There are huge differences between running a company or business and running a free and open source software project. This story is about what it’s like to straddle the line and lead both simultaneously. Separation of these roles is not easy and doing the right thing isn’t always clear, but your dedication says a lot about who you are.
I’ve been the project lead for OpenBazaar since I forked the DarkMarket proof of concept in April of 2014. I spent more than a year hustling on this side project along with my fellow contributors. We received donations for our hard work, which mostly have sat in our multisig wallet with the exception of a few important expenditures and volunteers received no payment whatsoever for their work. It was a labor of love. By the time 2014 was ending several of the main people working on OpenBazaar realized we were spending an untenable amount of time supporting the community, without being paid, on top of secondary obligations like paying jobs and family. So we were left with the depressing decision to either scrape together some kind of money to pay ourselves to work full-time on it or potentially step back and not burn out.
In 2014 projects like ours weren’t really raising realistic amounts of money to support the development needed and sure as hell weren’t raising $100MM on whitepapers alone. DarkWallet, a really hyped project, only raised $52k in donations. As Amir put it, “this should be enough for sausages”.
The team joked that we liked OpenBazaar, but not enough to force our families to eat nothing but Vienna sausages while we worked on it.
We had one other possible option on the table and that was to raise venture capital funding. I had no idea if this was even possible considering the most publicity we’d gotten thus far was an article in Wired about being the next Silk Road. Hardly an economic venture VCs would want to give millions of dollars to. So I took the advice I’d so often heard but never heeded, which was “when you need advice, ask for money. when you need money, ask for advice.”. I emailed Joel Monegro at Union Square Ventures and asked for help.
Joel and the team at Union Square Ventures were/are awesome and he quickly set up a meeting for us to chat about OpenBazaar and what we were working on. This along with help from William Mougayar and Chris Dixon at a16z eventually led to us being funded to start our own company called OB1. We would go on to raise $1 million to support building a business on top of OpenBazaar. Unfortunately this was only the beginning of the journey and while it has opened innumerable doors it has also created a complex situation filled with more questions than answers.
“What will OB1 do to make money?” I’ve heard that question so many times from so many different people I hear it in my sleep sometimes. “You’re building a business…on a free and open marketplace protocol? How’s that going to work?” I didn’t know then and as far as I know I still don’t have the Ferrari or the house in Hawai’i to prove I’ve figured it out.
We have a ton of really interesting monetization ideas to pursue, but our highest priority to this day still remains on designing and building OpenBazaarand there’s no fuzziness around that mission.
OB1 has a mobile app coming out soon and some other cool things in the pipeline that we hope makes a profit, but finding market fit and building an open protocol are some pretty demanding pre-requisites.
You were the worst possible choice to run the project
At one point I was leading a project that the Bitcoin community thought would be the killer app that brought us to the mainstream. We literally swept the 2016 Blockchain Awards while sitting next to Purse’s Andrew Lee, who didn’t win but whose business actually makes money. I like Andrew and his team a lot and they should have won something that year.
We were on top of the world.
But things don’t stay gold and as we’ve watched Bitcoin morph from a digital cash and store of value to primarily a store of value with the hopes of someday supporting mainstream scaling in the distant future, some have soured on the need for a Bitcoin marketplace. Some just don’t like me.
As others have pointed out we’ve spent millions of dollars on the development of the software and we’re only just now on the cusp of delivering a marketplace that is working like we always wanted it to. I’m constantly reminded of how much of a turd it is. The focus on fecal material is a little odd, but a good reminder that we are ultimately accountable to our users and they will tell us when we suck and when we’re great.
We’ve had a laundry list of disappointing things occur during our existence:
- One of our potential founders bailed practically in the middle of our pitch to investors (I highly respect the move now so no bad feelings here)
- We had to scrap almost all code from DarkMarket after fighting ZeroMQ and other issues for over a year and rewrite the platform and drop Tor support
- We had to scrap almost all of our p2p code and switch languages from Python to Go for OpenBazaar 2.0 due to instability
- Users had and still have trouble figuring out how to install the damn thing
- For weeks/months dealt with an onslaught of shit talking from Bitcoin Uncensored and their fans about how stupid of a project we were
- We have gotten hundreds of thousands of downloads but still a rather small marketplace in terms of usage
- Fees in Bitcoin have increased dramatically impacting low cost usage of OpenBazaar
- Accused of being part of a cartel to destroy Bitcoin even though it’s the only currency your whole business accepts
- As we’re on the verge of launching our new software one of our own investors thinks it’s dumb to spend Bitcoin (http://avc.com/2017/08/store-of-value-vs-payment-system/)
The list goes on and on and on. In fact now with OB1’s recent position on segwit2x scaling the intensity from those who want to see us fail has gotten worse. Having opinions and controversial positions about anything related to Bitcoin is a recipe for having a satellite dish sized hole ripped in your butt.
These are just some of the types of challenges you face being both a builder and business leader and it gets harder as time moves forward. If you’re a first-time founder like I am there is no great roadmap for success. I’ve read so many books, listened to podcasts, I’ve meditated, eaten Soylent, tried nootropics and more and I don’t know if that has helped at all, but probably not.
Why I’m Still Optimistic
*Four words. I don’t give a fuck. Or to be more clear I don’t give a fuck about noise. Most of the shit above is just noise. I remain singularly focused on completing the task at hand and try not to get distracted by all of that.
I admit to taking some time to make videos and argue on Twitter. Sue me, I’m not perfect.
It’s not my investors fault if my business doesn’t succeed. It’s not the trolls fault I can’t put out a piece of software that’s easy to install and simple to use. It’s not my mom’s fault we missed a deadline. So instead I do my best to give our team every chance to succeed and what I’ve gotten from that makes me more optimistic than ever that we’re going to accomplish something great.
We are just a few short weeks out from launching OpenBazaar 2.0 and I’m stressed out of my mind for many reasons:
- Our team is getting overworked and overstressed with last minute fixes and details and I feel like this is my fault
- We have a big marketing push behind our launch as well as Crypto is Currency Day [go support now and come back, we’ll wait]
- Family and friends think we’re already crypto rich and don’t understand what it takes to actually build something rather than collect tokens
- Our investors are probably pondering what the fuck is taking us so long
- The Bitcoin community has low expectations
When we re-launch later this month that’s not the end of the road. Our hard work continues on to promote the benefits of a truly free marketplace that anyone can use to spend and earn Bitcoin anywhere in the world. There are so many great reasons to get excited about OpenBazaar in 2017 and beyond.
What keeps me motivated is knowing that I meant it when I promised in 2014 to take what inspired people worldwide and follow it through to completion. It’s not about beating Amazon or being a better Shopify. It’s about inspiring others into helping us create a free and fair marketplace period.
What’s in the future?
Never say never. We always knew that as long as Bitcoin remained a competitively priced token for online trade that OpenBazaar would remain viable and focused on simply Bitcoin. Bitcoin is the most stable, well developed, highest valued crypto currency in the world, but fees have gone up since we started from nearly nothing up to significant for a marketplace like ours. *As a caveat here, we use multisig transactions, which are more expensive, we implemented segwit and we’re still seeing not great fee prices.
Many people tell us we can go fuck ourselves claiming that Bitcoin isn’t made for this type of use case. I’m still hopeful that Bitcoin will stay competitive in fees after segwit and perhaps even more so after any layer 2 technology gets rolled out, but I’m not waiting. Over the next 6–12 months we will double down on supporting other currencies in addition to Bitcoin. I’m making it a huge priority. We are going to help those who actually want to have OpenBazaar in their ecosystem to be able to use the software we’ve built not just the assholes who don’t want us here.
I am a Bitcoin holder and believer and I’m willing to accept that the purpose of Bitcoin is changing or has changed, but I’m unwilling to give up the belief in a free marketplace and the ability for crypto currencies to enable that. This is not about Bitcoin, it’s about people taking back control of trade. Call me a corporate shill, but my intentions have always been clear.
You can come with us and try to change things for the better or you can sit behind your social media account complaining. I’ve already made up my mind.