“I want to tell you a quick story about a friend of mine,” says Sense CEO Crystal Rose Pierce. She’s onstage at the Crypto Invest Summit at the Los Angeles Convention Center in a sky-blue blouse and patterned black blazer. Her friend, “Tim,” recently spent time in the hospital after overdosing. Though he didn’t share anything about the ordeal on social media, Facebook knows where he is because it tracks his location. And his WhatsApp account has access to his contacts, which include an addiction specialist and a counselor.
Separately, Pierce says, there’s nothing wrong with that data, but when combined, it illuminates a lot of private—and potentially embarrassing—information about Tim. “When entities buy both of those data sets, that data set can be understood in a lot more in-depth,” she explains. “Big Data knows more about Tim than his mom does.”
This story illustrates something Pierce thinks about a lot: just how much personal information centralized messaging apps have. She even has a ominously titled chart called “What Big Data Knows” which she shows during her talk.
After she and co-founder Ariel Jalali launched Sensay, a messaging app and bot network that linked people together to share knowledge, in 2014, they wanted to provide a transparent way for users to sell their data directly to advertisers, rather than just let centralized apps profit. Following trials with companies like Nike, she says they realized that people thought their data was worth more than it actually was. And besides, the idea of being an intermediary made her uncomfortable.
From there, the idea for a decentralized messaging app where data is only stored locally was born. The dapp is built on the EOS blockchain and is currently in beta, with 10,000 signups and 4,000 pre-orders. It’s set to officially launch next month.
She and her husband Brock have become somewhat of a power couple in crypto. John Oliver made fun of Brock and showed a picture of the couple’s unicorn-themed Burning Man wedding on Last Week Tonight. The Rolling Stone profile of Brock describes their blockchain-based marriage contract, which “can be dissolved, changed or renewed annually.” (The couple celebrated their “third wedding” last August in an airplane ceremony ushered by the singer Usher.)
Pierce splits her time between Los Angeles (where Sense is based), Puerto Rico (where they own property), and at various conferences and hackathons around the world. The couple is expecting their first child, in March. (Though the unborn child already has her own Everipedia page listing her name as “Crypto Pierce,” that probably won’t be the case. “Everipedia will need to find a citation before that one can be verified,” she jokes.)
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations, one in New York, and one in Venice, Calif. Among the topics covered: the importance of decentralization, EOS’s governance structure, her and Brock’s philanthropic work in Puerto Rico, and the lessons she thinks everyone can learn from Burning Man.
How did you get started?
Technology has always been a thing, all the way back to the beginning. You know, Atari in the crib. I was really fortunate to have the internet at a very young age. I started coding when I was 11 and started my first internet business as a teenager. At 16, I was already in college, and then my first business evolved itself into a digital agency. I built, created, and sold websites, and then eventually learned how to scale that and created a team.
What was the first compelling thing about the internet for you?
Porn. No, I’m just kidding. [Laughs.] The reason I say that though is, actually, that’s the first thing that showed that there’s this lack of censorship. As a teenager, I could have chosen to look at smut all day, but I found ways to educate myself. I was taught on an AOL Instant chat room by an anonymous person how to code HTML. The compelling thing was that I could connect to any person, without knowing them, and that we could have a great conversation.
I think that is why Sensay evolved, because I valued those conversations. My best friends were through a computer screen. There was a lot of innocence wrapped around it. I know there’s a lot of fear around anonymous chat rooms now, but at that time, I was just seeking out information, and I was really fortunate. That was the number one thing: connecting to other humans, who were not in my local area, who were not necessarily my age, and understanding the expansiveness of human connection.
Why do we need something like Sense Chat?
The platform was born of our response to centralized messengers. I’m not at all thinking that the world’s going to [fully] move away from WhatsApp and Facebook. I’m going to use them. I love WhatsApp for groups. But I do think that people are going to make choices to have private conversations somewhere else if they can. Second is the ability to transact crypto easily and without being spied on. If you’re starting to transact crypto, which won’t happen anytime soon, but let’s say that you do get the ability to in Facebook Messenger, you’ll have that completely stored somewhere—scanned, scored, all your financial data.
What don’t people understand about centralization?
SMS is a protocol that is centralized and the carriers all agree, and they spend money to use it. You can have up to five intermediaries on your SMS messages. We don’t have any evidence that AT&T’s intercepting, storing, and using it—probably anonymized if they do—but the fact is they can. And that’s the part that’s scary.
My favorite faux pas in terms of centralized services was when Twitter was like, “Just a quick note, one of our people stored all of the passwords in a plaintext file for our entire network.” That was that was pretty crazy. … It just takes one engineer.
That is a danger.
Yeah, I love the shift. I think that the consumer will learn, “Decentralization actually means I’m in more control.”
Why did you decide to pivot from Ethereum to EOS?
I love Ethereum. Ethereum has a lot of really good applications, except for being able to build large, scalable dapps. It’s scalability and it’s transaction time and [lack of] fees. EOS not only allows you to do any transaction size for free, it also has a memo field that allows you to send something to another wallet without a transaction attached. [Editor’s note: While EOS does not have transaction fees, dapp developers must have sufficient RAM, CPU, and network bandwidth.] And that’s really interesting when you’re talking about messaging. If you look at the white paper Satoshi [Nakamoto, originator of bitcoin] wrote, actually bitcoin had nothing to do with transferring currency; it was about transferring information. So you could look at it like a messaging protocol.
Do you have any concerns about EOS being fully decentralized or needing to improve its governance structure?
It is the best so far. I think that governance is always going to need to improve, in that there’s always a risk of entities coming in and taking over. The reason why I jumped in as a block producer was partially to be a representative of an organization that has good ethics, and not a profit motive. We’re a bunch of people who have other things going on, wanting to prove that we can be a truly community-beneficial entity.
How does shEOS support women’s blockchain education?
We started with the mission to give scholarships to women. We’re currently passionate about a school in Bulgaria. We’ve not yet settled on one project. One thing we’ve discovered in this process is that, as a board of directors making decisions, we actually would like to adopt a more decentralized governance model, and so we have been considering offering a voting tool. If they’ve staked their EOS into shEOS, as one of their block producers, they get to vote on where the money goes.
Do you think that there are downsides to being overly decentralized, in terms of efficiency?
Yeah. It’s kind of like an art car that has everyone in the community contributing to it. Everyone has different artistic ideas, and the car still runs, but it’s not going to be as efficient as a Lamborghini. The car is just not going to go as fast or be as directed when you have so many people involved in how big the wheels are, and what’s going on with the engine, or who gets to drive it.
I’m really passionate about [EOS] being a really big experiment and just knowing that it’s not going to be IBM or Microsoft and it’s not centralized. I really think the more you give the community ownership, the longer it’s going to last, the more people will keep it alive and have a passion for it. Like the Ethereum developers, or even the bitcoin maximalists. They keep the network afloat. We have to have bitcoin maximalists who are super bullish.
Do you remember the first hackathon that you ever attended?
Yes, and I don’t think they were called hackathons yet. I was very young, like 17 or 18. It was like a “coding weekend,” or something, and it was almost 100 people—it was really big. I remember someone said, “You’re one of three women here, and the other two are working at booths.” I was literally the only woman coding in that event. Actually, that was the first time I ever realized I’m a minority. That actually changed my perspective on the industry, and also set me on a path of really wanting to help empower women. My next goal was, “Well, I need to bring some friends, because I don’t want to be the only one.” It’s kind of weird. But I never thought about it before that.
Why do you think that was?
I had never seen gender as a barrier to anything. I guess I’d always just blended in with guys because I started coding really early on. It didn’t occur to me that there weren’t really other women doing that. I just wasn’t doing what my girlfriends were doing as much. The more I think about it, the more gender was stripped away because I was interacting with people online. Mostly, all my business deals were going over the internet. A teenage blonde chick is probably not going to be the best salesperson. I did have that mask of anonymity, and they can project me to be whoever they want me to be based on my intelligence.
Do you think that was helpful?
A hundred percent. When I did start going out into the real world, I had to very quickly get a business-development person who’s a seasoned sales guy. Because I would sit at the table and feel super objectified. Guys would try to turn our lunch meetings into dates. It does get weird as a young woman.
Do you remember any specific instances of that?
Once I started raising money for my first startup that got more interesting because the investors are a little more loose, like, “I want to spend time with you. I need to get to know you. I need to understand the project.” So there’s a point where you’re just drawing it out, like: How many more coffee meetings and lunch meetings and now dinners can we do? Finally one person was like, “Would you like to go to yoga?” and it started to cross a line. And then he ended up telling another friend, who was an actual investor of mine, “I’m not interested in the deal, but I’m super-interested in her, and I want to date her.”
That’s such a bummer.
Yeah, not cool at all, because I was super-unaware that my time was being wasted. … I don’t want them looking at me. I want them looking at what I’m working on. I think women just have to maybe take a step back to think, “Don’t be so insecure.” “If I don’t look super-hot and attractive, people won’t invest in me,” is absolutely wrong. What will happen is they’ll just send you signals and waste your time. I shouldn’t generalize. Some of my best mentors, probably the best mentors [have been men]. I’ve been struggling to get female mentors.
Who has been your best mentor?
My husband. [Laughs.]
Do you ever get referred to as “Brock’s wife”? How often you think it’s an asset versus a detriment?
Yeah, I suppose if you have no controversy, you’re not getting enough. Like, I had my first controversial review a while ago, and at first I was annoyed. And then I was like, “Oh, my gosh, actually…”
It’s a good sign?
And the more trolls who are coming out of the woodwork and criticizing, it actually just means the more people who are validating.
Or paying attention?
Yeah, exactly. It is both ways. I’d say, industrywide, it’s been more of a benefit. I like to say, “Brock is Crystal’s husband.” [Laughs.] I do have a lot of people who pick one camp or the other, though. They’re fans of one of us or the other. It’s just kind of funny. I’ve only ever had one individual be highly negative, because he really didn’t like Brock. It was in the middle of Thailand. I ran into him at a conference. I was like, “My husband is a completely independent individual, and I’m here and he’s not, and I’m not going to relay your message.”
Brock has gotten some negative press for his presence in Puerto Rico. What’s your connection to the Puerto Rico work?
Brock’s been in and out of Puerto Rico for years. Just different things: business, helping, philanthropy. When we went to Puerto Rico last year, it was right after the hurricane, and neither one of us knew what to expect. We didn’t realize it was as bad as it was, and when we saw what help was needed, we decided we would redirect all of our philanthropic efforts into Puerto Rico.
We were like, “What if we just get blockchain conferences to go together?” We were going to call it Blockchain Week in March [but wanted] to do something that lasts longer, and we wanted to do something that’s not just about blockchain and crypto. [Restart Week was] about helping, taking innovation and technology, and creating a restart for the place. How can we bring in new capital, new people? I know when some people hear this who are local, they think more, “Oh, that sounds colonialist.”
I was going to ask you about that.
Yeah, not in that way. More like, “Let’s bring excited, talented people who are ready to help and be integrated.” And so we’re like, “Who has the most flowing disposable income right now?” Probably—and especially in March [when markets were stronger]—the people who are in this space. Clearly the number one benefit for anyone who’s moving full-time are the tax benefits. That’s not something to be ashamed of, or to hide. The government put that out there to lure in new capital.
In December last year, there were four houses bought by just our friends—and large, nice houses. We’ve had hotels purchased, including ourselves; we’ve had businesses purchased; we’ve had people coming down to start restaurants. So just in a anecdotal way, I feel like that means it’s broader and bigger than we are—and that’s what Restart Week did.
You’ve seen some of the media that came out. They did this whole sort of like “Puertopia” thing. I really want to set straight that that name was never something that any of us ever conceived of and it just became this weird—I don’t know, the mission got muddy really quickly. … We’re like, “We are absolutely just working to just integrate people into this beautiful city that already exists, as well as through the countryside.”
Do you think that the Burner vibe is more of an asset or a detriment?
Depends on if you’ve ever been to Burning Man. The reason I don’t love to post pictures of myself in pasties from Burning Man is because the perception is “Oh, so you went off the grid for a week and did a bunch of drugs.” This last Burning Man, first of all, I’m completely sober. Secondly, because I like to be the designated art car driver. I did a two-hour talk on AI and blockchain and spirituality that had hundreds of people.
"If we as a society can strip away all the layers of judgment, like what happens at Burning Man—we want to see that happen with everyone."
This is the only time I get to spend talking to Eric Schmidt, okay? Where else in the world do you get to have that meeting and be really real with the person? It’s hard for me to explain to the planet that this is what’s happening. It’s more meaningful work. And some of my VCs are there, some of the people who backed us. I’d say, easily, at least one person I can think of, a half million dollars resulted out of just a conversation—and not a selling conversation. He’s like, “What are you working on? Here’s my mission; here’s my philosophy. How do I help you? How do I back you? Oh, by the way, I have a fund. Okay.” And so it’s hard to explain that you’re doing the work of community-building.
That seems like a hard sell to somebody who’s not there.
If we as a society can strip away all the layers of judgment, like what happens at Burning Man—we want to see that happen with everyone. And if you’re judgy about me going to Burning Man, that already tells me what type of person you are. We get a lot of funny feedback, because John Oliver put our wedding picture [from Burning Man] up.
What sort of feedback?
“You guys are ridiculous.” “You should be ashamed.” It’s so funny. Both of us were posting that on Twitter, “This is great.” I don’t love that John Oliver called my husband a douchebag on national TV. But that episode was amazing. Him helping deter people who can’t actually afford to lose their money by speculative investments getting taken by [sings] BitConnect. He did a fantastic job.
Do you think you’ve developed a thicker skin about criticism?
A little bit, but it still impacts me. Each individual is important. What makes me more upset is that people waste their time trolling instead of doing something for the planet.
What needs to change?
Whatever happened between Reddit and Steemit, let’s do that. Because I will say from my posts on Steemit: support, support, support, support. Posts on Reddit: criticism, anger, trolling, poking fun. And so I have a theory, because I’ve been perplexed by this, to the point where I won’t post on Reddit anymore. I love Steemit.
"I think early adopters in general are much more receptive and open and smart. I would just like to see everybody like go and create value."
My theory is this: Steemit creates accountability. When I post something, I’m really thoughtful because I’m like, “Oh my God, this is going to go on the blockchain. It’s there forever, it’s immutable, and my identity is intrinsically linked to it. I’m taking accountability for this thing.” With trolling, you hide. You’re not really creating an identity. It’s the same thing with Burning Man. You’re really raw; you’re really real. I had a naked guy at my wedding. He emailed me weeks later and said, “Hey Crystal, you may remember me.” He was pitching his company, and I was like, “I definitely remember the naked guy at my wedding.” [Laughs.]
I notice you have a “value” nameplate necklace. Is that a guiding principle for you?
[Laughs.] Yeah, it is. That came from Galia Benartzi at Bancor. Talk about people who have created value. That’s what Sense doing too. While we are really benefiting from the byproduct of people being around our company and brand and seeing what we’re working on, how we’re creating value for the community. Bring people in to get massages. We love inviting people for Taco Tuesday. People who don’t have a space, who are early entrepreneurs: Come use our office as a co-working space. Obviously, not everyone can do that all the time, but we have a really good balance. If you’re a YouTuber, come use our studio. That’s just community and sharing. At some point in time, this idea of scarcity and this idea of ownership has to change. Because scarcity is created by ownership. We have less of stuff because you’re not sharing it. Let’s do that. Let’s share more.
Photos courtesy Crystal Rose Pierce.