From late February to mid-April, 45 students selected from among thousands of applicants attended a16z Crypto Startup School, first in person and then online. Now the people at a16z are making the videos available! In partnership with TechCrunch, they are releasing a new course module every week for the next several weeks.
Hours of real-world insights contained in these videos over the next few weeks will help a new generation of talented technologists navigate the idea maze and get started building crypto projects.
Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) General Partner Chris Dixon discusses “Crypto Networks and Why They Matter,” giving an overview of the crypto space, the transformative implications of its technology, and the potential for crypto networks to lead a new wave of innovation.
Stanford professor Dan Boneh teaches “Blockchain Primitives: Cryptography and Consensus,” providing an introduction to the cryptographic foundation of blockchains and how developers can use them to build new types of applications.
Chris Dixon explains the price-innovation cycle in crypto—how people first get attracted to the space and then ultimately build startups that push innovation forward. Crypto Startup School is series of lectures and discussions given by crypto experts to help people learn how to build crypto companies.
Coinbase founder and CEO Brian Armstrong walks us through “Setting Up and Scaling a Crypto Company,” explaining how crypto can help startups raise money, acquire customers and build a global profile. The issuing of tokens, for example, can align the incentives of early users and reinforce network effects, helping solve the “cold-start” problem that can derail many startups. Armstrong also outlines the disadvantages of crypto that entrepreneurs must watch out for, including regulatory uncertainty. On balance, he thinks crypto is where the internet was in the early days. “In 5 or 10 years, pretty much every startup that gets created, it's going to use the internet, it's going to use AI, and it's also going to use some form of cryptocurrency somewhere in that product.”
Andreessen Horowitz crypto partner Ali Yahya discusses “Crypto Business Models.” Yahya explains that the consensus mechanisms of blockchains create trust among independent participants in decentralized networks. At first glance, this may seem at odds with the idea of capturing value, since none of the factors that allow companies to build moats in traditional industries — trade secrets, intellectual property, or control of a scarce resource — apply in crypto. This leads to the “value-capture paradox” — how can easy-to-replicate, open-source code be defensible in a competitive landscape? The answer is that network effects are just as powerful, if not more so, in crypto than in traditional industries. This is due to the economic flywheel enabled by tokens, which incentivize participants and coordinate all economic activities in crypto networks. Combined with the ability of developers to build on each others’ networks using autonomously executing smart contracts, this should result in winner-take-all dynamics, contrary to what might seem intuitive in open source, Yahya says.
Sam Williams, founder and CEO of decentralized storage system Arweave, gives an overview of “Mechanism Design,” a field of study that has become newly relevant with the development of Bitcoin and subsequent blockchains that require carefully designed incentives for network participants. Williams uses examples to show that economic incentives, when designed properly, can persuade self-interested people to exhibit useful behaviors at fair market value with minimal central planning. This provides a new tool to bootstrap decentralized networks. He cautions, however, that poorly conceived incentive systems can overpower moral frameworks in ways that can be dangerous. This could be harmful, he says, in decentralized protocols, since self-executing code may not easily be altered to curtail unintended consequences. Williams closes with a case study of his company, Arweave, and the way it created an endowment-style financial incentive system to build a platform where data can be secured forever. This kind of model opens the door to new kinds of community-owned networks that can’t be manipulated by central owners.
Jesse Walden, a former a16z investment partner and Mediachain cofounder, and Robert Leshner, founder and CEO of Compound, do a “Deep Dive on Decentralization.” Walden starts with a playbook for progressive decentralization — the process by which crypto project creators build a useful product, create a community around that product, and then gradually hand over control of the maturing network to the community. This process is in keeping with the cooperative model of crypto networks, which drives rapid, compounding innovation through better alignment of incentives and open participation. Leshner follows with a case study of his experiences at Compound, an automated money market for crypto assets in which lenders and borrowers can come together to transact without the involvement of third parties. Compound, one of the first crypto projects to move through the full progressive decentralization model, built a thriving community of third-party application developers, who have set up shop on top of Compound’s smart-contract protocol. The Compound team has gradually brought this community further into the protocol’s inner workings; in the final stages before handoff to the community, the founding team made changes transparently, with greater reliance on the community’s input, and created a sandbox for experimentation to test governance mechanisms. Decentralizing “allows the protocol to live forever,” Leshner says, which fosters innovation because developers can trust the protocol with their businesses and livelihood.
In a virtual fireside chat, a16z General Partner Chris Dixon and GitHub and Chatterbug Cofounder Tom Preston-Werner discuss “Building Companies and Developer Communities.” Preston-Werner explains how the open-source ethos is a great way to build social virality among developers, and how the clean, developer-focused interface of GitHub led to its wide adoption and caused developers to demand it within their own organizations. He also offers marketing lessons from the early days of GitHub, when the company used informal methods of building community, such as hosting “drink-ups” at local bars in a bid to create “superfans.” He urges founders to view a company’s brand as an expression of its core beliefs, with a focus on how it helps its users succeed. The reason people would put a sticker on their laptop or wear a company tee-shirt is because of “what they believe they are communicating to others with that sticker or shirt … it’s a shortcut for communicating values.”
Tina Ferguson of a16z’s Tech Talent and People Practices team offers guidance on “Managing a Distributed Workforce.” Because of the decentralized mindset and evolving business models at the heart of crypto, founders and managers face unique challenges. In such a fast-moving space, for example, it’s important to hire someone who has the right skills now and will also adapt to what’s required in 12-18 months. Compensation, which could include the allocation of tokens rather than more-traditional shares, also requires close attention. When hiring in other countries, teams must consider employment laws, as well as whether to use Professional Employer Organizations (PEOs) to move quickly via local contacts on important hires. Finally, real-time feedback is especially crucial in a distributed workforce, as is clear and timely dissemination of information.
Jutta Steiner, the CEO and co-founder of Parity Technologies, discusses “The Evolution of Blockchain Security.” Steiner, who joined the Ethereum team in 2014 as chief of security, says the advent of that open ecosystem of interdependent “smart contracts,” or self-executing design programs, opened a whole new attack surface that requires successful organizations to prioritize a security-minded culture. Potential coding risks include memory safety, input validation, privilege escalation flaws, fundamental design flaws, side channel attacks and cryptographic vulnerabilities such as insecure key storage. Security is not just code, however — it’s also people, operational procedures, and life cycle management of applications. There is no single answer to any of these vulnerabilities, Steiner says. Instead, mitigation relies on a range of measures that are not perfect but can be used to create an overall system that is very difficult to penetrate. The key is to understand that crypto development is not like agile software development — once deployed, code is difficult to recall, and security must always be at the forefront. She closes by noting that crypto developers can learn from security approaches used in other industries, such as aerospace, medicine, and hardware.
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Find more additional reading and info at a16z.com/crypto-startup-school