These Entrepreneurs Are Building the Blank Canvas of the New Internet 0 320

We need a new internet. This HTTP stuff is left over from the ‘90s. It’s corporate controlled in the post neutrality world, susceptible to government censorship, inaccessible to many with nearly half the world’s population still unable to connect. It increasingly needs a more streamlined makeover.

Or at least a little house cleaning. How many apps can we possibly have? How many passwords and accounts? How much content can we cram in here? What do we do with the ever growing graveyard of dead links, old MySpace accounts and cat memes, to say nothing of the emptying, generic cruise ship we call Facebook drifting steadily away from relevance? One possible answer: clean the slate. Start again. This time with something more efficient.

Imagining the Internet 2.0

By some indicators, blockchain could be the thing to supplant the internet as the de facto way we create, communicate and store data. But how will we see it widely implemented without it first becoming more user friendly to the layperson? SMBs and entrepreneurs don’t necessarily have a background in programming, nor have the skills to set their business up on the blockchain. Learning to program or hiring a team of blockchain devs isn’t always within reach to the average SMB, to say nothing of individual artisans or small nonprofits.

By contrast, consider how easy it is to start up a website. You can do it in a few hours, thanks to software platforms that make it easy. You get your URL from GoDaddy, a visual template from WordPress or SquareSpace, who also might bundle in your ecommerce space if you haven’t set that up with Shopify already. It’s because of these SaaS and PaaS third parties that we can web.

If we want to go blockchain, we’ll need a third parties like these to help facilitate it. So where are these platforms? Who’s building them?

The Deregulated Ecommerce Toolkit

Well, Eric Tippetts, for one. Tippetts expects the 2020s to see a shift to blockchain much like the 90s shift to the information superhighway and the 2010s shift to mobile. To speed things along, his company NASGO has created a toolkit called BlockBox, the goal of which is to be the ‘GoDaddy of blockchain’ so people and businesses can start building.

Through BlockBox, which Tippetts cocreated with a development team, you can find and secure a blockchain domain address, like you would with a URL, adapt your existing website for blockchain, and create a custom token. Instead of having to wrap your head around lines of code or hire a dev team, it just takes a couple minutes and a couple hundred bucks.

Tippetts describes NASGO itself as “a decentralized hosting environment that allows content to be seen in every part of the world, opening up blocked boundaries for communication and collaboration.” It also includes a platform for decentralized apps (DAPPS) that could compete with Apple and Google’s app stores.

Their website repeatedly emphasizes the deregulated nature of the product, ostensibly gearing their platform toward the “businesses, developers and consumers” of a sharing and open ecommerce.

A Platform for Public and Private Good

Amber Baldet’s company Clovyr has similar goals, but with a distinctly different tone. She wants people to use their DAPP platform to “build the systems we want to see in the world.”

Baldet left JP Morgan Chase, where she was hired to spearhead their out-of-character blockchain experiments, to found her startup. She recently testified before congress about blockchain regulation and the importance of protecting human rights and privacy early on, while the technology is still in its infancy.

She says that there needn’t be a divide between public and private interests when it comes to blockchain. “It’s very divided, the people that are building things for public chain and people that are building things for ‘permissioned’ or business enterprise kind of chains,” said Baldet in an interview with Fortune. She says that nomenclature isn’t helpful, “because it creates this kind of animosity where we’re saying that big business is on one side and the people or the proletariat are on the other side, when really it should just be about information residing where it makes sense and creating security boundaries that are logical.”

Building a Blank Canvas

In a way, the blockchain is a platform much like the internet itself, a canvas available for anybody to use, whatever their interests and intentions are.

So whatever direction the blockchain internet-nouveau of the future takes, if that’s really what we’re in for, people like Tippetts and Baldet are the architects of its structure. It’ll be up to the rest of to fill it up with content. Hopefully good content. Bring the memes, leave the corporate derelicts.

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A tribal member of the Choctaw Nation, Brian grew up in the Silicon valley under the technological mentorship of Steve Wozniak. He's lived, worked and traveled all over the world, and now writes from the Pacific Northwest.

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VEZT Wants You to be Able to Own Shares of Your Favorite Songs 0 66

Mr. Cheeks has been producing music since the early 90s, under the mentorship of his late uncle, the legendary Gil Scott-Heron. He started with the Lost Boyz, won a Grammy for his work with Stephen Marley, and has released a handful of solo albums since.

Now, royalties for his singles will be available to his fans, thanks to the blockchain. Mr. Cheeks’ songs will be available on a platform that allows fans and investors to claim a slice of the rights to pop music they believe in. When the song is licensed for use, in advertising or film for example, you, the investor, get a cut.

It’s made possible through an app called VEZT, which is positioning itself to revolutionize the way music relates to money as the world’s “first music rights marketplace.” VEZT partnered with a long time Mr. Cheeks producer, Bink, to offer shares of the song “Lights, Camera, Action” which is currently available on the company’s website.

The Problem of Selling Music

Mixing music and markets is an old problem. How should musicians get paid? Who pays them? What about their support teams? How do we keep track of the flow of money and make sure everyone’s fairly compensated? Among the music world’s financial obstacles, one of the biggest issues is navigating licensing and royalties.

In Austin, for example, one of America’s most proficient music hubs, almost a third of musicians make less than minimum wage, and 70 percent are earning less than $10k per year on their work. That’s below the poverty line even for a household of one. It’s been like pulling teeth trying to get royalties from companies like Spotify, who generate income off their songs. Meanwhile even more expensive lawsuits pile up, or go completely unpursued from lack of funds, as marketers continue to ape good music with copyright infringing fakes. It’s a constant headache for musicians, producers and labels, and it makes it prohibitive to eke out a living in the music world.

Under VEZT’s model, royalties are simple. Music is intellectual property owned by the artist. The artist can sell a portion of those rights to fans, who become investors when they purchase a percentage of shares. Fans and musicians make an agreement to co-own the songs they both care so much about. If you love a song and want to see it do well, you invest. If it does well, you have a share in the artist’s success. Royalties are split based on percentage of ownership.

The concept comes from cofounders Robert Menendez, a former Wall St. financial trader/analyst, and Steve Stewart, an industry regular with entrepreneurial tendencies, whose accomplishments include ushering Stone Temple Pilots to fame in the early ‘90s and managing the band for a decade. They say they founded VEZT as part of a vision to “detangle a lot of the financial problems in the music industry, and connect fans more directly with the music they love.”

And now, they’ve expanded across the Pacific from VEZT’s headquarters in Los Angeles, and opened an office in South Korea.

‘The Perfect Environment’

“The fans of music in Korea are quite possibly the most enthusiastic and active fans on the planet,” says Stewart. “Combine this with a robust tech community and a government leading the way in adopting blockchain technologies and you have a perfect environment for VEZT.”

The ROK’s new legislation legitimizing crypto exchange, Dapps, and blockchain systems will take the peninsula farther into a brave new technological world, where many others have so far feared to tread. Combined with their now-world-famous maximalist pop industry, and it’s not hard to see why VEZT moved in.

Construction recently finished on their new 2500 square foot office in the Gangnam district of Seoul. VEZT has enlisted a host of professionals to their C-Suite, including veterans of major Korean record labels, Kpop producers, marketing and PR executives and, of course, tech experts.

Fixing Music With Blockchain

If their model works in Seoul and LA, VEZT could bring a more harmonious rhythm to an industry still trying to find its groove in the digital age. The world needs music, and musicians need to get paid. As with anything blockchain, cutting out some of the middlemen could be the Occam’s razor with the solution. When fans are directly invested in their music, everyone will want to see it succeed.

Baking Bread in a Refugee Camp Just Got Easier 0 110

When Zulfiqar Deo and Ondrej Dusilek first visited Jordan in 2016 to conduct interviews in the Zaatari UN refugee camp, they found a paradox. Nearly a hundred thousand refugees, displaced by the war in Syria, were living in a ‘camp’ that’s looking more and more like a permanent settlement every year. Many of these refugees were educated professionals or business people in Syria. But in Zaatari they’re not allowed to work. Though the Jordanian government provides $870 million in annual support, they have restrictions on refugee work permits in order to protect their own economy.

Nevertheless, businesses naturally pop up in a community of this size. Deo, who was detained at the airport, communicated with Dusilek and their support team in the camp, including advisors from PriceWaterhouse Cooper and SIX Group, a coach and mentor from the F10 fintech incubator, and a handful of volunteers. They estimated that three thousand microbusinesses helped circulate $11 million per month in the Zaatari community.

Invisible Businesses

Without access to capital, though, the refugee’s businesses were struggling. A wedding dress rental company couldn’t grow to meet the demands of the community. A baker wanted to scale up his shop but couldn’t afford the machine that would make it possible. “Refugee entrepreneurs are a significant global population not being served,” Deo told The Block Talk earlier this week. “They cannot access a business bank account. They have no formal record that their business even exists,” says Deo. “Even as successful entrepreneurs, they’re financially excluded.”

This ‘significant global population’ is growing fast. Over 68 million people worldwide have been displaced by violence, and that number is growing by 300 thousand people each year. If this unprecedented upsurge continues, we’re looking at a near future in which one out of every 100 people on earth is a refugee.

Part of the refugee experience is disconnection. But we have the technology to connect people. Can we introduce it to regions like Zaatari to engage refugees more directly with the global community? Can we use the blockchain to finance refugee entrepreneurs and stimulate micro-economies in camps and settlements?

Boosting the World’s Underserved Through Technology

That’s the thinking behind BizGees, the company Deo and Dusilek launched to bring microfinancing to refugees. They want to support refugee-owned small businesses with interest-free loans, inventory, six months of ongoing support, and access to amenities from partner companies, like WSV’s ‘business in a box’ toolkit. By Deo’s calculation, a support package like this lowers the risk of business failure from 90 percent (which is close to normal for first time entrepreneurs, although these numbers are tricky to nail down) to a mere 10 percent.

“Refugees naturally nurture the same skills entrepreneurs have just out of necessity,” Deo observes. He notes that the creativity, initiative and ownership necessary for their survival are also traits commonly associated with entrepreneurs. “So why not support them?”

With the support packages Deo designed, 3-5 refugees who typically live on $5 per day could launch a startup or expand an existing microbusiness. Within a year, the microbusiness could become a small business employing 10 more people, who circulate their pay in the local markets and stimulate the whole community. When the loan is repaid after a year and a half, it’s reinvested, providing loans to another business.

Eventually, because of the transparent, chronological way the blockchain stores data, refugee entrepreneurs will build a credit history acceptable to most local banks, better positioning them for traditional finance like they may have had access to back home.

Finding The Right Environment

But there was a problem. Although their model is tested, BizGees couldn’t launch it in Zaatari because of the government’s work restrictions. “We had to move away from Jordan,” Deo said a bit ruefully, “and look for a different environment that allows refugees to work.” That led his team to Uganda, where tens of thousands of refugees have been displaced over the past decade by violence from a Christian terrorist group called the The Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), operating in northern Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

According to Deo, some of the people in Uganda’s camps “didn’t take kindly to the service we were offering at first, asking ‘why is that person getting support and not us?’”

They had to work to re-educate the community on how the model brings long-term returns to everyone, by the money getting re-loaned and by financially stimulating local marketplaces. Now, Deo says, they’ve identified the refugees they can fund and the first microbusinesses should be up and running by the end of this month.

Working in Stressed Communities

Working in refugee camps isn’t easy. “It’s a very complex environment,” Deo says. “In addition to the financial issues they’re facing, there are social issues, psychological issues, most of them have post traumatic stress.” He notes that displacement alone causes mental health concerns, let alone the trauma of losing or being separated from loved ones. “You have to take into account the impact those traumas have as far as how they engage with the public and how they take control of their own lives.”

Consequently, the goal of BizGees isn’t just financial or technological. Their website asserts the importance of entrepreneurship as a way for people to take back ownership of their lives by building confidence and self-worth. Instead of just trying to make a buck, Deo, who has a background in international politics and NGOs as well as business, wants to meet a need.

How Crowdfunding Meets These Needs

BizGees is able to offer loans without interest or collateral because of the way they crowdfund them. Ninety percent of everything they raise goes to the refugees, while the other 10 percent supports BizGees’ operations, which are partially volunteer run.

The public participates through crowdfunding campaigns including art auctions, presales of products from post conflict zones, and cryptomining.

“The reason we’re using crowdfunding is to engage the global community more directly with the refugee experience,” says Deo. “The idea is to personalize it and help individuals to make a real social impact.”

Through blockchain’s ability to connect people directly without a third party, Deo sees a future where a group of individual financiers could get together to sponsor one refugee microbusiness and communicate with them directly. “They’re no longer reliant on third parties to know what’s going on in rural Uganda,” he says. “They have direct access.”

Getting People Socially Engaged

Direct communication is key because it creates the social engagement that is one of Deo’s overarching goals. Most people have no idea what a refugee camp is like, who’s in them, or what they’re facing on a day to day basis, he notes, citing that the average refugee stays on what’s supposed to be a temporary refugee status for 17 years (the U.S. State Department says 26 years on average for protracted refugees). “The support base for refugees is focused on disaster relief, for the first 6 months or so,” Deo says.

“There’s a big gap between the actual experience of refugee populations across the world and how we perceive their experiences,” he says. “We’re looking to use social engagement as a way to narrow that gap as much as possible.”

That’s also why he’s enlisting volunteers to participate in the work, both on the ground in the refugee camps and at BizGee’s headquarters in London. Deo mentioned an American volunteer who came to help with promotional material, website stuff, and office operations. “Her understanding of the refugee experience on day one was very different than it was on week seven,” he says. That in itself he considers a small success.

Goal: A Thousand Refugee Businesses Thriving

As for larger successes and longer term goals, Deo hopes to support 1,000 refugee businesses in the next three years, serving populations indefinitely in Latin America and Asia as well as Africa.

Blockchain technology can work for humanity. Models like Deo’s, which supports at least seven of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, identify something the blockchain can do that world badly needs. This is what we need to see more of from blockchain developers.

The refugee crisis is escalating, but hope can grow within the camps as long as people can live like people. As long as bakers can keep baking, and families can rent their wedding dresses.

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