Musings on the future of work and threat to the way we build startups today
I met Matt in 2012 when he was working on his first startup, Coderwall. Our interaction was brief but memorable. A year later he subscribed to a newsletter Nathan Bashaw and I published weekly. I noticed and reached out.
I had just transitioned to part-time at another startup, exploring new opportunities.
On August 14, 2013 Matt and I met at Epicenter Cafe (before my Philz obsession). We sat at one of the tables in the back and started talking about his new startup, Assembly, a platform to empower developers around the world to self-assemble and build products together. But unlike traditional open source communities, Assembly introduced a token system — called App Coins — to reward people for their contributions, enabling people to earn a stake in the product’s success. As he described his vision, I couldn’t help but think of all the many ways this might not work… and how epic it would be if it did.
After overcoming legal hurdles and raising a seed round, Matt and team launched Assembly and its community got to work. They built a support tool called Helpful, an art discovery platform called Artfactum, and even a Product Hunt for games called Gamamia. It was awesome to see.
But unfortunately, Assembly came to an end and the USV-backed company shut down in late 2015.
Today we’re seeing a new wave of people that share Assembly’s mission in various forms, building platforms to enable decentralized startups.
In early 2014 Product Hunt started getting traction. The opportunity became clear but I needed help to get there. I didn’t have money to pay anyone a living wage as I was dipping into my own savings to afford to live in San Francisco, so I considered various options:
While option #3 was compelling and aligned with our “build in public” values, there were too many concerns and risks. Should contributors get equity in the company? If so, how? How would I manage a distributed group of volunteers? How would we avoid group think and make wise decisions?
Furthermore, as a first time founder I didn’t feel equipped to pursue this unusual path. Silicon Valley pulls one to pursue VC funding, a path that’s well traveled and structured. There’s a playbook for #2.
We ultimately raised venture capital and went through Y Combinator (Matt, a YC alumni, helped me prepare for the interview). Even in hindsight, I believe this was the right decision, but I remain curious how #3 might be done today.
I’m reminded of Assembly’s bold efforts in light of recent advancements and interest in cryptocurrencies and the blockchain. It’s clear they were too early and perhaps tried to do too much at once. After all, decentralized startups face several unique challenges, including:
Despite these challenges, today we’re seeing a new wave of people that share Assembly’s mission in various forms, building the pieces that enable decentralized startups.
While early and unproven, decentralized startups may pose a serious threat to centralized startups. In a mature market, the former will be attractive to talented people, enabling contributors to choose which projects they want to work on without being tied to vesting schedules or exclusivity commitments and receive direct compensation (and potentially financial freedom) working on projects they truly care about.
The future of work may look wildly different and more global than what we see today.