard, and even harder to maintain while trying to build momentum. Without centralised forces pushing forward development then most of the tooling, infrastructure, and platforms that make up the current onchain value chain simply wouldn’t exist.
Is “progressive decentralisation” really achievable? I’d argue that we’ve seen it already in many cases over the years, but it requires a certain level of trust in the founding team. And for many concerned parties, a system or project being trustless is a core value that can’t be compromised, even at the start.
Still, I am personally a believer in compromise and practicality, and that decentralised from the start, progressively decentralised, and centralised systems, all have a place. What matters most is that the teams building them are aligned on their positions from the start, or else there will be issues. The point of this piece.
Which leads to the idea of “theatre”, a polite way of saying when a project is positioned in a certain way but in reality is nothing of the sort.
We are all paying a debt to the Silicon Valley mentality of fake it til you make it, move fast and break things, etc etc. For every solid project that is being built there are five or ten competing with them that are taking shortcuts, which fundamentally fuck them themselves in the long run, but also strangle attention away from those that really deserve it. It’s frustratingly inefficient.
The thing is that actors in a production can play a part for a while, and maybe even win over a sizeable crowd. But it doesn’t take long for those watching to realise that there is nothing behind the backdrop, the popcorn is stale, and the donkey is two blokes dressed in a costume.
Engaging in theatre can provide a short-term rush, and while unsustainable, can survive as long as the cast and promoters (investors in this already very tired metaphor) can keep selling the story to the masses. But ultimately, it is a mirage. It is an abandonment of values.
“But”, you say, “crypto is hard to understand for the mass market. Can’t we engage in a little bit of skeuomorphic theatrics to help with onboarding? Can’t we abstract away the complexity?”
Yeah…but also no. Yes, we can and will make better user experiences. No, we should absolutely not abstract away the point of the thing.
“No one needs to know how a car works to drive to their friend’s house, no one needs to know how a computer works to browse the internet…”
Neither of the two outputs from those examples were possible at the same level of service without the car or the computer. But more to the point, it didn’t make sense to pretend that the car had a tiny horse inside pulling it along, or the computer was sending little carrier pigeons to deliver messages to other computers to make it easier to understand for users. That’s just silly.
I think a more tangible example here, relating to onchain music, is in the case of wallets and payments. The abstract away the complexity way of thinking says that users don’t actually need wallets, and instead should be able to just log in to platforms with their email, and rather than using crypto to pay should be able to just use a credit card.
But in doing this we’re losing the point. If I don’t have a wallet then I am still in the world of platform risk and 3rd party dependency (ask someone that bought a Coachella “NFT” from FTX). If I use my credit card for payments then I am still paying the global transfer transaction fees and doxxing myself. In this case then rather than purchasing an artist’s NFT, just buy their record on Bandcamp (assuming they stop union-busting).
I get the frustration, things move slowly at the infrastructure level and investors are looking for the compounding 10x in 1.5 years story. But, you just gotta cook while remembering why you’re in the kitchen. And don’t worry if it’s taking some time.
As I mentioned in a previous article, infrastructure developments are the driving function of new metas, and we are at a slightly stale point right now. But it will change. In this example, wallet account abstraction will be here soon, and allowing users to use email rather than a wallet will look like a small horse dressed as a car. Integrated DEX developments will embed swaps inside apps to the level that the user doesn’t need to use a credit card while getting the same experience. Infrastructure-enabled UX improvements that don’t abstract away the point of the thing.
Funding and maintaining independence
It’s a sad fact that, in some ways, the only true route to intellectual freedom is through personal wealth. The “gentlemen scholars” of old. Not needing your developments to make money directly, or to take money from others that will expect a reasonable chance of a return, opens up a whole world of potential that is unfortunately only a dream for most of us.
This is an uneasy truth, in the arts, as much as it is in science, technology…even journalism. For every genuinely independent creator at the top of their game stands 10 “nepo babies” that either come from extreme means or have family connections that cover the need for it. They don’t need to make the same choices and sacrifices and end up having an outsized chance of success. Of course, there are exceptions, but they prove the rule. This, I’d argue, is itself a strong form of societal and cultural centralising force.
Survivor bias of course tells a different story. The American dream. But that’s bullshit, the system is designed against you. It’s a lie.
So, for the vast majority of us, we are going to have to make money or seek investment in some form to fuel our endeavours, and in doing so make some sacrifices. The point of this piece is to make the case for the importance of sticking true to your values while building, which will come under threat with needing to take money from others, who will have their own values and incentives.
Nothing cripples a fledgling team like the pressure from an investor towards immature growth, monetisation, or a token. And yet, this is their job, to invest in things that will outperform the market, usually by following the SV playbook (you gotta get that 10x in 1.5 yrs baby).
The easy answer is of course that you should make sure you find the right investors, those that offer “patient capital”, have “genuine conviction in the cause”, and are “value aligned”. The problem is that I’ve yet to see an investor who doesn’t promise this, and yet in reality it is extremely rare. Supportive investors are one of the hardest-to-find assets in the game.
I don’t really have an answer to this, and in fact, think that it’s probably the single greatest challenge facing innovation in our age (big statement I know). Plentiful supportive capital that you can rely on to enable sustainable innovation and respect your values is something of a pipe dream in the current world. Butterflies, rainbows, and unicorns. But it’s also a reason why I am so interested in the growth of “public goods” funding, as there, there is promise.
Anyway, back to the point. The only real advice I can give here is that if an investor challenges your values and pressures you to compromise them to fit their internal valuation metrics, then tell them to fuck off. Literally, just front up and say fuck you, because if you don’t then you’re already dead. Your independence and ability to stay true to your values through the challenges that come with building out an idea are ultimately the most important thing of all.
There will be many times when you build a startup that you will have to make choices. I argue that a core consideration in that decision-making should be the values that you formed your team around. If you break them or even perceive to break them, then it will do more damage than any opportunity that you could have seized would present.
This means, of course, that you need to know what the values are that you are formed around. You don’t need to throw around fluffy cubes, but get to know each other and where the driving forces are.
Don’t engage in theatre. It’s intellectually disingenuous and boring. Do understand your user base and build things that will enhance their experience. But don’t pull the abstraction lever unless you are confident that it isn’t making the whole thing redundant.
You’re gonna need to take money from people but don’t be scared to stay true to your values even if they pressure you otherwise. Ideally, you’ll find the few good investors that genuinely believe in the cause. But you probably won’t.