Theory of Next by Antler India | Episode 02—Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs)
Theory of Next is a series by Antler India that decodes and contextualizes the spaces and ideas of the future. Using first-principles approach, it provides a window into the process by which a venture capital firm arrives at a particular sectoral thesis.
Highlights From Transcript
[00:00] - Introduction
[03:34] - Building Blocks of a DAO
[06:43] - DAO Implication #1 - User-centric network view
[11:51] - DAO Implication #2 - Legalistic view
[14:05] - DAO Implication #3 - Grassroots organization view
[16:02] - Are DAOs functioning as intended?
[22:11] - Areas of opportunity
Nitin Sharma: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the second edition of Theory of Next. We started with electrical vehicles the last time. Really excited to take a dive into a topic that a lot of us are very excited about and have been actually working in for many years, the whole industry around blockchain, crypto, web3, and one of the most important themes in this area is DAOs - a very foundational unit whether it's DeFi or NFTs; ways for folks to organize themselves in the crypto native world; so we will dive in deep around DAOs with our resident expert, Cathy, who's been working in crypto for several years and has also been a founder. But before we dive in, we are going to spend a couple of minutes on the Antler web3 call for applications.
Nitin Sharma: We just launched a global call for applications from all over the world. This is a common application for any founder who is trying to transition to web3 or already working in web3. To apply with one portal and access all the resources across our entire network. In one go and on day one, you can get access to the footprint we have in 17 locations, but also creating a partnership with Solana, Polygon, and Questbook, one of the fastest-growing web3 developer communities; as well as a set of fantastic advisors who have been founders in this space. So please check it out at antler.co/web3. But anyway, let's dive right into DAOs. A lot of you've heard of Uniswap and Compound, and may not realize that they're structured as DAOs and then Cathy, we have names ranging from MakerDAO and DeFi to MolochDAO, which I learned recently is named after the God of coordination failure, I figured that out. Or PleaserDAO in the world of NFTs. So what is a DAO Cathy?
Cathy Guo: Yeah, awesome. Thanks, Nitin and so excited to be here. So DAOs are not a new idea.
I think that a lot of what we've been kicking around within this crypto cycle have been ideas that have been around for a while. They've just been implemented and now adopted. So Vitalik actually even wrote about DAOs in the Ethereum white paper, and he defines it very simply as a virtual organization which has a defined set of members and defined governance structure.
And what does that governance do? It helps people essentially either modify the code of that virtual entity or spend its funds. More broadly though, that's kind of a more technical definition. I would just think of it like you said, which is DAOs are a way for web3 native or even web2 companies that are transitioning into web3 kind of decentralized governance to govern themselves.
Nitin Sharma: Right. And so I think for a lot of folks who are, who are what, maybe have a conceptual idea, but they won't understand what the process is, what are the sort of building blocks of a DAO. So let's cover that.
Building blocks of a DAO
Cathy Guo: Yeah, absolutely. So the way that I kind of think about a DAO is like a funnel, right.
So if you have a web3 organization or even just, you know, a kind of standalone DAO that's put together to buy NFTs or do something. Typically the first step is kind of having almost a DAO constitution. I think of it as a constitution; sometimes they're also written just like developer docs or governance docs.
So it tells you, what is the purpose of this DAO, and also how do you engage with it, what is the kind of governance process, so it defines that. Secondly, all DAOs typically have a community layer. So even if you're not part of the DAO, you want to engage and see what's happening in that community, you're thinking about maybe getting involved in the DAO,
You don't know, it's really just a glorified discord kind of group. That's how we do communities in web3 today. Then typically what you have is the actual formal proposal process. So, you know, community, governance - some of these are all soft, off-chain things, right? But the real on-chain DAO activity is about A, submitting formal proposals.
People use tools like discourse or there's other tools as well. The second is then you actually go through the voting process. So if you hold the governance token of that DAO, you then vote on certain proposals, yay or nay, typically binary, and then post that there's implementation. So if X percentage as per the DAO constitution have voted yes for something, you implement that proposal; if not, then, you know, better luck next time.
Nitin Sharma: Makes sense. So, as an investor obviously we want to get into things super early but also, but also sort of have some judgment around where things are today and why this is the right time. So how would we summarize the state of affairs when it comes to DAOs today?
Cathy Guo: Yeah, I think that DAOs today, we are at very early stages still. There are about 200 or so active scale DAOs, I think in the web3 space but a massive amount of value is actually locked in these DAOs especially with the rise of the DeFi DAOs, right. So I think now it stands at $14 billion of assets and economic coordination are being covered by DAOs right now. If You had asked me 18 months ago, I would have been like, what are you smoking? And about 1 million or so participants in these DAOs.
Nitin Sharma: So now that we've covered the basics of DAOs, the process, and sort of where things are today, I think everyone's wondering what is the big deal, why is this such a disruptive or profoundly interesting concept, right. And, and there are many interpretations right. And so we, we, you, and I discussed there are broadly three ways of looking at it, right. So let's start with the first one, which is the user-centric view, right?
DAOs and their implications
User-centric network view
Cathy Guo: Yes. So one way of looking at DAOs, and I think it's really important web3 in general, is to have clear mental models around implications of things, because you get a lot of words thrown around decentralization, this, that. But I think there maybe three ways, yes, to look at these DAOs. The first would be the user-centric network view. So the way to think about this and Chris Dixon also writes really well about this is it's a new way to build and govern networks and create networks across the trajectory, right. So if you think about web2, the biggest businesses right now in the world are networks.
Facebook, for instance, 3 billion people are on it on a monthly active basis. That's like 40% of the human population, and these are extremely powerful networks. But if I look at the evolution of these web2 networks, typically the trajectory is okay, like Facebook is an example. They spend, they launch, you know, they spend 10 years trying to add value to users, through connecting people, through giving content into your feed, et cetera, et cetera.
But at some point, there is a turning point in these networks where they start extracting value from users, right. And that's exactly what we're seeing now, all this blowback against Facebook using our data, you know gaining our engagement, et cetera, et cetera, all the issues that are happening in the public realm right now.
And so that is the traditional model of network evolution - add value, then extract value. And the terminal point of these web2 networks is essentially to maximize shareholder profit because Facebook as a business, Is governed by a board of directors and shareholders, and they need to extract value from users to make money.
And so in web3, how do we think about this? I guess it's just a very different paradigm for network evolution. So how can networks be created in web3? I think from day one, you can think about it as, you know, you start with still a centralized team because at the end of the day, if you haven't built something useful and you don't have users, then there's nothing to decentralize anyway.
So you start with a core team, you build something useful, you start to get some traction on your network. But one very interesting thing is you can actually use token economics to reward early users and early engagement, which then creates a way to break existing network effects. Like today, if I wanted to go and go head-on and compete with a Facebook, you know, Tik Tok has done a really good job, but there are also 10,000 apps that have died on the way of that mission.
Nitin Sharma: But this idea of Chris Dixon talking about, you know, bootstrapping network effects, right. This was actually around even when people were selling ICO's. And the whole idea is before your product has, before your network has a utility to the participants, you create a financial utility by creating this token that creates more engagement and incentive for those participants to build the community, and then your network effect can be created. So financial utility before network utility, right. Versus web2 sort of like you said, was actually trying to create network utility and then extract value. So, so, but the interesting thing is like, how did we; what is the difference between the sort of any project which has tokens and something that's truly a DAO?
Cathy Guo: Absolutely. So I think the difference is what you give as rights to that token holder, right. I think that we experimented with just pure utility. Like you can use this token in the app and do stuff; financial utility, like price, go up - up only. And thirdly, I think what's interesting in this cycle is we've seen governance tokens at scale.
So $14 billion now of tokens, which are directly tied to governance rights, which is you can vote on things that then modify the code of that project or allocate the funds from that project.
Nitin Sharma: $14 billion?
Cathy Guo: $14 billion, yeah yeah, correct. And so, so the first thing is you can use these tokens to incentivize and bootstrap network effects.
The second thing is that you then use that community of early engagers and people who are actually; and that's very interesting now, like these DAOs that are coming up with ways to see, you know, let me reward more tokens to people who have done more unique transactions who have opened more persistent addresses, or their wallets on our project are active for a longer period of time.
So there are all these parameters to basically try to find the people in that network that are genuine and very active users, and then give them a token, which also gives them governance rights, right; which gives them the ability to modify the project, vote on how the protocol is going, et cetera. And so I think that the interesting thing is at a web2 network's terminal point, you are extracting value to maximize shareholder profit;
At a web3 network's terminal point, you are essentially ending up in a community governed, community incentive model, where you want the community to be making directions on the future of the project and you also have the major value accrual happening with the community who's gotten rewarded tokens because of their engagement with that network.
Nitin Sharma: And I think that's what people find so beautiful because the internet was meant as a platform for collective action in a sense, right. And, and, and truly peer to peer; and it's almost like the excitement of going back to the original vision of the internet and which, which also, you know, goes to the second interpretation, right. Which is which I find profoundly interesting as someone who, sort of, been in also in the traditional finance world, right, is we've always assumed the standard private limited company structure, the standard legal entity of a corporation as the way to organize business, right. And it's just how you were saying that in a sense, what DAOs are doing is, removing this dissonance between stakeholders and shareholders. Your stakeholders should be your shareholders. And that's what a community model of governance enables, right. But let's talk about the legal legalistic sort of interpretation, which is the second one that, that we've discussed.
Cathy Guo: Yeah, absolutely. So I think the way to think about this is just like you were saying, an LLC is one kind of corporate structure, one kind of way to run an organization and DAOs could be a virtual community first way of that. And I think the interesting thing that's happening here now is, you know, what are the legal standings of DAOs in the real world, right? It's great that we're doing experiments and DeFi and all the stuff is happening. But if you have disputes, like how do you interface with, you know, the physical world, the court of law, blah, blah, blah.
Cathy Guo: And something interesting that's happening is I think lawmakers are starting to make some strides here. Like Wyoming recently came out with a paradigm where you can actually legally incorporate a DAO. So you can create it as a legal entity with legal rights that, you know, following a certain jurisdiction, et cetera, et cetera. But ultimately we're still super early days in this. And we'll just have to see how it plays out.
Nitin Sharma: Well, I think this is going to be fascinating for years to come. And if there are any lawyers in the audience, I think this is probably the most interesting area in law for many, many years to come. So while a lot of folks want these legal costs to disappear by just using code and smart contracts I think the interesting element is also going to be when this interfaces with real-world assets and ownership, disputes happen how do courts interpret it, right?
Because it's one thing to be in the metaverse or crypto native world. But talking about the real world takes us to the third interpretation, which is people actually getting together to do interesting things like buy assets. So everyone must've heard of ConstitutionDAO, right. How fascinating that several hundreds of thousands of people got together and pooled in $41 million to buy a copy of the US constitution.
We've talked, as on an Antler podcast to people pleaser web3 influencer who inspired a DAO called PleaserDAO, and they bought the Wu-Tang album as well as Edward Snowden's work of Edward Snowden's work. And there are many more examples, including metapurse, for example, right. So what, what does, what, what do we take away from all this? Like, is this the third interpretation?
Grassroots organization view
Cathy Guo: So I kinda call it the grassroots organization view, which is essentially that DAOs are enabling really easy spin-ups of these virtual organizations that come together to do something, right.
Typically right now buy something; especially for the NFT or kind of these art world DAOs and you know, there are all these weird, passionate corners of the internet, and that's what we really love about it, right? Whether that's BTS or maybe even something more on the activist sphere. And I think DAOs just create a different way for people to easily get together and do something and organize in a community that they're passionate about.
You know, ConstitutionDAO, it's actually pretty cool. They use those funds to buy the constitution, but you were also rewarded with DAO tokens, which allows you to vote on things like where do we store the constitution in the future, how do we show it, should it be for free or not for free. So essentially being able to also create a paradigm for managing that asset after purchase as a community and it's pretty cool. And I would love to see, you know, more of these groups and quirky areas of the internet get together and do some stuff with DAOs.
Nitin Sharma: No, it's, it's, it's amazing. And that's what I think the interesting part is to realize that DeFi and NFTs, the whole world of the metaverse. I mean, while that's taking off, that's what makes DAOs such a foundational premise, right?
Because this is what enables actual functional fractional ownership of things, right? Because it's one thing to be trading small NFTs, but when people get together and want to bid on large valuable assets or works of historical importance that can only be managed through a DAO structure. So clearly it's three very, very important interpretations.
This is super exciting, right? Each of these interpretations but we are investors, so we have to take a balanced view. So let's talk about where things are today, and all of this is also fraught with some risks and things that go wrong. So let's talk about that.
Are DAOs functioning as intended?
Cathy Guo: Yeah. So, I mean, I think the way I think about web3 is like, we are in this Cambrian explosion of creating potentially generational technology, but we're still in like beta mode. Like everything out there is basically in beta mode and there are a lot of issues and that dream still requires 3 to 10 to 5 years of real building in order to come to fruition.
So right now with DAOs, right, some of the biggest issues that I see in existing DAOs, the first is identifying real users. Because obviously if you're launching a governance token and you want your active, authentic users to be participating in governance, the first question is how do you know who they are? And in crypto, and in web3, you will always have adversarial players, right?
You have people who civil attack, who just farm and create a ton of wallet addresses, who mimic activity on your network, right? Because they know that they're going to get an airdrop and once they get an airdrop, they're going to sell it. So it's actually a pretty difficult problem to be like, how do I distinguish authentic usage, what are the paradigms for airdrops, how do I look at activity on the network. Paraswap recently there was this whole controversy because they were super limited in their airdrop rate. And then some people were like, no, but I'm an authentic user. And then some people were like, oh, I was actually just farming this airdrop, but I still got a bunch.
Cathy Guo: So it's a difficult question. And it's still an open problem.
Nitin Sharma: Classic concentration versus decentralization. Actual decentralization.
Cathy Guo: Yeah, exactly. We're just identifying authentic usage versus speculators or people who are coming and interacting with your network to earn tokens, not to stick around and participate in the project, right.
The second is I would say genuinely governance participation is a huge problem. Like we talk about, everyone's like, yeah, we love community governance, all of this rah, rah. But if you look at actual on-chain voting, less than 1% and in most protocol cases, less than 0.1% of people even participate in voting, right.
Most people don't know what the hell is going on. They are maybe not technical enough to understand the proposals. Maybe they just don't give a crap, I don't know. So you have some participation issues, which then goes to that question of centralization versus decentralization, right? Because if you only have that we don't know what kind of identity is that subset. Maybe they're just super passionate community members. Maybe they're just whales. Maybe they're just randos, you know, but you only have less than 1% of people.
Nitin Sharma: Do you think that it will evolve into some sort of delegated proof of stake as it was with POS blockchains? Like would people essentially start to become...
Cathy Guo: Absolutely. You can delegate in most DAOs as well, but then it goes into, you know, it becomes political, right? You're dealing with human incentives and stuff like that. So there've been a lot of chats in the ecosystem about, are you allowed to buy votes, can I buy delegates, can I buy them openly on-chain, can I buy them off-chain what kinds of things does that mean if there's a de facto leader of a DAO who might not be like on-chain, the leader, like Vitalik of Ethereum. I mean, Ethereum is on a DAO today, but if you think about these ecosystems where clearly there's still a founder there, you know, how do you balance their influence on the project versus actual community governance, all this kind of stuff.
Nitin Sharma: Interestingly, some weird parallels to real-world democracy.
Cathy Guo: Exactly. When you deal with humans, it's messy, right? I think in web3, we have this idealized view that things will be transparent on-chain, all that, but at the end of the day, you're dealing with humans and humans are flawed and we have emotions, we have politics, all these ways of relating to one another; and DAOs are obviously also part of that. And this goes back to the third thing, which I think is a really interesting, more like research area for DAOs. So which is, how do you actually evolve voting paradigms? Because today, if you think about it, most of the DAOs that exist, whether you're a DeFi DAO or you're a VC DAO or you're in a, you know, whatever it is it's one token, one vote, right. Kind of like direct mimicking of a kind of libertarian market democracy. The more, if you have 10,000 tokens, you have 10,000 votes. If you have a million tokens, you have a million votes. And you know, there's been concerns about this, like especially whale control, you know, like, oh, there are these people who have a ton of tokens who are maybe crypto native investors, or maybe in the future, it's a black rock or, or a pension fund, right, who come in and become the whales of these ecosystems. And they will exactly, they, they, these guys are already rearing to come in. At that point, then you go back to the whole thing, which is a problem in shareholder voting as well, which is the big guys, make all the decisions, all the other people, even users are small fish - they're disengaged from the decision-making process everything. So how do we make sure that doesn't happen?
Nitin Sharma: And everyone must be applying quadratic voting in these kinds of ideas, which would be like Switzerland has had these kinds of experiments in the real world as well. So it'd be interesting to see how, even for developers, for example, right. There's the core contribution that gives you more than sort of that, one equal.
Cathy Guo: Exactly. Exactly. And Vitalik recently wrote about this in a blog post that he called the end game, right. Which is he's been exploring futarchy, which is a kind of a voting structure or quadratic voting, which is the idea that every extra vote has exponentially less weight. So if you have a hundred million tokens, it doesn't mean you have a hundred million X voting power.
Someone with one token, you might have 10,000 X, you know, something more rationalized. So there are different ways. It's, it's really at the intersection of, you know, incentive design and mechanism design, but clearly, one token, one vote at some point is also going to break down, right. So we're still very early. DAOs have gotten hacked.
DAOs have had bad actors, DAOs have gotten controlled by whales in situations where there have been controversy, airdrops, different things. So we're still very early, again, just beta testing in public. But I think one thing that's really cool about web3 and crypto is that this evolution is happening in public, you know, and with every learning, because it's a composable ecosystem, every DAO can take the on-chain activity or even off-chain activity of another DAO ecosystem.
Take those learnings, implement them. So I think we're still a couple of years away, but it's great to see some of these experiments happening and as a philosophy student, I mean, it's even cool because some of this stuff could be, could even be applicable in the real world beyond web3.
Nitin Sharma: Yeah. Well, this is very, very interdisciplinary which leads us to the question of All these pain points, even though the ecosystem will surely create opportunities for innovation and for products will be built out in infrastructure and tooling to be built out, right. And that's what really excites us as venture investors and not traders necessarily, who are the founders and developers building the infrastructure for this new world. So let's go into that.
Areas of opportunity
Cathy Guo: So DAO tooling is actually a really interesting space, you know, even at Dunya, when I was building with products in this space, I always thought that dev tools, infrastructure, picks, and shovels were a really good place to start, because right now, like any very nascent ecosystem things, a lot of things can be improved, right. So where I see in tooling are two major areas. One is essentially an integrated experience. Because right now, if you look at a DAO, they're using discord for their community, they're using discourse or some tool for their proposals. They're using some other system for the actual voting and count.
You know, they're using some other project management software because different contributors are then implementing the DAO proposals. It's a huge mess. And so I think that a place which is built from scratch, like kind of an interface, which integrates all these different life cycles of a DAO from formation, all the way to the running of a DAO could be really interesting in different pieces are, people are building different pieces of this.
And the second is also like financial management of DAOs, right? DAOs are financial entities, like we said, $14 billion in DAOs today. But we don't have any specialized tools to deal with even something as simple as payroll from DAOs, for people who are not full-time employees, anonymous contributors, or you only have their wallet on Etherscan or whatever.
The second would be taxation of DAO, you know, fund movement tools around accounting, you know, so all of this stuff around the DAO treasury management is also something that needs to be built specialized for web3, for these kinds of virtual entities from the ground up and probably can be really improved.
And these things will really enable people to use these better, to start them easier. And so I think that's a really important part of the space.
Nitin Sharma: Yeah. And in general, across all of the various parts of web3, right. That usability is, is, is one of the biggest themes and that's what we're really excited about. So let's, let's finish by talking about, you know, what kind of communities can turn into DAOs, and so, you know, clearly, especially if you look at it from the perspective of countries like India, and we've got a lot of developers here and, you know, we, we mentioned we're working with Solana, Polygon, but also Questbook, which is a developer community. It's interesting if those kinds of things turn into DAOs over time as well.
Cathy Guo: Absolutely. Questbook is a great example. You know, where the first asset they've built is really a community of developers who want to transition from web2 into web3. And their whole vision is, you know, can we build this protocol for talent allocation, where developers are able to have a unique identity match with job opportunities and engage and discover in a peer-to-peer fashion as well as in a work contribution fashion.
And can we run this entire thing as a DAO? And India, you know, we have such a great, you know, talent arbitrage with the whole world. We have the largest set of developers, maybe in the next 2-3 years, the largest set of active developers in web3, even. So I think that's a really interesting community to go after.
And we also see other experiments, you know, whether that's Chingari, which is like the TikTok for India launching a kind of community token. Or we see, you know creator economy, like can there be DAOs created there. Now that that's a trend can we look at things like social networks that are created in DAO structure or progressively decentralized?
So these are all interesting. And the final point is that you know, DAOs, I think are not new to India. We're sitting here out of India and you know, the way I think of it is, is the basic level of DAO is community governance, right? And we have entities like Amul, which are hundreds of years old, the largest collectives in the world.
And so Amul is a DAO. Yeah, watch out crypto, like DAOs are not new to India.
Nitin Sharma: And it's not just India. I think even in Israel, many countries have had this tradition of communities kind of governing themselves. And it's just interesting to kind of take that old concept and make it all on top of code and smart contracts.
But this was fun, Cathy. Thank you. Clearly, we've got lots to think about and hopefully, the audiences appreciated how profoundly interesting some of the implications of DAOs are. So we will continue to invest in a lot of projects, especially in, infra, tooling. Really excited about where this future goes.
Must-read articles from Antler
Browse our collection of founder stories, industry insights and latest startup successes from Antler Australia
Sarah Hilmy: Inspiring friends and families to discover the world together
“Holidays are a way for you to enrich your own life. It's about going out and experiencing things that you otherwise wouldn't experience in your everyday life, trying new food, meeting new people, and just learning more about the world in a first-hand way.” —Sarah Hilmy, co-founder of travel platform Oddysee.
50 creators to watch in 2023
As the creator economy continues to grow, expand, and evolve, we've curated a list of 50 exciting leaders to watch in this space. Influencers. Journalists. Operators at prominent creator-related platforms. Founders. These are the players—seen and unseen—who underpin the global creator ecosystem.
Sharon Li & Vanessa Chen: Empowering employees to be their healthiest and most productive selves
“People sometimes think the emotional and professional are conflicting, but what we believe is when people love their organization, the emotional value will actually make them productive. It will make them give their full self to the organization and make the organization grow for the long term.” —Sharon Li, co-founder and CEO of CHOYS
The 2023 Creator Economy: A new direction
Our creator economy insights series—starting with our ultimate guide to the creator economy in May 2021—has tracked the explosion of a sector that upended the professional aspirations of the next generation. Today, as uncertainty and macroeconomic challenges pervade, how are creators pivoting and what does it mean for the sector's future?
Piet Hein van Dam: The seasoned data entrepreneur aiming to eradicate type 2 diabetes
Our content series "It All Starts with People" delves into the passions, motivations, and vision of the exceptional founders we have the privilege of partnering with around the world. Bringing a clarity of vision to our latest spotlight is Piet Hein van Dam, co-founder of Clear, the award-winning digital self-help tool for diabetes patients.
Unpacking the $80+ billion ONDC opportunity: India’s next startup catalyst
India's approach to unbundle payments made the world look up and take notice. Now it's time to disrupt commerce with the Open Network for Digital Commerce or ONDC. In our latest Theory of Next deep dive we mapped, researched, and reached out to every network participant live on ONDC right now.
And we're excited to share with you a comprehensive what could be India's next unicorn catalyst with inputs from Vibhor Jain (COO of ONDC), Sujith Nair (Founding member of Beckn Protocol), and founders building on ONDC!
Co-authored by Nitin Sharma (Partner, Antler) and Gokul Kumaravelu.
Five steps investors can take to support more diverse founders
Despite growing calls to create a more inclusive venture capital ecosystem and remove the barriers to entrepreneurship, only a fraction of funding is raised by founders from underrepresented communities.
The first step towards change is quantifying the challenge. While in-depth research has been conducted about women founders and founders from ethnic minority backgrounds, data has never existed about tech founders from the LGBTQ+ community—until now.
A record year for Europe's leading day zero investor
A look back at 2022, a record year for the leading day zero investor in Europe—showcasing investment activity and key predictions for the early-stage tech ecosystem in 2023.