The Passion Economy Is the What, the Ownership Economy Is the How
Last summer, I left Andreessen Horowitz to start Atelier Ventures, an early-stage venture firm devoted to the passion economy: new platforms that enabled users to “monetize individuality.” In a world in which one-third of people’s lives are spent working, providing more freedom in how people make money is a direct way to improve their quality of life. The mission has been crystal clear since day one: to create paths for economic mobility at scale by allowing people to monetize their skills and creativity and lowering the barriers to entrepreneurship. In the midst of COVID lockdowns, that mission became even more urgent as large swaths of the population suffered job loss and turned to online platforms for income.
As I was starting Atelier, Jesse Walden was working on Variant Fund, a seed-stage venture firm focused on the ownership economy thesis, backing software that is built, operated and owned by users themselves. I first met Jesse Walden when we were both working at a16z: he was on the crypto team, and I was on the consumer team. In those days (2018), there was a wide gulf between consumer applications and crypto, and the deals that our respective teams evaluated hardly overlapped — yet in spite of that, we often mind-melded over internet creators and online platforms.
Fast forward to today. Both of our funds are notably different in a sea of venture firms: they exist not just out of a desire for financial returns, but to support companies that catalyze greater social and economic equality. Our missions were, and are, two sides of the same coin: ownership is a cornerstone of financial freedom and enables greater enfranchisement of participants in the networks to which they contribute their time and energy.
The ownership economy has the opportunity to address one of the biggest and most morally troubling issues of our time: economic inequality. As the wealth gap continues to widen to levels not seen since just before the Great Depression, the best way to combat this is to enable everyone to become an owner of wealth-building assets. For too long, ownership has been restricted to a privileged set of individuals — whether on the basis of geography, network, expertise, access, or for regulatory reasons. This phenomenon is especially true in the online creator economy: despite platforms’ critical dependence on the contributions of creators and users, platforms’ value accrues to a cadre of founders, early employees, and investors, rather than to users themselves. Furthermore, to maintain defensibility, creator platforms own and lock in users’ data, content, identities, and interactions — leading to erosion of creator leverage and lack of control of their own businesses. As more of our time spent and work opportunities become mediated by online platforms, giving ownership of these platforms — in terms of value, content, and data — to their participants becomes a powerful vector for facilitating social and economic empowerment. Yet, broader distribution of ownership isn’t just a more socially optimal outcome, it’s also the most optimal way to scale a network. Platforms that reward their users with ownership align incentives towards creating internet-scale armies of talent that will enable them to outcompete those who don’t.
Crypto has showcased the power of ownership in rallying independent participants all over the world to help steward and grow internet-scale networks. The first to realize this opportunity were developers and technologists who were critical to the growth and operation of networks like Bitcoin and Ethereum; since they owned a piece of those networks in the form of their native tokens (BTC and ETH, respectively), they were eager to contribute to those protocols in deeper ways. Now, founders are pushing this more cooperative economic model towards mainstream consumer adoption, resulting in an avalanche of new platforms whose participants engage with the products and services they use in deeper ways because they’re aligned with their economic success. The future of consumer software is crypto, centered around the belief that what users create and the value they engender belongs to them.
User-owned and operated networks are nascent but already percolating in various verticals. For example, in gaming, Yield Guild Games is providing on-ramps to income-earning opportunities in the metaverse via a scholarship program that is community-owned and operated. In the creator economy, Mirror offers crowdfunding and publishing tools and plans to distribute governance tokens to its community; members can use these tokens to propose grants from Mirror’s treasury and influence how its product works. Uniswap, a crypto exchange, distributes its fees to the traders that provide liquidity and make the product useful. And this is just the beginning!
Today marks a new chapter for both of our funds as I’m excited to announce that Atelier Ventures and Variant Fund are joining forces to invest in software that is owned and operated by its users. Together, we will lead investments in early-stage crypto companies out of our new $110 million fund. Enabled by crypto, the ownership economy is how we can truly deliver on the promise of the passion economy, and consumer technology more broadly. As someone who has worked and invested in Web2 companies for my entire career, this was not a decision I took lightly. But I arrived here in full confidence that the intersection of the passion economy and ownership economy is the future I want to work towards, and the area of technology that holds the most entrepreneurial and equitable potential for humanity.
For me, this move represents a belief that the future of the passion economy, and of consumer software, is crypto. Together, our partnership — Jesse Walden, Spencer Noon, and I — will back founders at the earliest stages. Jesse was an early believer in crypto’s consumer potential and gained hard-won insights from a number of vantages: as a founder of Mediachain, an early protocol that pioneered ideas since popularized by NFTs; a research lead at Spotify, which acquired his startup; and as an investor, where he has written the playbooks on emerging best practices for founders building in the crypto space. Spencer was an early expert in DeFi; a one of the first crypto investors to leverage on-chain analytics to value the fundamentals of new financial marketplaces at DTC Capital; and was also a crypto entrepreneur, starting Bitcoin on-ramp company BTCity in 2014. Together with my expertise in consumer marketplaces and platforms, we provide a diverse and unique perspective that will help founders execute on strategy decisions unique to crypto projects, but also bridge the gap in go-to-market for crypto’s next leg up towards mass-market adoption.
If you’re a founder aligned with our vision for a more meritocratic internet, we’d love to chat.