Down The Rabbit Hole With Erick Calderon
Erick Calderon AKA Snowfro is the Founder & CEO of Art Blocks and an artist known best known for Chromie Squiggles. We venture down the rabbit hole of Erick's nerdy history and optimistic worldview.
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Down The Rabbit Hole With Snowfro
The story of Erick Calderon is the story of opportunity meeting preparation.
Erick is a lifelong nerd with an entrepreneurial father who grew up in an era of rapidly changing technology.
As a kid, he was a curious tinkerer who had more friends on early internet message boards than he did at school.
As a college student, he sold snow cones and developed a taste for entrepreneurship.
After college, he followed in his father’s footsteps and launched a long shot tile company that was ahead of it’s time, and which still exists today.
In the mid-2010s, Erick began tinkering with blockchains and spending more time on Reddit. One day in 2017, while Erick was browsing the internet from his tile company showroom, he happened to see a post on the Ethereum subreddit announcing, “CryptoPunks: An experiment in digital collectibles on Ethereum.”
I’ll leave the rest of the story to Erick, who tells it better than I can in our interview.
As you read this interview, you will notice that Erick enjoys wandering down rabbit holes - though never in a boring way. Each time I asked him a question, he shared more than I expected. This is a reflection on how Erick’s mind works: He is endlessly curious, passionate, and focused. He is also generous with his time and energy. Our 90 minutes together flew by, and I learned a ton.
Because we went down so many rabbit holes, we only got to about 25% of the questions I had on my list. We didn’t even get a chance to talk about his art before we ran out of time. Luckily, Erick generously agreed to a Part 2 of this interview at some point - so we all have a lot to look forward to in the future.
During our time together, Erick and I discussed:
His tile business and interior design tips
His childhood and family
The story of the day he discovered and claimed CryptoPunks
How he built Art Blocks
Art Blocks’ ownership structure and his thoughts on selling the company vs. remaining independent
The Art Blocks curation board
His plans for the remaining 210 Chromie Squiggles
…and much more.
Please enjoy this conversation with Erick Calderon.
A Conversation with Erick Calderon - Part 1
Monty: I need your help. I am thinking about a kitchen remodel, and one thing I want to avoid is the ubiquitous white subway tile that is in every Airbnb. Can you help me figure out what to do?
Erick: Wow, it's been like two years since anyone asked me for tile advice.
My favorite thing to do, which was always antithetical to my own success in the tile business, was to tell people to bring the countertop up to the backsplash and make it monolithic.
Tile is actually a very fashionable thing. There are trends, very serious trends, and very overdone trends. HGTV has taken it to the absolute max.
During my time in the industry, I would help people pick tile, and then I would show up to their house 3 or 4 years later and be like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I helped you pick this.” They would still love it, but I would feel guilty because it knew it had turned into an overdone trend.
Obviously, I have way more exposure to tile than 99 percent of people in the world. So my mindset is very different. But I started getting terrified at the rate at which something felt outdated to me.
Because of this, I became the person at my company that became known for always recommending the boring option. When I say boring, I actually mean minimal and sophisticated.
The most minimal, sophisticated and highest longevity thing you can do with a tile backsplash is to bring the countertop and just turn it up so you have a solid countertop as a backsplash - just a continuation of the quartz or granite or marble. Then you have no grout, no maintenance, and it lasts longer.
It's more expensive up front, but long term I think that it's actually less expensive because you don’t have to deal with maintaining the grout or chipping tile.
People think about tiles for bathrooms, kitchen backsplashes, etc. Are there any other places in the home where you think tile is an underrated material?
I like having tile in a walk in closet.
The entryway is also a good place for tile. Even if you have hardwoods everywhere, having a tiled mudroom where you can literally bring in all the mud in the world and not really damage the walls it is nice. Even if it's a small space, I think it looks good as a transition.
The primary bathroom, too. Not just tiling the shower walls, but bringing the tile behind the sink or on some of the other walls I think makes it look a lot more high end and it also makes it feel cleaner in there, as opposed to having a bunch of sheetrock.
Tile aside, I have a sneaking suspicion you may have other interior design opinions. What are elements or patterns of great indoor spaces?
I am a very minimalistic person. I like super simple spaces.
I live in a mid-century modern house that was built in 1951 and then was updated later on. It's a little bit more embellished than anything else that I've ever lived in.
But overall I like to keep it minimal. The simpler, the better because it doesn't get outdated. Having gone through 20 years of selling tile, I’ve realized how quickly you can get turned off by something that you thought was really cool two years ago.
The bigger the tile, or the more simple the wood grain, the better it will age. Then you can mess around with things that you can replace more readily, like art. But you can't change the tile and you can't change hardwoods without it being really expensive.
As you began to dedicate yourself more to Art Blocks, how did you manage the leadership succession process at La Nova [the tile company]?
We had a gentleman that was in charge of a division at the company. He was into crypto and he started to realize what was happening with Art Blocks taking off, maybe even before I did. At one point he was like, “Erick, you may not even have time to come in anymore soon.”
At that point he hit me with his proposal to take over as CEO of the whole company. It couldn’t have come at a better time - I was starting to really pull my hair out trying to figure out how to juggle both organizations. He took over, and he has been running it since.
It's been about a year and a half since then. Now I go the showroom and work there once a week and meet with the team then, but my day-to-day involvement is quite low.
When you're not working in the showroom, are you working at home?
Last year, we moved into a house that has an office. In that office, I have a window.
Before that, I worked full time in the tile showroom, in a small back conference room which was around 200 square feet, with a tile display all around it. I just stuck a table in there, and the first two years of Art Blocks were operated entirely out of there. There was only one window, and it was very high up.
It got it to a point where I started suffering going in there everyday. I would go in and I'd lock myself in the conference room from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM. I would come out for a bathroom break or two and maybe to grab something out of the fridge to eat. But I usually didn't have lunch, because my meetings were all back-to-back. It was just so crazy.
On top of that, because of all these back-to-back meetings, I'd have like three minutes to go to the bathroom. Maybe this is oversharing, but sometimes I'd hear someone outside in the showroom that was a client of mine who I really cared for and would love to just catch up with. So I would catch up with them instead of going to the bathroom, and then I would have to literally hold it through the next meeting.
It got to this point where I wasn't even functional.
Now I just go on Tuesdays, and I try to spread my Tuesdays out a bit so I can interact with the team if they need anything.
But here at my home office I have a window that looks out at grass. I'm very close to touching it all the time. I also have food in my fridge. It’s a very different experience, and from a mental health perspective it’s not something I could ever take for granted now.
As somebody who drinks a lot of water and has a very small bladder I understand your bathroom pain.
I know you've told this story before, but many people haven't heard it…Take me back to 2017 and tell me about the day you discovered CryptoPunks and what happened next.
I was browsing Reddit, just like I normally did. I liked hanging out and asking questions in the EthDev subreddit. Even though there was definitely a community there, I was shocked at how little activity there was.
One day I stumbled across a link with the CryptoPunks announcement. At that point, I hadn’t synced to the blockchain in a while, so my first thought was like, “Oh, shit, I'm way behind on all of my Ethereum blocks.” People don't really have to deal with this anymore, because we have Metamask and all sorts of things, but the more you need a blockchain to sync within a short period of time, the slower it is going to go. This is just Murphy's law.
I remember watching the clock tick while I was syncing. Right when I logged in, there was still an Ape available to claim. I was like, “Okay, I need to hurry up!” but it was snagged like three hours later and it took me six hours to sync.
I stopped syncing at one point, and then I went home and I finished syncing there, thinking maybe the internet was a bit better. Once I was synced I immediately went and claimed every Zombie that I could find. I was watching them get picked off as I was going, and I'm surprised that more weren't picked off to be perfectly honest.
Back then you had to sync the full node within the wallet app. Today if anybody has dealt with using Etherscan for smart contract interaction, that's what it was like back then. But you had to implement the ABI [application binary interface] directly yourself. So you had to go to Larva Labs GitHub to get the ABI for the CryptoPunk smart contract, then paste it into the wallet app, which would then populate all of the functions. Then once that happened, you would be able to go in there, call the function, type in the number of the Punk you wanted to claim, click execute, and it would execute the transaction for claiming the punk.
I continued to claim them until I ran out of ETH, which was not very much ETH, but I claimed as many as I could, and my very last one was a punk that personally reminds me of my wife, although I am often told that I'm delusional.
During this I was all stressed out and my wife asked me what was going on and I was like I can't talk, I’ve got to figure this things out. At the end after I claimed all of those zombies, I came down and I told my wife about it. I remember her looking at me like, “You spent how much money?” At that time it was hundreds of dollars. But here we are today.
I feel like a lot of people in that situation might look at the Reddit post and they'd be like, “Oh, interesting. That's kind of cool.” And then they would just continue with their day. But something in you felt a sense of urgency to go in there and claim them immediately. On top of that you had this instinct to think, “Oh, and there's this one type of rare zombie and I want to collect all of those that I can!” So I'm trying to figure out, what is it about Erick that made you feel that compulsion?
For me, it's pretty straightforward: I just fell down the rabbit hole of blockchains. And way more interestingly, I fell down into the rabbit hole of smart contracts. And it just completely blew my mind.
I had been a tech hobbyist, and I've always dabbled in tech, but not at that level, and especially not financialized things - like that's definitely not something I’ve ever messed with. I'd never bought stock before. I'd never participated in investment rounds or anything like that.
But when I realized that you could program on a public computer that everybody had access to, my mind was blown.
As a lot of forensic people have discovered, I was playing turn-based blockchain games back then. DappRadar was around, and at that time they had three statuses for their apps - “Live”, “Beta”, and “Coming Soon” or something like that. There were 100 apps and I went through every single one because I thought it was so freakin’ cool.
It was all very exciting and very interesting and it was demonstrating the power of the technology.
January 2017 is when I first got into smart contracts. At that point I would tell my friends about this idea I had in my head of “Magic the Gathering, but on the blockchain.” I was willing to bet that there was something there in terms of being able to have a digital thing that is provably scarce.
The term “digital ownership” did not cross my mind. Zero credit is taken for having discovered that, but something was brewing in my mind related to all of that. And then when I read that CryptoPunks announcement, it clicked, and I was like, this is it. This is the thing that my mind was floating around. It all came together at that moment.
It was an epiphany moment for me. I was deep into the Ethereum rabbit hole during that time and throughout it all I was navigating blindly. And then during the moment I had that experience, the lights just turned on. It was powerful.
I never thought there would be financial value associated with these things. At that time I thought people were lunatics when they were sending me $200 offers for a Punk. But, obviously, they did come to have value.
How many of the Zombies do you still own?
Two. My main zombie and then a single trait zombie with a brown beard, which gets a lot of flack within the ecosystem, poor dude.
I would eventually consider parting with him. I've gotten to this point where having extras of everything, it just feels… well, when 98% of your net worth is in NFTs, you start to think about how you can live perfectly satisfactorily without extras and still feel very, very proud of your collection. I guess that bearded punk is probably the one Larva Labs NFT that I could see myself parting with.
Do you still have the one you bought that reminds you of your wife?
Yep. That's in a separate account I have. I guess I'm being contradictory here, but I have an account with 10 extra CryptoPunks that don't fit within my full set.
Let’s zoom out now. Take me back to your childhood. Where did you grow up? And what were you into as a kid?
I was born in Mexico City, but I moved to Houston when I was six. I grew up in Houston and I have spent most of my life in Houston.
As a kid, and I say this now as I watch my kid that's around a similar age, I was just an incredibly curious kid. I got into everything.
I remember my dad had old calculators and stuff, and he would give them to me, and I would take them apart and put them back together. But I wouldn't ever be able to put it back together as effectively as they were originally put together. Sometimes he didn't give me permission and I would take certain electronics apart and not be able to put them back together, which always got me in trouble.
My dad was really big into cameras and photography and mechanical things and digital things as well, so very early on I was interested in that kind of stuff.
I remember at a very young age, having a Tandy computer and playing Double Dragon. It was my first foray into computers and I got really excited about computers, and I got excited about pixel art, which is really all you could do back then.
I actually went on these BBSs, which was this weird thing where you had to dial phone numbers that you found in an esoteric corner of the newspaper. They would be full of message boards with all sorts of stuff. Some of it was very weird and for people way older than me. But one thing I came across was some really fun pixel art stuff. I remember downloading them and being like, “Holy crap, it's like a photograph!,” but it was definitely just pixels on the computer. Very early on, I was exposed to computers and I'm very grateful for that.
[Editor’s Note: BBS stands for Bulletin Board System. After my interview with Erick, I got curious about these, and went down a little internet rabbit hole (no dial up necessary). For a good primer, I recommend this first-hand account from The Atlantic, titled The Lost Civilization of Dial-Up Bulletin Board Systems].
During that time, I discovered Q basic, which is a programming software that was built into computers, and I was super curious about it. There were computer stores popping up in Houston at the time and one of them had a book on Q basic, so I got the book and brought it home. All I did was copy the examples of code from the book into the computer to make a game.
I'd spend hours just copying characters out of the book into the computer. Inevitably I would make a mistake and I'd find myself debugging code, but I had no idea how to code. I was eight or nine years old and that’s how I started tinkering with code. Since then I've always been really fascinated by code. I was always the nerd with the graphing calculator.
Then this thing happened when I was around 13. I really liked pagers, but I didn't have any friends. But I thought pagers were really neat and cool. So I got a pager, this Swatch circular pager that they don't make anymore, but I was super proud of it. Then I thought, “Well, I need to do something with this because no one's going to beep me.”
I wrote a software program on Visual Basic, which at this point I was running on Windows 95. The program would dial my beeper at school to tell me my next thing to do — as if I didn't know exactly what my schedule was going to be every single day in school, because it didn’t change.
Every morning, I would print out a little card that fit into the back of the beeper that would include numbers, along with different things I was supposed to do that would correspond to each number. Then the computer would auto dial my pager, and it would beep me and it would just put the number “1,” which meant I would have to look at my little card and see what corresponded with number one, and then I would do that thing.
I wrote that and I thought, “Man, this isn't very useful to me, but I feel like this would be super useful to other people”, because back then there was no scheduling software or anything like that.
I remember talking to my uncle about it, and he told me something about how you’ve got to be careful, because you could get sued for using the software by the big software companies. It freaked me out and I moved on and I stopped tinkering with code at that point for a little while.
If I could have asked 10-year-old Erick what he wants to be when he grows up, what would he have told me?
You could have asked six-year-old Erick and it would still be the same as 35-year-old Erick — to be a business person like my dad.
My dad was always this entrepreneur type who loved connecting the dots between something somebody makes and something somebody wants, and understanding why they want it and then putting the two together. My dad was a serial entrepreneur.
What are some of the businesses that your dad did?
Before I was born he was importing silk and paper flowers from Japan to Mexico City, which people used to embroider and put into dresses.
He got really big into the exercise business selling treadmills that were made in the USA to Spain and Mexico.
He also worked in the sporting goods business. He claims to be one of the first people to bring a skateboard into the country of Mexico. He had discovered it through one of the fitness people that he met in the United States and he actually carried one back to Mexico with him.
He got into the tile business, which is something he did entirely as a hobby.
He also ran a clothing shop in Mexico City and was purveyor of fine furs in the 70s and 80s.
I think he was a news reporter at one point.
He did all the things, but basically he was an import-export person. That's his entire thing. He imbued that into my brother and me and obviously when I got into the tile business that was very impactful.
He’s also a very fashionable man, and he taught us this idea that fashion and trends are not just about clothing - they show up across industries.
He sounds like a fascinating man.
He is. He kind of looks like the Dos Equis guy too, so he fits that most fascinating guy in the world thing.
Did you go to college?
I went to the University of Texas in Austin and studied international business, because that’s what I was going to do – I was going to be a businessman like my dad.
I really enjoyed college, probably more than I should have. I was pretty sheltered in high school. I was a very quiet, shy dude and I did not have very many friends. So when I was unleashed into Austin, Texas in 1999 it was a complete upside down change.
Then after college did you get a real job? Or did you go straight into founding your tile business?
I actually started a couple of businesses in college. I started a digital printing company, because I had a digital camera. But the business didn't make sense because at the time nobody else had a digital camera, so it didn't really go anywhere.
Then I started a snow cone stand called SnowFro, and that was when I realized that I really enjoyed being an entrepreneur.
When I got out of college, I was offered a job as a management trainee at Buckle, which was a fashion store at the mall. I thought, “I did not just go to four years of International Business School to get this job.” Maybe I was being arrogant, I don't know.
Instead I moved back into my parents house, and I said, “Hey, Dad, let's do something.” At this point he was winding down his businesses. He told me, “Look, we've got all this extra closeout tile here. You can get rid of it, because we’re exiting the tile business.” I took the opportunity to sell all of his remaining tile, and during that time I got to know tile very well.
After that, my dad asked what I wanted to do next, and I told him I wanted to start a tile business. He thought I was crazy, because he was shutting down the tile business and now I wanted to start a new one.
I think there's something curiously similar between the innovation of NFTs and some of the innovations that we're happening in the tile world back then. At that time I was telling my dad and others, “There is this kind of tile that doesn't really exist yet and people think it's stupid, but people are really going to care about this type of tile in the future.”I was talking about porcelain tile. Back then everything was ceramic or marble, and porcelain was more expensive and very uncommon.
The common thinking was, “Why would I pay for a man made thing if I can get the natural stuff cheaper?” But I saw that porcelain was more durable and better made, and there wasn't a lot of porcelain tile out there.
When I decided to start a tile business, it was because I saw this new technology that I felt was going to dominate the tile world eventually, and so I decided that's what I was going to dedicate my time to. We started a business focused entirely on porcelain tile, which was different than 99% of other companies who were focused on ceramic or marble tile.
It was a grind for about five or six years, and then we went into the 2008 housing crisis, during which point we were maybe one invoice from closing the entire business down. Today, I would guess that a vast majority of the tile sold is porcelain tile, especially commercially.
I feel like I get lucky a lot in life.
I used to hate tile growing up. All I'd hear about would be my dad complaining about dropping a tile on his foot and having to go get surgery or lifting too many boxes and hurting his back. Then all of a sudden at the age of 22 I discovered this type of tile that I didn't hate. Then I felt like, “Wait…I like this. And if I like this, I think other people would like this.” Sure enough it has become the standard for the commercial, and oftentimes residential, tile world.
While you were running the tile business, you launched Art Blocks. It appears from afar that there were lots of fits and starts to the Art Blocks launch. You officially launched the company multiple years before it became what it is today. You experimented with a number of things including printing and other more esoteric approaches. Then in 2019 you kind of stopped Tweeting, and Art Blocks seems to have been floundering. Take me back to that time - what was happening? What were you thinking, feeling, and doing?
In 2018 I had my second child, which shook up everything pretty significantly.
I was building this concept of Art Blocks from the day I claimed my CryptoPunks in 2017 through roughly the time that my second child was born in 2018. I got to the point where I found myself incredibly frustrated that I wasn't able to communicate what I wanted to do with Art Blocks effectively.
The concept for Art Blocks was there but there was no front end. In my life I often feel like a nutty professor, waving my hands and telling people, “This is going to be great and big and this is going to change things!” That’s how I felt back then.
Between 2018 and 2020 I was figuring out that the Venn diagram of generative artists and people who understood blockchains was a very, very tiny overlap. Within that overlap, because there was no front end at the time, I had to get someone to understand that they needed to deploy their own smart contract, create this thing called an art node, manage it, and create an endpoint for it.
Then there was this entirely other concept, which is this idea of listening to the blockchain for entropy for new pieces of art to be born.
That whole thing was just such a stretch! I look back and I'm like how did I think that people would even be even remotely interested in participating in that? But there were some people that responded and tinkered with it.
That was 2018. By then we had version one of Art Blocks, and then my kid was born. I continued tinkering, and then in 2019 I “discovered” NFTs.
Of course I had already technically discovered NFTs as a Punk collector, even though they weren't really called NFTs back then, and I also got deep into CryptoKitties around that time. I owned NFT's, but I didn't really discover NFTs until later. I was just building and thinking about Art Blocks and trying to figure stuff out.
During that time, early Art Blocks didn't really even have an NFT component. The NFT component was this weird interface token thing we had, and the art part of it wasn't even an NFT.
I am going around and pitching Art Blocks to everyone I know, and to be clear there were only about 100 people in the ecosystem at the time. But I was in the CryptoPunks Discord every single day and I eventually realized that the crazy ideas of Art Blocks were impossible to understand and also way ahead of their time in terms of what was functional and available back then.
As a business owner and an innovator, I get really excited about new technology and I completely isolate myself from the outside world and I just focus on technology. I don't think about how people will use it, I just think about how it affects my work. So as a generative artist and creative coder, I just thought about how it would help me release my work. It was very internal, and I had zero sensitivity to what was happening around me. So I hit a wall in 2018 and early 2019, where I was like, “okay, yeah, Art Blocks isn't going anywhere. I can't communicate my vision. Nobody really wants to use this.”
Once I realized that, I turned into a different person. Instead of pitching my idea, I just shot the shit with people in the space and got to know everybody for about a year and a half. I sat in the CryptoPunks discord and greeted new people and explained to them how to create a wallet and why these pixelated characters were worth $100, which is what they were worth at the time.
I just went into the ecosystem and started meaningfully participating. I ended up in a hundred different Discords in 2019. So when I “fell off the face of the planet” on Twitter, it's because I had just migrated my entire self to Discord and was completely immersed there.
So at this time, you are spending all of your time in Discord just socializing and movement building?
2019 was interesting because during that time, I got to meet other humans, which I wasn’t doing in 2018. I went to NFT NYC in 2019 and realized that the people on the other side were actually bodies, real human beings. This strengthened those relationships, and to this day, I still talk to a bunch of those people.
Meeting people in real life also gave me a renewed, crazy confidence in the ecosystem. I was walking around with an early Chromie Squiggle card, and I handed them to different people and was trying to tell them the story, and they were looking at me with their eyes crossed.
At that point I was pitching the concept of an on-demand, generative minting thing. During NFT NYC in 2019 I met Matt and John [the founders of Larva Labs], and I realized they are human too. I went on this crazy shopping spree where I spent the rest of my life savings on Autoglyphs and CryptoPunks.
After NFT NYC I came back and decided to buy every single type of CryptoPunk that existed. That's when I started my collecting, and around that time Matt and John mentioned that I should stay tuned to the CryptoPunks Discord because something's coming… some sort of ASCII art.
Then two months later, they stealth announced Autoglyphs, and I minted a bunch. A few weeks after mint, everyone started dumping all their Autoglyphs, so I came back, told them, “I'll buy all your Autoglyphs”, and I put my life savings into it basically.
That got me reinvigorated. Because then people started coming into the space and were telling me my collection was cool. They seemed to appreciate that level of collecting and the amount of thought and love that went into putting these things together.
In the meantime, dozens of new NFT projects were sprouting up left and right and really fun things were being done by some of the OGs like natealex and Jimmy. More people were getting involved — Top Shot came around in 2020 and they generated a quarter million wallets in six months and got all sorts of new people involved in the space.
It was just a weird time. It was the busiest time for me. I was on Discord for like 11 hours a day. But I mostly spent time on Discord with no purpose, because I was just shooting the shit with a bunch of nerds.
Do you still have your Autoglyphs?
I do. I have pared that down to a full set from one to ten.
I'm really excited to be exhibiting those pieces in my house in June, for a really interesting Collector Circle event that's happening with the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston.
We're gathering a bunch of the other people from the museum’s Collector Circle group. 40 or 50 people will come over to my house and be presented with what I hope to be the weirdest art collection they've ever seen in their entire life.
That will include all the Autoglyphs and all the Punks and all Meebits and all the Art Blocks stuff.
You mentioned that having a second kid was crazy. I'm having my second kid in a few months. What advice do you have for me?
I feel like I should just have a canned response that demonstrates empathy because it is a shit show, but also that it's the most beautiful thing in the entire world.
I have the honor of living with two velociraptors who are both boys and they're both very young. Sometimes it makes it very hard to do what I do. Most of the time it's really hard to leave.
Often they just help bring me back a little bit down to reality.
Also, they do like Squiggles a lot.
That first year after your second child was born, you're on Discord a bunch going down this rabbit hole. Was there any tension in your relationship with your wife? Her feeling like she was doing all this childcare while you’re spending your time talking to strangers on Discord?
There was some tension… but I think I balanced it pretty decently.
I would definitely put my phone away to hang out with the kids. But this was also happening in 2019, which is when I realized that there was potential for there to be significant value in the Punks and the Glyphs that I had.
During that time, we had just moved into a new house and things had gotten a little bit more expensive and these things started gaining value. I realized that I was sitting on something that was not just this fun toy and I felt this need to be a deep participant and not just sit on the sidelines.
As money gets involved, people get hurt, and I felt like there was an opportunity for me to shape the ecosystem a little bit. It felt like my calling to be in Discord every day to talk to new people and diffuse weird situations. I was like an official mod in the CryptoPunks Discord with three or four other people.
I remember when things started heating up. I would find myself sitting at the kitchen table with my phone out instead of in my pocket. I did find it creeping into everyday life. But it came with this enthusiasm and this understanding that what I thought was going to take 10 years to materialize in terms of adoption was happening that year and it was coming very fast. Like I would watch the number of people in the CryptoPunks Discord grow by 100 people a day after being 100 people for three years. You could feel an earthquake coming and it felt like I needed to be there.
My wife is very patient with me. She's always been very supportive. You know, lots of eye rolls too. Because that would be weird if she just thought everything I said was cool.
At that point she also realized that not only was this going to be my next rabbit hole – like a deep, deep rabbit hole – but also she got excited about the fact that there were other people that I could talk to about it.
At that time, I felt pretty trapped in not really having a lot of people to talk to about it all. I had my brother to talk to and then a couple internet friends. She recognized that as well, and she was very graceful with me.
Let’s talk a little more about Art Blocks. I'm curious about the curation board. How does the curation board work? Can you dive into the details?
The process today is very different than the process when I started Art Blocks.
Initially, I think I created a curation board because I was too chicken to tell an artist sorry, this work can't be on Art Blocks.
Art Blocks started as an open platform. It was for everybody. It was a place for anyone that wanted to release a thing to be able to do so without any kind of constraints.
But it started being too much to where the infrastructure couldn't handle it, and I couldn't handle it. All of a sudden, we were seeing really great art on the platform and it felt really unreasonable for me not to prioritize the really amazing stuff versus the people that realized that you can make a quick buck if you releasing something on Art Blocks.
A few weeks after launching, I literally texted and called a bunch of friends to establish the first curation board. To be honest, a lot of them were my Punk friends. But all of a sudden, it evolved into a pretty important group of people that were making, in my opinion, pretty important decisions about the future of generative art and of Art Blocks.
The company grew and legally, things evolved. All of a sudden there was an accusation that somebody on the curation board had purchased an artwork by a curated artist before the artist was announced to be curated.
As Art Blocks grew and as the ecosystem grew, we started to onboard more professional people to our team. At that point our art team was formed. That art team was able to bring their real life art background and experience to the table so they could actually formalize the charter of the curation board.
At that point, we required that everybody on the curation board had to dox themselves and they had to follow certain rules to be there. We diversified the board, because as you can imagine, since it was a lot of my CryptoPunk friends initially, it was a lot of dudes. We went through a process of identifying how we get a diverse group of voices on this board to make sure that the things that we're picking are the best things for generative art and for Art Blocks.
Today the board is around 20 people. They have to vote every so often, and if they don't, they get removed automatically. They get a stipend for participating on the board. There are bylaws of what you can and cannot do as a member of the curatorial board.
As a result of that level of formality, we've been able to put together a really beautiful group of people that come from all over. We still have some of those early Art Blocks collectors or CryptoPunk people in there. But now we also have curators of museums, and executive directors of art institutions, artists, and a well rounded spectrum.
Another issue you've been outspoken on is artist royalties. As part of your efforts to help promote a culture of royalties Art Blocks recently launched the its own marketplace so that people can buy and sell directly on Art Blocks rather than going through another marketplace, which more likely than not does not honor royalties. I'm curious how that's been doing since you launched it?
I think volume can be significantly better, but people get caught in routine, so it will take time, and it might not happen until there is another cycle that brings in new participants who can form new habits.
I've had access to all of the Art Blocks marketplace features for a really long time and it took me a lot of work and habit building to consistently use the marketplace. This is from someone who has the biggest vested interest, both as a creator and as a platform. It just takes time.
Platforms can and should lay the groundwork and the infrastructure, but I feel very strongly that the success of the paradigm of creator royalties relies on creators. I think it’s really important for creators to be responsible for building a culture of royalty support within their collections and among their collector base. If enough of that happens, then I really think that that culture will come back.
It starts with the creator having somewhere to send someone to be able to participate in royalties if they want to buy an artwork. But beyond that, it’s about building a culture.
Look at it this way. Imagine if I did a drop of 100 NFTs that were compelling, and I said that if you have participated in the past in the secondary market for my artwork in a way that is supportive of myself and the platform then you can have an allowlist spot to buy this new work for 0.25 ETH. If you didn't, you’re going to get a Dutch auction that settles at 3 ETH.
In this example, the person that has supported royalties literally has at least 2.75 ETH of demonstrable value for having participated in that ecosystem in a positive way that contributes to the artists. That's probably more than the amount of money they've paid in royalties by having sold a Squiggle.
When royalties are being paid by everybody in the ecosystem, the creator gets to not gate that content, and just gets to share it with everybody. But that work costs time and money and effort. Nurturing a community takes a significant amount of time and bandwidth.
If an artist can demonstrate that there's value there, whether it's by rewarding people that are paying royalties or something else, then I think that's where we start getting closer to having the cultural norm of royalties become so valuable.
I remember, two years ago, I was essentially saying, “Buy art for the sake of art itself and don't buy Art Blocks unless you want to hang it on your wall.” People were like, “Shut the fuck up, you know this is just for flipping and speculating.”
Look, I understand the value of the speculation and flipping. I had just gotten out of Top Shot, and I understood exactly what that meant. But I created Art Blocks to be art for the sake of art itself. You can do what you want with it, but this is why I created this thing and you can't change my narrative of why I created this thing. I have authenticity built on years of building and working towards this thing.
All of that led to me being able to look at you straight in the eye and say, “If you want to buy this, make sure you want to hang this on your wall, otherwise, there's a chance that it's going to go down in value, and you shouldn't buy this if you're buying it purely for speculative reasons.”
I got crucified for it, and I got yelled at for it. People thought we were delusional.
Today, everything is down. Art Blocks are worth a lot less than they were a couple years ago. But Art Blocks and real artwork have taken significantly less of a hit than a lot of the other things in our ecosystem, whether it's PFPs, etc.
Today, the meta that seems to be resonating with the biggest group of people is, “Buy art for the sake of art itself.” Art first. Capital A Art.
In the same way that I felt that even with all this speculation in NFTs, it was still worthwhile to pursue art for the sake of art itself, today, I feel just as strongly that the concept of royalties as a cultural mechanism is in the best interest of this ecosystem. I'm very bullish on the idea that artists will demonstrate that there is value not just for the artists, but also for the collectors and the overall NFT community by participating in this cultural construct of creator royalties.
I feel confident that that's going to happen, but it's going to take a while. For me to be able to execute an effective demonstration of that will take some time. For a lot of the other creators in this space, it'll take them some serious time to really grind out what it really means to support your collectors, and the people that are supporting the ecosystem.
This is such a rich topic, and there are so many more questions I would ask if we had more time.
We could do two hours just on this.
I want to talk about the Art Blocks ownership structure. I believe the company has raised money from investors, is that right?
Yeah, we've done two rounds of funding to investors. We did a round in April of 2021. Then we did a second round in July of 2022.
How much of the company do you own at this point?
I still own the majority.
I'm curious about the long term vision for Art Blocks. When you raise money from investors, those investors are expecting liquidity or an ROI at some point in the future. Not always, but typically that comes in the form of some sort of liquidity event.
If there is a liquidity event, it can potentially change the ownership structure and compromise the independence of the company, which can result in a shift in mission or purpose. I'm curious if you've been thinking about that, or if you have any responses of what your long term vision is there.
Wow, I've never been asked that.
I've talked about this internally with my team a lot.
There’s some sensitivities here, but there's a couple of things to note:
Number one, when we did these rounds of fundraising, I'd tell the investors that I was never going to sell Art Blocks.
Initially, I didn't want to raise money. Then Art Blocks started growing and I wanted to hire people. There was enough money coming in to hire those people, but those people were leaving careers and jobs and I know crypto well enough to know that in any moment, that money could stop coming in. These people were leaving careers to come over and it just made me feel very uncomfortable, so I raised money.
People told me that I should stay away from VCs and to be careful because they are going to want a token or this or that. I told investors that this is what we are doing, and if you want to be a part of it then these are the rules — I'm not doing a token and I have zero interest in selling this business anytime soon – like anytime soon.
I understand that funds do have terms and they have to turn stuff over. But I made it very clear to people that that's not something I was thinking about.
I'm 42 years old now, and I never thought that I would be doing my hobby as my job. I have absolutely zero intent or desire to stop.
But I remember having a conversation with one of my team members, and he was like, “You know, that's very noble, but also consider that it's not just your investors that would be interested in a liquidity event… early Art Blocks employees would probably be very grateful for an opportunity to be rewarded for their confidence in, and commitment to your crazy fucking ideas this early on in the process.”
I realized that it's not just the investors who would benefit from an exit – it's the employees, the team, the stakeholders. We have so many stakeholders at Art Blocks. We have artists, we have collectors, we have employees, and we have the VCs - and I'm very grateful to be working with some of the most supportive VCs in the world. I always like to call out Collab+Currency. Derek has a weekly call with me. Not only is he one of our lead investors, he is one of the smartest people I know. By far the most full macro understanding of this entire ecosystem is in that man's head.
I started to think that this conviction I had to never sell this business because I really want to take care of this vision might not be something that these really amazing humans that decided to come work with me wanted to hear.
To be clear, I've never done a startup before. I've never raised money before. I'm learning as I go.
I remember, one of my teammates told me, “I can't believe you're a solo founder.” I replied, “What are you talking about?” His reflection back was that it’s just a lot. It's just a lot of decisions. You're running the business, but then you're also having to make these freaking investment decisions and hiring decisions and whatever. I remember getting pretty emotional thinking about that… like, holy crap. Yeah. This has been a crazy ride. I learned what options were, I learned all of these things and I've learned as I've gone. I’m learning as I go to this day. I realized that a lot of the early things that I said might have not have been exciting for someone that had just quit their job to come work at Art Blocks.
I have no idea what the future holds. I also think this is a really weird time to be talking about any kind of liquidity event. I have spent years of my life on this, and from where I am standing right now, I cannot imagine wanting to do anything else in my life.
So gosh, I don't want to be pressured and I don't want to be talking about this for a really long time. Look, if in 8 or 10 years Art Blocks is a massively successful company and we are taking down the veil of crypto and we’re not just a crypto company, but a company in the world of companies competing with companies in the traditional space, then I don't know… maybe an IPO would make sense.
I have no idea what the future holds but I do know that we are focused on building the shit out of this thing and making this thing the best thing that it can possibly be.
I'm working with some really wonderful human beings and all of those people are really passionate about generative art and blockchain technology and digital asset ownership and the value proposition that the future brings for all of this. If I was not working with such a great team, I think this would be a much harder question. But I think we're all pretty aligned right now that we just need to put our heads down and build and make this thing the coolest thing that we can think of.
It sounds like you're being thoughtful about it and that you will continue to be thoughtful about it.
Like you said, you're building a business and trying to do all this stuff, and so you can't think too much about the future. But at the same time you have to think about what is Art Blocks’ mission, and what is its role in the world? And when is taking on money potentially at odds with that?
I remember people would send me emails, and their email signature would say “two exits”, or “three exits”, and I was like, how do you even hire someone when that's in their email signature, right?
I'm not saying it's bad. Again, maybe the people that get hired are on this boat, because they are excited for the exit because it’s everybody's payday. But there is a very inherent misalignment of using the word “exit” in an email and doing things that you're excited about and passionate about and hiring people that are just as excited and passionate about what you're doing and using the word “exit” in your email.
I'm learning and navigating as I go. I am learning to be open to all of the personas in this space, because they all have a place.
We’ve all gone through this whole process of being frustrated with the flippers and speculators and then realizing how critical their role is in all of this, just like the artists and the collectors and the stakeholders.
There’s just a lot man. There's a lot going through my mind at any given moment. And it feels like it’s just getting heavier and heavier every week. But I guess that's what we’re here to do, to figure this all out and navigate and write the playbook as we go.
Since we’re running low on time, I am going to skip my next few sections on art and money and personal life, and we can save those for Part 2 sometime.
I will end with one final question: The 9999th and final squiggle will be minted for LACMA later this year. First of all, congratulations. Between now and then what are your plans for the remaining Chromie Squiggles?
Ooh, that's a hot topic these days.
I have committed to putting 100 squiggles away for my children that they can't touch until they're 25. That serves multiple purposes. One of them is demonstrating commitment to this project and the weirdness of crypto. But also I think it's going to be a really interesting to watch over the coming years what happens not just with the value of squiggles, but with public perception of them. If it continues to grow, then there will be 100 Squiggles that are guaranteed never to touch the market, at least for the foreseeable future.
Then I have some really exciting charity things that I'm doing in the next few months. I have reserved the majority of those last Squiggles as gifts and charity. I am also having conversations with some institutions to accept Squiggles. Then I am giving some away for contests and stuff.
It is the weirdest burden to have. Like I need them to be gone for so many different reasons - everything from security to figuring out what to do with them. But it will also be sad when they’re gone too… bittersweet.
This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity.
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