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Perspectives from a new generation of crypto/Web3 builders - Interviews with college students focused on industry
Consensus Conference (Austin, TX) note: On April 27th (12pm-3pm CT) I’m excited to invite founders to a Crypto Regulatory keynote and Q&A. Programming includes a fireside chat with w/ Brent Webster, First Assistant Attorney General of Texas and a panel hosted by Matt Homer (Former NY DFS)
Over the past 2 weeks on The Axial Studio substack, I posted an interview series asking college students building in crypto/web3 about their perspective on the industry. This week on the Web3 Roundup, I’m posting both parts of the interview here. Treat as a focus group to get a better perspective of what makes crypto/Web3 interesting to these students, what they are worried about and what the future holds. Not all views are represented, but hearing from this generation has been insightful.
Meet the students
Ronith Yalamanchili (Georgia Tech, 2nd Year): Working on - Zalpha, a financial literacy app for Gen Z that was originally called Invest-ed, and DAO Governance & Research at 404 DAO / Blockchain @ GT
Josh Walton (University of Miami, 3rd Year): Working on - Souvenir, a Web 3 social network that empowers users to own their content and buy/sell content created by their favorite creators/communities. In addition to that we are aiming to revolutionize the way people connect on the internet.
Pruitt Martin (Georgia Tech, just graduated): Working on - 404 DAO, a non-profit in Atlanta focused on expanding web3 education and opportunities in the Southeast. We have 3 verticals: the Web3 ATL conference, the 404 Accelerator, and governance delegations in partnership with Blockchain at GT.
Manakin (University of Southern California, 4th Year): Working on - Technical writing at a layer-1 building in stealth!
Logan Norman (University of Southern California, 2nd Year): Working on - Holonym, a zero knowledge protocol that builds ZK-SNARKS for private identity on blockchains.
Bennett Thompson (Northeastern University, 3rd Year): Working on - Nifty Bridge enables premium memberships, digital twins, gated content, and event access. Our platform has helped brands like University of Michigan, Malbon Golf, and more launch digital first products from within their Shopify store.
Rutvik Rau (Columbia University, 3rd Year): Working on - Credicle, a Web3 wallet data analytics tool for FinTech companies. Fintech companies with a high percentage of crypto native users use Credicle for streamlined product experiences and services. We offer platforms user analysis for faster onboarding, user segmentation and risk analysis for lending.
Axial Studio: Why is crypto/web3 interesting to you?
The idea of ownership of your data was most interesting to me, its something that is increasingly becoming a problem with the internet. I see crypto as a tool we can use to solve that issue. Similarly, as I see all these banks fail - I see decentralized crypto applications as potential solutions.
The immutability of distributed ledgers is what attracts me to crypto. The idea that once you’ve put something on chain, you can’t mess with it. In my research it really struck me that for institutional use cases, the ability to have on chain credit, on chain capital markets seemed like a way to build more efficiencies and pathways for financial access.
There are 2 parts that really drove me to be interested in crypto:
The actual technology of blockchains and consensus algorithms were really cutting edge. I’m less interested in the trading aspect of it. I think that the real innovation is the actual technology underpinning crypto - maybe that is just my perspective as a computer science major
The different applications that it makes possible are diverse, from NFTs, gaming and financial assets is a big draw for me. An idea like being able to pay without your identity being known or being able to see the history of transactions on chain are powerful concepts that have so many potential applications.
The ability to build a borderless ecosystem and improve financial services is what drew me to crypto. I’m interested in how DeFi can change financial inclusivity. So much of the world’s population is unbanked and unrepresented. There’s an opportunity to reach those people through decentralized systems and support those growing markets. Web3 can take it a step further, where people can start organizing around a particular set of rules which are built and baked into code vs. social contracts with a government entity.
I originally got into crypto from the financial perspective, but as I learned more I became interested in the idea of ownership of your own data/assets - fighting back against the system of surveillance capitalism that has captured our society. The business models of Web2, the internet today, are completely driven by ad revenue and algorithms to maximize user attention and make money from ads. I see Web3 as an opportunity to build out a new type of business model for companies on the Internet. We can build something that breaks this circular system of monetizing users for their attention and capturing as much data as possible, maximizing revenue.
My interest in crypto came from a focus on remittances. I was in Europe traveling, seeing first hand how people in other countries prefer to use Bitcoin or other stablecoins to accept payments rather than their own. That was eye opening. Then, coming back home, I started to appreciate the ecosystem around Web3 and crypto and the collaborative nature of projects. Working on decentralized projects has been a more democratized way of working than going down the traditional career path. There are no boundaries, nobody saying you can’t do it, everyone is there to push forward to a common goal.
I have 3 primary reasons I got into crypto
I believe decentralized systems can provide means for competition. Whether for public goods, funding or allocation of capital.
Philosophically, I like the grandiose ideas of distributed, decentralized systems to provide high-fault tolerance, highly available systems.
Many of the most curious people I know have gone into crypto/Web3. I think it provides the ability for individuals to have an impact that many don’t have today. There are no guardrails, just a distributed cohort of people all working towards some grandiose vision.
Axial Studio: Many of you mentioned caring about things like data/asset ownership or access for the unbanked, why do you care about those things?
Our generation has had an enormous amount of information readily accessible to us, more than any previous generation. That access to information for our generation has shaped our viewpoints and opened our eyes to many of these issues which might be affecting people across the world.
I grew up in India for a long time. Recently, India had a really strong change introducing an identity system, similar to SSN in the US. It has been a remarkable success in terms of financial inclusivity and bringing more people who are unbanked to financial platforms. I see the same trends playing out in Web3 - the technology has a similar promise.
Similar to Rutvik said, a lot of it has to do with having open access to information via the internet. As we try to change things, it is so hard to do it from a top-down perspective. For me, it started from just theoretical interest but then my values developed after learning more.
In high school, I liked reading books like 1984, watching Black Mirror episodes or consuming other dystopian media - they were just interesting to me. But when some of the real world events started unfolding and those events didn’t seem so far off in the future, that was a little scary. I started seeing crypto as an industry that could fight against some of those authoritarian overreaches.
Axial Studio: There’s been a lot of turmoil in the crypto/Web3 industry the past year, what are your reactions to what’s going on?
These blow ups have had less to do with cryptocurrency and decentralized system, they have to do with the connection of centralized traditional finance systems. Its almost comical that there’s regulatory headwinds coming from the aftermath, its missing the point to me. It doesn’t worry me because the core technology/systems themselves have been robust and will persist either way.
Its been hard to watch/listen to on Twitter or the outside world, at this stage of my life I’m on the edge of dropping out to focus on this. Its hard having my parents breathing down my neck with different news articles of SVB going down or Bitcoin price crashing, asking if I’m still employed or how the startup is going. But I still see a lot of bigger, Fortune 100 companies, hiring for crypto roles and different blockchain divisions. Amazon is launching their layer 1 soon and other bigger companies continue their initiatives. So even though there’s a lot of negative news, there’s still a lot of energy in the industry and people staying here.
Its been encouraging to see how many people have stayed around. We’ve washed out a lot of grifters and survived what has been a tough year. The FTX blow up did a lot of damage to the industry and was a surprise to many. I don’t think anyone saw the level of corruption and gree that was going on and were ultimately blindsided by it. It was extremely frustrating to explain to my parents, friends and other students what was going on in detail. Its been a tough year, we’ve survived, but there’s a lot of work for us to make up for it.
I think for the industry to move forward we have to start talking about the valuable use cases. Finding a bridge between Web2 and Web3, and communicating how value can be created with the technology. We also have to find a regulatory middle ground that we can build on top of - or it will be difficult to build in the future. Overall, I feel pretty positive going forward.
I agree with what everyone has said. I feel like there’s a lot going on in the industry for a while, its been up and down. All of these situations (FTX, Celsius, etc.) have been distractions, I’ve primarily focused on the technology and how it will have an impact on the future. There’s still a lot of promising projects from bigger companies and smaller startups - there’s more accelerator programs, educational programs so the outlook is strong.
Its definitely been concerning. I’m just optimistic that there will eventually be a coming together of the industry. I believe regulators will hash something out that all stakeholders can live with. But at the same time, I’m worried that if we keep getting stalled/delayed that the US will lose leadership in this industry. The industry will be led by other countries/jurisdictions unless there can be more certainty on that front.
I think FTX is an interesting case, because the reason it failed goes against much of the philosophy of crypto. Having funds centrally managed and ultimately stolen is what crypto is supposed to prevent. I’m optimistic that there will be more products in the consumer front we’ll see in the future.
Axial Studio: Do you believe that the future of crypto/web3 is a fully insular world, separate to (and perhaps replacing) the traditional financial world? Or do you believe that both worlds will be connected?
I think in the short term it will be more integrated into the existing financial world. People, by nature, don’t want to take full responsibility and at the end of the day if you lose your keys you’re going to be fully responsible right now. There’s a benefit to existing financial systems, you can often get your funds back most of the time if something goes wrong. However, as issues start to pop up such as bank failures people might start realizing that they want to have control of their funds.
I think there definitely will be some kind of parallel structure. Eventually we’ll see some fully decentralized ecosystems, but that will take some time. Right now, you see some DAOs having to operate with some level of centralization as they get started, but you can see how they will gradually get more decentralized. On the other hand, you see large financial institutions also continuing on their crypto projects - like Fidelity or Amazon. It will definitely be more like Web2.5 for the foreseeable future.
I go back and forth on this question. Connecting to the traditional systems and doing things like tokenizing real world assets are interesting use cases. I see the value of onboarding actual assets and things in the physical world to bring tangible value. But I think it can be better to keep insular and keep building out these products with the message of inclusivity and building an alternative financial system that is open to anyone. Its going to be important to keep experimenting in different areas until we’ve fully figured things out as an industry.
I have opinions on both sides. Right now, I think its important we are insular. We are building up the ecosystem, testing use cases and figuring it out. In that phase of experimentation, being insular can help us figure out what works. Once we have those little cases studies that show working systems, then its going to be important to go out and connect with the existing financial world and slowly get them onboard.
I think that ultimately the answer to that question isn’t going to really matter. Its very difficult to predict the future, but what is great is that regardless of what use cases actually come along - there will be more long-term robust and resilient systems. That's the overall goal in my opinion.
I think we need to take a balanced approach between being insular vs. being dependent on pre-existing financial systems. There have been fully crypto projects like Terra Luna that have crumbed, party because of how insulated it was. And on the other end, you have something like USDC which is connected to existing financial banks - but that dependency became a weakness when those banks failed. So its a hard balance to strike.
I think that the development of the technology needs to be insular. Building the core blockchain tech, cryptography, security, etc. can be complicated and should be kept internal to the industry as its developed. But ultimately, with applications its really important to intertwine with not only the existing financial systems but the broader web and the day-to-day world. I envision a world more like a Web2.5, where things like identity or wallets are integrated into our daily lives.
Axial Studio: What do you see as the biggest challenges to the industry?
Education is going to be important, then ease of use. If you take my Dad as an example, hes not going to understand keys other than keys that unlock his doors. Making things one click, or something close to that is going to be important. There are recent innovations such as social logins for wallets that are promising to address the ease of use issue.
The bigger problem down the road is privacy. There is a tension between privacy and performance / efficiency. I would like to see fully private applications, but I think we’ll have to make some trade-offs in terms of atomic composability or generalizability of a smart contract platform.
I think the biggest issue is going to be security and scams. The everyday investor doesnt’ want to risk getting rugged on an NFT project or losing their crypto. I lose a lot of money in Terra Luna, that lead me to want to learn everything about the technology. But I don’t think you can get to mass adoption if everyone has to learn about the technology in depth to be secure.
I also think education and the UI of the technology is going to be some of the biggest challenges. The UI has to be a lot more simpler to interface with. A lot of information that is unnecessary has to be abstracted away from the user - so its easier to digest. I also believe regulation is going to play a big role. With the right regulation, it will drive the actions of the consumers. More enforcement is also going to help as the bad actors are taken out.
To build off of Rutvik’s point on regulation, I think that is the key battle right now. Just look at the projects in the US - people are terrified to properly use crypto and token because of what is happening. Everyone is scared of accidentally issuing a security so they’re building a bunch of useless workarounds. Projects aren’t able to realize their full potential because of this. Without clarity, the US is not going to be a place for companies/projects to succeed. Right now, it feels like we’re losing badly so that is a primary concern over the next 1-2 years. Adoption will just be constrained, even as the technology itself continues to mature and develop.
I want to go back to UI/UX - There’s a lot of friction even with people who are pretty smart. Many of them have issues just setting a wallet up, and the concept of seed phrases. It's going to be a big issue for an industry in its infancy.
I agree with that, its pretty difficult to use right now and its pretty difficult to onboard. People don’t want to take responsibility, even if its easy to learn. The product people want more resembles having a Chase account where it is simple to onboard and any issues can be addressed. There are few good consumer products right now that really justify the use of blockchain. Many people are using blockchain for the sake of blockchain, as opposed to something that is leveraging the technology.
Axial Studio: How do you see your generation changing the future of finance/technology
Our generation is changing the concept of work. It used to be that you interview, you get hired and then work at a place for a few years before jumping to something else. With Crypto, and decentralized projects, you can change the way you contribute to an initiative. If you find an interesting project, you can join the governance forum and start leading. That is going to change the way technology is built.
I see our generation as fixing many of the things that are broken with our current system. It could be things like faster wire transfers or transparent banking. Which will lead to vastly improving legacy businesses. There’s many companies that have been around for 40 years, they are the largest companies int he world, but have brought very little innovation.
Its been so much easier for our generation to have an immediate impact and access to meaningful technical projects. We are able to quickly contribute to projects and shape the way that the future of finance/technology will look. Its easier for our generation to interact and understand code - so we can change the world faster.
This generation is particularly self-motivating. When our existing institutions such as universities couldn’t provide the information to learn, we self-organized and created clubs, educational content for blockchain and crypto. It was all driven by the students - that led to a large number of students learning and growing
Our generation has been given all the tools and information needed to build. All that is allowing us to both have a more personalized learning, but also build personalized products. So from shopping to financial products, there’s way more personalization based on who you are and what you want to do.