Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian and I first spoke in person in 2016 on the the day Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.
We were attending the Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal where we recently met again two years later, this time on the day of the midterms. “That really sucked the air out of the room,” he said, reminiscing about the dramatic change in mood at the conference after the results came in.
Though our first meeting was supposed to be a brief conversation about his return to Reddit, which he created in his dorm room alongside Steve Huffman in 2005, we ended up spending a majority of our time discussing the ramifications of the sudden change in political power in America, before veering off into an extended tangent about his favorite sports team, the Brooklyn Nets. At the end of that conversation I asked if he was sticking around for the rest of the conference, to which he said he was heading back stateside to spend some time with his girlfriend—who, months later, tabloids would reveal to be one of the most accomplished athletes on the planet, Serena Williams.
“Surprise!” joked Ohanian with a smirk, after I relayed that story when we met again Tuesday at the same conference. This time, Ohanian was joined by Garry Tan, his partner in the venture capital firm Initialized, who was fresh from a panel discussion on “Crypto’s Roller Coaster Year” with Tim Draper of Draper Associates and Peter Smith of Blockchain.
Though the portfolio of Initialized, a seed-stage venture fund with more than $500 million under management, includes a wide range of companies from diverse sectors, one of its earliest and most successful bets was a seed investment in Coinbase. The digital currency exchange is now reportedly valued at over $8 billion, and the Initialized portfolio also includes bundled crypto investment platform CoinBundle and crypto portfolio and tax manager CoinTracker.
Ohanian and Tan sat down with BREAKER to discuss how they select companies they fund, why the crypto winter will be good for blockchain, and what happens when software eats money.
Is there a difference between investing in a blockchain and non-blockchain startup, from a venture capital perspective?
Tan: There’s no distinction for us. It might be decentralized, it might use a blockchain, there might be a crypto currency at the heart of it, but we need it to be better, faster, cheaper than all alternatives, both centralized and decentralized. That’s the most pragmatic way to invest in this space.
What did you see in Coinbase in the early days, and do you see those traits anywhere else today?
Tan: [Coinbase founder and former Airbnb engineer] Brian Armstrong had quit his job at Airbnb, where he was tasked with keeping bad actors out of the platform. That seemed like the perfect alignment when it came to bitcoin. That continues to be our focus and approach: finding small teams of product people, designers, and builders who have actually built something before, but then quit their jobs because they believe they know what the future is going to look like.
Alexis, when we first spoke in 2016 you were fighting hard for internet freedom. It’s been a rough couple of years on that front, to say the least. Should I take your interest in blockchain as a sign that you’ve accepted defeat when it comes to saving the traditional internet?
Ohanian: No, it’s a hedge.
Ohanian: [Laughs.] No, to Garry’s point technologies like blockchain win because they’re doing it better, cheaper, faster. They’re 10x better than the alternative, not purely because they’re decentralized. That is a feature, and in some cases that feature has significant advantages, but I have not given up hope yet for the traditional internet.
But can’t decentralization solve some of those issues around internet freedom and data privacy that you’ve spent years fighting for?
Ohanian: Yes and no. There are still scenarios where a centralized database is actually better, cheaper, faster. The bigger issue is, can we ensure a level playing field so that a founder in her dorm room can take a check from us—because we believe in her and her vision and what’s she’s capable of building—and win by its merit? That’s why we need to make sure the market choses winners and losers, not internet service providers. That’s something still worth fighting for, which we’re still doing at the state level in California, and I think more states will follow suit.
The FCC repealed its net neutrality laws this summer. Do you think there’s still hope?
Ohanian: Absolutely. There’s a whole chunk of the American dream wrapped up in this idea that you just need a laptop and a great idea to build a billion dollar company and win because people love it. That’s something worth fighting for, and something we’ll keep fighting for. I think we’ll win, but it’s been a bad year for sure.
I guess today’s mid-term election results will be consequential for that effort.
Ohanian: No doubt.
Getting back to the crypto conversation, valuations are currently way down. Is this a new normal or just a calm before the next storm?
Tan: Calm before the next storm. How it comes out of the current crypto winter, we still think it will come back to real use cases.
By that you mean that this crypto winter will return the focus in this space back towards innovation?
Tan: Absolutely. The last time this happened, bitcoin went from north of $1,000 down to $250, and that winter lasted years. People started losing hope, and out of that came Ethereum. Truly useful things come out of the nadir of the last hype cycle.
Ohanian: It causes all the greedy speculators to scatter and it realigns and really incentivizes the people who are building to just build.
What makes you most excited about investing in this space?
Tan: Once software eats money, it can do all these interesting things. The first use case is to store value, and there’s a speculative fervor around which coins will store value. I think bitcoin and Ethereum will, but beyond that it’s a big question mark in terms of which will be valuable long-term. What’s more interesting to us is, can people use this technology to build something that’s better, cheaper, faster? That’s really what we’re focused on right now.