Kathleen Breitman couldn’t be happier. That, at least, is what she tells me, and that is the impression she gives. Having endured months of negative press, corporate malfeasance, user revolt, and class-action lawsuits—months in which the future of her blockchain project, Tezos, appeared in doubt—merely to give that impression is an achievement.
When Breitman and her husband, Arthur, launched the initial coin offering for Tezos in July 2017, they didn’t expect to raise more than $20 million. But that was the summer of crypto mania. Word got around that big investors like Polychain Capital and the billionaire Tim Draper were backing the project. By the time the Breitmans’ ICO closed two weeks later, the Swiss foundation they had set up to receive the funds had taken in $232 million worth of bitcoin and ether—more than any other ICO to date. In exchange, contributors—whose legal status was essentially that of donors to a nonprofit—were to receive a brand-new cryptocurrency tied to a brand-new blockchain, one that was already being talked about as a possible Ethereum killer.
Then things went sideways. Relations between the Breitmans and the Tezos Foundation’s president, a South African expatriate named Johann Gevers, broke down. Gevers, who controlled the foundation’s rapidly appreciating assets, refused to disburse funds to developers. He also refused to resign, and accused the Breitmans of trying improperly to influence the foundation’s affairs. The press caught wind of the infighting, and Reuters published a series of articles which painted the project as an unmitigated disaster. Lawsuits by frustrated token buyers followed. For months, Tezos was a byword for excess and hubris in crypto-land.
When I first spoke to Breitman, over the course of three hours late one night in February, she was on a war footing. She was clearly furious about Gevers’s obstructionism and almost equally furious about the campaign she felt Reuters was waging against her and Tezos. In fact, Tezos was far from dead. The developers were racing to stand up a production-ready version of the network, at the Breitmans’ expense, while the project’s founders did damage control. Arthur began posting weekly development updates to reassure the network’s future users.
Months later, Breitman can afford to be sanguine. Tezos now has a functioning network, the beta period went smoothly, early contributors have received their tokens, Gevers is finally gone (having received more than $400,000 in severance), and thousands of Tezos community members are evangelizing on the network’s behalf. Ledger now supports the coin in its hardware wallet, and the Tezos Foundation has already committed to dispensing $30 million of grants, though some of the money will be doled out over a period of years. Her contentment is hard-won.
At Breitman’s request, we meet in a loft-like coworking space in New York’s TriBeCa neighborhood, which she is using as a transient base of operations before heading off to Miami, Las Vegas, and then, within a few days, to Cambridge, Mass., where she is scheduled to speak about Tezos at Harvard Law School. She is refreshingly candid. She bursts with infectious energy, and has an appealingly nerdy affect whose rough edges several months of public speaking have not entirely sanded off. Her lean frame is clad in black jeans, loafers, and a forest-green sweater with the sleeves pushed up to her elbows.
When Breitman first got into bitcoin, egged on by Arthur, she thought that it “was solving a cool problem, but it was definitely a moonshot of a technology.” Now that she has her own cryptocurrency, the five-foot-nine Breitman, who has thick red hair and is resigned to being “basically a human highlighter,” gets recognized in airports, on the street—wherever a Tezos contributor or crypto enthusiast happens to be. (Such people, she has found, are not above yelling out “Hey!” on a dark street in New York.)
Due to an equipment malfunction, the audio of our first conversation is lost, so Breitman agrees to a second, supplementary interview. She doesn’t hold back, opening up about what went wrong in Switzerland, what it’s like to midwife a new blockchain into existence, and why big ICOs shouldn’t be blamed for the crypto winter.
The idea behind Tezos is to have a cryptocurrency with a “self-amending” blockchain, unlike bitcoin. What does that mean, and why is it important?
In practice it just means there is a mechanism that legitimizes upgrades. Bitcoin offered an extraordinary innovation to the world of computer science. It’s friggin’ awesome. But by 2014, a bunch of other innovations were coming to the fore, like the notion of privacy in transactions with Zcash. The prevailing logic at the time was, “This is good for bitcoin, because we’ll just fold in all of the new innovations.” But that didn’t really make sense. The great irony of bitcoin is that it’s ultimately a tool for community consensus, but it’s [marred by] a tremendous amount of animosity. Tezos allows for innovation to happen in a systemized way as opposed to one born of politics. You’ll not find two people who loathe politicking more than Arthur and me. That’s the idea behind Tezos: let’s formalize this extraordinarily informal process.
"Blockchains haven't even begun to scratch the surface of their biggest use case, which is digital money."
How does Tezos do that?
The first iteration is a simple two-phase vote, where you [have] affirmative voting as to how many projects you want to decide on testing, and then there’s a testing period. After that proposal has been beaten up [having relevant stakeholders or subject matter experts analyze and criticize it], you reconvene, and you’re able to actually test again to see what people want. And from there, there’s a higher threshold for deciding what’s a legitimate upgrade. But once a legitimate upgrade is decided on, there’s something called a “hot swap” on the protocol, which initiates the new version of the codebase. So it does the upgrade in a decentralized fashion, passively.
And this arose from the fact that you and Arthur hate politics?
The way that it’s done in most [open-source] software is very obnoxious. You have a lot of devs who are speaking past each other, and there’s no real way to [bring evidence-based reasoning] into the conversation, where the community can discern and adjudicate. And this isn’t just bitcoin; it’s kind of a systemic problem in the field. It’s a lot of name-calling and ad hominems and dealing with that nonsense—and very little testing.
Do you see Tezos as competing more with bitcoin, with Ethereum, or with both?
At this point all cryptocurrencies are competing at the same thing, which is to [to gain] relevancy for people who just don’t get it or can’t use the technology. Clearly, bitcoin has a massive first-mover advantage. It’s also a fine piece of software, and it does exactly what it ought to do. Ethereum is also a very admirable effort. I think Ethereum is aspiring to do something different than Tezos and bitcoin; Ethereum wants to be the “world computer.” That’s very distinct from the value that Arthur and I see for decentralized networks. We don’t see them as valuable by virtue of being able to give anyone computation. In fact, computation on these networks is extremely costly and rather difficult to coordinate. We think of them as a way to transmit value. Essentially what you want is to be able to move money around the internet. Once you reduce the scope to that ambition, you can optimize much more easily. Rather than be everything for everyone, you can think about what makes good digital money, and go from there.
One factor in optimization is the technology and another is the people involved. The Tezos Foundation’s president, Johann Gevers, proved to be unscrupulous. What did he do?
Johann presented himself to us originally as this very successful entrepreneur who had founded the Crypto Valley and who was willing to entertain the possibility of helping administrate the [ICO] funds using his vast connections in Switzerland. And he made a very compelling pitch—he introduced us to many big players in the Crypto Valley, and they would vouch for him, and no one said anything contrary to his rather grandiose statements about himself. As soon as he got control over the assets of the foundation, things started to go awry. He would basically be absent for weeks at a time. The foundation was responsible for putting the final touches on [Tezos’s] development and distributing the operational load of the network so that there would be a successful launch, and instead of doing literally any of this, he just kind of peaced out—and would come back to Arthur and I and say, “Yeahhh, I know I was supposed to sign up these people, and I know that they quit their jobs because I gave them a job offer, but I found a Ukrainian development team that’s a fifth of the price.” Shit that betrayed either a fundamental misunderstanding of the project or betrayed, frankly, a fucking hoodwinking.
So you lost faith in him?
There were other managerial issues. He almost lost the foundation’s Ethereum funds because he hired a dyslexic person to compare hashes. You can’t make this shit up. He was just really bad. And so we brought up very politely to the other two board members our concerns. One of them, which I think has been overemphasized, is that he tried to assign himself a large bonus of a few hundred thousand dollars, which was insulting given the quality and amount of work that he’d done. But adding insult to injury was that it was all denominated in Tezos tokens, and he priced them at $0.40 a pop, which arguably could have been fair—
That was approximately the ICO price.
Exactly. However, when he was trying to negotiate with other people who were contracting for the foundation, he priced them at five bucks a pop. So it was: “Cheap tokens for me but not for thee.” He’s also a mean guy. He didn’t pay people. He was very abusive to other people who worked for the foundation. It was horrible to watch, especially after we had built up relationships with a lot of people who were interested in Tezos. Some of them were people who came in from the community; others had been working on the project since its inception. And it’s just extraordinarily disrespectful and, frankly, vile that abusing these people was framed as a personal dispute [between the three of us] and not a managerial injustice—or an ethical injustice, even.
Which brings us to the Reuters stories. Did you feel they represented you and Tezos unfairly?
Do I think that it’s professional for people to insert filler words into a 27-year-old CEO’s quotes? No, I do not. Do I also think that it’s fair to wantonly take one person’s side of the story for months on end and try to tear down a project that you couldn’t hope to understand? I think it just makes you look like an idiot in the lens of history, but it really betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of technology and, frankly, a malice that can only be gotten by being profoundly technically ignorant. I wasn’t prepared for the extent to which they would do things like stalk my personal social media, and post that on WhatsApp groups. In the end, these people are never going to win Pulitzers, so I don’t really give a shit.
Eventually the Tezos community banded together to help rescue the project, but for a while there was a lot of criticism of Tezos online. At least one person called it “the worst scam since Mt. Gox.”
That just betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of orders of magnitude, but yeah.
What was it like to feel so under fire, and how did you manage to overcome it?
It was very stressful. But I’ve always had a lot of faith in the project. I knew the [Tezos] code itself was very far along. There was never a day when the devs didn’t come into work or when there wasn’t work being done. I grew up with a very thick skin, I was always told to give as good as you get, and I just wasn’t going to let this deranged monsieur fuck up my project. By hook or by crook, we knew that Tezos was going to be fine. I’ve learned through the process of being in the spotlight to discount what I read in the press, and so I didn’t really take too much to heart.
One thing that kind of hurt, though, was that people just assumed I was at the heart of [the problem], even though Arthur and I have spent millions and millions of dollars of our own money, without receiving anything in return, just to try to move the project forward. It kind of hurts when you’re dipping into your personal savings and googling “bankruptcy law” for someone to put you at fault for something that this vile retard, who’s just walking around Zug with his head held high, is really causing.
For months you were personally funding the development, right?
Oh, not just that—also the litigation in the U.S., because Gevers didn’t acknowledge it. The lawsuits started because of the Reuters story, because Reuters painted it as though [Tezos] was never going to ship. Frankly, that’s their problem if they can’t compile fucking code and realize that this was a working testnet from February 2017 onwards. They really wanted to kill an ICO—and they were really fucking stupid to pick on this one.
You’ve said there is a “tax on transparency” in the crypto community. What do you mean by that?
It was a joint decision by the Tezos Foundation and [our company, Dynamic Ledger Solutions,] to disclose prior to the fundraiser the amount of money that DLS would be bought for. This was not an easy choice. We all knew that it wouldn’t make us more popular. It’s basically a surefire way to paint a target on your back. When Zooko [Wilcox], very honorably, disclosed that his salary is $5 million annually from Zcash, the first thing that happened was someone tried to take away the Zcash founders’ reward. [Editor’s note: Zooko’s salary is 2,033 Zcash per month, which one year ago was worth $5.5 million per year but at current valuations is worth about $2.9 million per year.] And Meltem Demirors, by far the most above-board person whom I’ve ever interacted with in this whole space—she owns up when she fucks up, she discloses all the tokens that she owns—people relentlessly use this as an opportunity to shit on her. Arthur and I also don’t feel the need to apologize for things. I’m sure that if I didn’t have so much conviction in what I was doing, I would have gotten an easier break. But that’s just not my personality.
One of my colleagues talked recently with Meltem. It seems like she gives as good as she gets, too.
Yeah, we get along very well on a personal level. [Laughs.] It’s funny, because when we first met, we hated each other. We met on a panel, and I was like, “You’re full of shit,” and she was like, “You’re full of shit.” We had daggers out for each other. But obviously we’ve grown past that, and I admire her for being very forthright about where she stands.
Another thing about transparency: I was very upfront about the fact that this was a contribution to a Swiss nonprofit. And no other project that used this [ICO] model made the same efforts to disclose what the legal nature of this contribution was. That was another thing where I got maligned, obviously—Reuters making fun of me with the fucking “tote bag” comment, which was only a product of having to explain shit to [an ignorant reporter]. They basically printed the explanation I’d give a fucking five-year-old and tried to make it look like that was my legal analysis on the topic, when I was just trying to be forthright about what the nature of it was.
Has the “Gevernance crisis,” as you call it, changed your thinking about how these distributed, open, trustless systems should be managed or run?
I think Tezos does things really well in the technical sense: no one has privileged rights within the network. And there’s a wide enough and diverse enough distribution of token holders that you can get a really good polity going with different people from around the world. The tag line on the website for a while was “digital commonwealth,” and that’s still my favorite descriptor for Tezos.
Would that have worked if, say, only 3,000 people had opened wallets during the ICO instead of some 30,000?
It’s a spectrum. Ethereum had 6,000 wallets in their fundraiser, and I think that worked out for them pretty well overall. [Laughs.] I just think the more people come to the table, the more valuable the network is. Thirty thousand is, as far as I know, the largest distribution in a fundraiser of this kind, using the Crypto Valley model. The metric that I really paid attention to during the fundraiser wasn’t the cash; it was the number of wallets opened, because I knew each one would add something to the network.
So you wound up with a big user base right off the bat. Tell me about the foreign Tezos communities that you’ve visited.
About 20 percent of the network is in South Korea, and I had never set foot inside of South Korea until this summer. It is completely humbling and mind-blowing to go to a country that you’ve never been to, and have people be able to recite your words back to you. That is crazy, and it’s surreal, and it’s wonderful. In addition to scratching my ego, the Tezos community has shown a lot of gumption and put a lot of good sweat equity into the project. They run banking seminars, they do all sorts of shit that’s well above and beyond just handing out pamphlets and doing meet-ups and drinking. They try to get people deeply engaged within the system. They can rattle off stats to you about who’s running a node where, and they know all the numbers. They just work their asses off. It’s definitely heartwarming to see people relate to something that you do, and then take up the mantle and not have to ask you for permission to do stuff.
There are big communities in China and Japan as well, right? And some of these people even put together petitions during the crisis.
Oh, yeah. The Japanese community is also really big. It’s also crazy to see the [different types] of people. I would go to meet-ups in Korea, and I would think, “Oh, I guess they’re all just engineers at Samsung,” but then I’d meet some dude who’s a wine importer and runs a baker node. Like, “All right! I guess this stuff is more accessible than I gave it credit for.” A lot of people in Switzerland tried to help out with the Gevers thing. A lot of people in France and in the U.K. and in the U.S., too—all throughout Tezos’s history, but particularly when Tezos needed help the most. They’re very feisty! But they’re very nice.
It was remarkable. He was like one of those fainting goats.
What made the “Gevernance crisis” drag on so long in the first place?
The whole reason this went on for months is that the Crypto Valley is 90 percent cowards. [Tezos Foundation board member] Guido Schmitz-Krummacher decided to take his marching orders from Johann and not fire him like he said that he was going to. There were three board members: one was Diego Pons, who’s a decent human being and technically literate; another was Johann, who’s the cause of all my problems; and the third was Guido, who sort of decided that the path of least resistance was to let Johann stay in power. But also, also to send sexually suggestive messages to female contractors and deprive the employees of the Tezos Foundation of money. So, really, he wasn’t doing anything right. Guido had two modes: no decision and bad decision. We have him doing all sorts of creepy, terrible shit to people. The second that there was conflict, Guido just decided to go to sleep. It was remarkable. He was like one of those fainting goats.
In Switzerland, “disloyal management” is a crime. Is that something the authorities are pursuing against Guido or Johann?
The Swiss have all this information. I think it’s really up to the people in Zug—who are more than happy to take nice young engineers and give them tours of the Crypto Valley and tell them what a hospitable place it is for them to do business—to decide whether they actually want to live up to that promise and do right by the one person who got massively fucked over by them. But that’s their prerogative. I’m not going to lose sleep over what happens to two people who are living a pretty pathetic existence anyway.
ICO activity is now down 90 percent since the start of 2018. A lot of people have chalked the “crypto winter” up to recent words and actions taken by the SEC. Tezos itself has been accused of being a security. What’s your take on all of that?
I’m not a regulatory expert. By and large, I think the SEC has been very reasonable so far. I’ve never even participated in an ICO, so I don’t have very strong opinions on them. Sorry to give such a milquetoast answer. The Tezos fundraiser [went] exactly by what Ethereum did. We thought that was a great result. We thought it was fair and judicious to the people who contributed. But I can’t really speak too much to the different flavors of this shit. Frankly, I don’t even know what’s going on half the time with other projects in the space.
You’ll have to huddle up with Meltem and get her to explain it all to you.
Well, Meltem always says that things are shitcoins, so it’s not exactly the most measured analysis that she presents sometimes. [She cracks up.] It’s really hard to keep track of all this activity.
People have blamed big ICO projects for driving down the price of bitcoin and ether by “dumping” the crypto funds they raised. Do you think Tezos and others bear some responsibility or blame?
I think that’s a Reddit fantasy to explain the price swings. It’s a very tidy explanation for why prices have declined in the crypto market over the past few months. But I have yet to see an empirical analysis that teases this out. Mind you, I’m not looking for it, either. But I have seen a lot of people say [adopting a caveman voice]: “Oh, so and so is dumping on the market today!” And then people from the project team posting, like, “No, that’s actually not the case.”
“Pump and dump” are the most vile words in the English language. I think the Tezos Foundation has been very transparent about the way that it is selling cryptocurrency into fiat currency where they find it appropriate. There are so many people who spend their whole day trying to dissect this ecosystem and basically try to read tea leaves. Honestly, it would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. Ninety-nine times out of 100, it’s very easy to debunk them. On some of these forums and Telegram chats, they’re like, “So-and-So tweeted at this hour. What does that mean for X project?” It’s kind of creepy, especially if you’re one of the people who people are trying to decipher.
When you found yourself in this pressure cooker, did anyone step up to help you survive it?
The original team was obviously a massive source of strength for me and Arthur, because they have a lot of conviction and they don’t get bogged down in stupid politics. They’re just there to kick ass and take names on the engineering side, and they’re really proud of what they do. Having that as an anchor was nice. I kind of lucked out in that I’ve always seemed to attract really awesome people. We’ve had many, many successful entrepreneurs contribute to the Tezos project, and there are many more whom I’ve met through conferences and events. A lot of people have taken me under their wing.
I had people give me their attorneys if I wanted to talk to them, and I had people invite me up to their guest homes if they sensed that I was having a hard time. A large contributor to the project sent me a very nice email, and my favorite quote from it was: “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.” So I had that over my bed for a while. By and large, the feedback I received was that I was as cool as a fucking cucumber and you would never know there was something going wrong in my life unless I told you about it. I kind of laughed a lot of it off, just because I knew how advanced the technology was and I knew that there was always this group of people who were working on it. So it was really easy to just say, “No, fuck this. This is bullshit,” and just muster through, because it was such a misleading fabrication of the situation. I’m lucky that I have a strong marriage, because—
This would have put that to the test.
It wasn’t easy, obviously; we’ve been through a lot of stress over the past two years. But Arthur is a fantastic partner, and we have really complementary personalities. He would stay very measured sometimes and I would get fired up, and [then] he would get fired up and I would stay very measured. More importantly, we didn’t blame each other for anything that had happened. If one of us had gotten really, really agitated at the other, and decided that it was all their fault, that would have been a source of great acrimony, and probably would have dissolved the marriage. At the end of the day, we love each other very much, and I think we understand that we’re both trying to do our best—either to move the project forward or to be a good partner. That will get you through a lot. Just being reminded that this is someone whom you’re very devoted to, and [that] what transcends anything that you do in this life or the other is that you made certain promises to each other.
What’s your daily routine like? Are you and Arthur usually able to be together in the same place, or are you all over the world?
I travel much more frequently than Arthur does. I’m building up a new company and it requires a lot of recruitment, so I’m traveling across the world to do that. I want to base it in the U.S., so that necessitates me being outside of Paris, which is very much where the bulk of people working on Tezos are right now. Arthur has more of an ecosystem in Paris, and I have more of an ecosystem in New York and California. I’m kind of stuck doing this back-and-forth [thing]. But Arthur is very kind; if I’m away for more than a week or so, he’ll try to fly out on the weekends and be with me. We try to spend at least half our time together.
With the Tezos mainnet now about a month old, how is the network developing? Were any significant bugs found?
There were a few bugs. A handful were reported through the bug bounty program, and there were some bugs that were found in a code review by Inrea [the French Institute for Research in Computer Science and Automation]. Some were found in the other security audit, which was done by Zooko’s company. Everything has been pretty much patched through. I think there are a few outstanding issues that the developers are working on, but everyone knows what their task is moving forward. Strengthening and hardening the network was, by and large, the focus of the past year.
Is there anything exciting being built on top of the network?
There are a bunch of money platform things—better cash payments and things like that. No stablecoins yet. Most dapps I’m inherently skeptical of. Arthur and I definitely think it’s cooler to think about protocol upgrades as opposed to dapps. A lot of dapps have been like, “I want to solve a problem that’s an incentives issue [about] getting people to use things. I know! I’ll just put a token on it, and people will vie for this token!” It’s like asking someone to run through a field but go through a turnstile and pay for it along the way.
A lot of the dapps can’t really justify their own existence as a token, but they might be interesting as [an added feature] in the protocol. So, something like a prediction market within Tezos, where you could use the Tezos token as a prediction-market token. Creating more utility for Tezos tokens is a much more compelling value proposition to us. I have yet to see a protocol upgrade come through in that flavor, but I really hope that one does.
What about layer-two solutions?
Stephen Andrews, a community developer of prolific proportions, is trying to do some sort of layer-two solution. I think he’s part of the team that says they’re doing the first ICO on Tezos. All right, cool, whatever. But I’m more interested in folding in these large-scale innovations, applying the full weight of the cryptographic research that is emerging. I really want to focus on things like introducing privacy preservation into Tezos and making it a better version of digital cash than it is today. I think that’s still a pretty long ways off at the moment. There are a few things that are coming down the pipe, but their creators want to keep them close to the vest. I’m more open. I tend to believe that ideas are cheap and it’s execution that counts. But some people are concerned with secrecy, so I try to respect that.
Tezos has been called a possible “Ethereum killer,” but it sounds like you aren’t that interested in trying to compete with Ethereum as a platform for all kinds of apps and services.
Blockchains haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of their biggest use case, which is digital money. That’s huge, and there’s a lot to chew on before you get into any of the other, exotic use cases for medical records or whatever. It’s really hard to do digital cash, so I think people have been like, “What if we try to do something else instead?” And I think that’s not a very pragmatic route, actually.
"I like to think of myself as a yenta for the network."
Let’s talk about stewardship of these systems. Will you and Arthur continue to have leadership roles in the Tezos community?
We’re always going to have a bit of soft power, just because we get to say that we’re the cofounders. But we explicitly tried to make a system that can take in suggestions from literally anyone, and I think that’s pretty awesome. Arthur’s good at some things, I’m good at some things; no one’s good at everything. You really have to be a genuine polymath to understand and incorporate a lot of the more profound innovations in this space. And it is genuinely super-duper hard to conceptualize and come up with proposals that move the ball forward. So it is definitely the case that Arthur has a tremendous amount of insights and can add a tremendous amount of value to the ecosystem just by proposing new ideas and writing code and implementing [white] papers, but he’s not meant to be the final arbiter over what is or is not a good valid upgrade to Tezos. That responsibility really falls to the community. We give power to the users of the network to validate every transaction and to participate in the governance mechanism, and that will hopefully dilute the interest of just hearing what one or two people have to say.
You say it really takes a genuine polymath to understand and incorporate the innovations in this space, and yet you want a “digital commonwealth” in which literally anyone can suggest changes. Don’t you need someone with superior knowledge or discernment to stand in the gap, the way Vitalik Buterin does for Ethereum?
Ethereum lucked out because Vitalik is a very good steward of the brand. I think he’s a responsible figurehead. Some of the other projects have not lucked out in a similar way. However, having someone who is mentioned in lockstep with the project is not something that you want to have. I can sing Arthur’s praises, because he’s not here. He’s a true polymath, and he’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. But everyone has gaps in their understanding of things. It’s one thing to really focus on deep engineering and it’s another to focus on things like user experience. This stuff has to work in concert.
What’s nice about Tezos is that you have this model where there could be some sort of esoteric application that no one quite understands because it’s all moon math, and you could appoint a cohort of people and assign them to come up with a solution that’s highly specialized. And then, at the same time, you could have a more egalitarian proposal methodology when you want to do something very basic. Some upgrade choices are going to be extraordinarily uncontroversial and others are going to be matters of taste. No one’s right if the debate is chocolate vs. vanilla, but if it’s 1,000 vs. 2,000 transactions per second, then that’s obviously much different.
How do you think of your role in the Tezos community?
I like to think of myself as a yenta for the network. For the first few months after Tezos launched, I noticed there were a lot of community members who were trying to build things, or had built things, but there was one piece missing—they might have had great technology, but they had no financing; or they had a really good idea from a prior life in finance or research, and they just didn’t have the technical literacy to realize the use case that they wanted to see. So I was just kind of marrying people together. At this point I know a lot of people in the community, and I have a pretty good sense of who to hook up with whom.
Now I’m transitioning [out of that], because I’ve settled on what my next company is going to be. But it was kind of fun to spend the whole summer writing email recommendations for people and trying to help them out, whether it was a small baking operation that needed some technical help or a nice entrepreneur who wanted to use the Tezos token into their software project. When the Tezos Foundation announced its grant process, I was more than happy to ping some people who I thought would benefit from applying to it.
So what’s your next project, and how far along is it?
I’m still in the planning stage, and I’m still gathering financing. Elon Musk kind of ruined the phrase “Funding secured,” but I really try not to talk about the scale or scope of things until I have a good sense of what the financial backing is going to be. But I did find a cofounder for my next venture. It’s going to be a digital collectible card game on Tezos.
Like Magic: The Gathering?
Yeah, for example. It’s going to be pretty cool, because we’re introducing new economics into the game that haven’t been explored before in other digital collectible games. The person who I’m pairing up with is very passionate about this space. He has worked in R&D roles for some of these games, and he’s also worked in finance with OCaml, which is the programming language that Tezos is written in. So he’s the type of passionate tinkerer that I find I pair well with. He’s a super interesting guy, and also a total sweetheart.
Being a cofounder with someone is like forcing yourself into a coffin with them. It’s really hard to find people whom you like that much, because it’s a lot of long hours and weird smells and Red Bull, a lot of caffeine and not always seeing you at your best. It’s hard to find someone you want to be around that often [and] who’s also a good complement to your skills, so I got super lucky. Twice, really. Hopefully I’ll be able to say more about this in the next few weeks. There’s still a bit of analysis that needs to be done on the idea that we have. But I think [games are] one of the easiest ways to grow the ecosystem in a thoughtful and engaging way.
"This was such a scar on the face of Tezos that I couldn't move on until I dealt with it."
Would you have moved on sooner if not for the crisis? What compelled you to stay focused on Tezos for so long?
I would have gotten a lot of shit from the community, and rightfully so, if I had tried to [move on] without Tezos being in a good place. And, reputationally, this was such a scar on the face of Tezos that I couldn’t move on until I dealt with it. Arthur and I wound up spending a lot of time and effort engaging with the community, because the community is ultimately what helped out this project. It’s not just that I like [them]; I also feel a debt of gratitude. We were victorious in our efforts to make sure that the Tezos Foundation was under good management because of them. My yenta-ing for the summer was my way of giving back to a lot of people who really had my back when I needed it the most.
Now that you’re taking a step back, I have to ask: Without a prominent leader, can a blockchain network avoid falling prey to infighting and hard forks?
I think it falls prey to infighting and hard forks because of this! I think that’s what makes these things extraordinarily fragile. What’s fun and cool about Tezos is that you can keep people in check. Any body of people who want to do something is almost never better off by just blindly following one person.
It’s hard to imagine Apple without Steve Jobs or Tesla without Elon Musk. But you think having a singular visionary leader is a weakness for blockchain projects?
I think in some ways it probably makes them more efficient, but in other ways it makes them more susceptible to cult-like or religious thinking. Not to say that any of them are a cult, but sometimes you’ll see bitcoiners quote Satoshi’s emails as if they’re Scripture. Whoever Satoshi Nakamoto was or is, they were a person; they were fallible. OK? You can’t just have appeals to authority. That’s kind of the burden of being a founder. The level of expectation that’s set for you is to be infallible. And no one is. I do think Arthur is brilliant, and he’s right about a lot of things—this is very hard for me to admit as a spouse—but he’s not perfect, right? The second you [acknowledge] that, you can have more thoughtful discourse and hopefully move the ball forward.
Arthur’s 2014 position paper said his rather immodest goal was to make Tezos not merely one among many competing cryptocurrencies but in fact “the last cryptocurrency.” Is that still the goal, or does that sound like hubris to you now?
The position paper was meant to be controversial in a lot of ways. At this point I don’t think there’s going to be a last cryptocurrency, because people spin up a new currency whenever they have the mood. [We laugh, because it’s true.] I think an interesting question would be: “What sort of cryptocurrencies will people use in five years?” Tezos wants to be the most useful smart contracts platform, the most useful permutation of this idea [of digital currency]. Making Tezos useful to people is still the primary goal.
This interview has been edited and condensed. Photo courtesy Kathleen Breitman.