Genesis with Sean X Thielen

A conversation about  hardware, the illusion of disunity, and betting on the future

Published August 31, 2023

We’re joined in conversation with Sean X Thielen-Esparza, a New York-based designer, artist, and co-founder of Genesis. During our conversation, we discuss the concept of animating, transactional versus transformational work, betting on the future, and the illusion of disunity.

Listen to the recorded version of our conversation on Spotify or Apple Music. Check out Genesis, Menagerie, or follow Sean on Instagram or Twitter.

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USURPATOR: I’ll describe the titles that I think you bear and you can correct me, sounds good?

I know that you’re a founder… Do you describe yourself as an Artist-Founder as well? Are you on that train?

SEAN THIELEN-ESPARZA: I do, I'm also on the Artist-Founder train.

Artist-Founder by Teal Process

U: You’re a furniture designer, also just a regular designer. I've been to your DJ sets.

S: I don't classify myself as a DJ, I say that I'm a person who can DJ, but I'm not a DJ.

U: I mean, how many times does someone have to DJ before they can call themselves a DJ?

S: I think it's a mindset thing. I like to have my USB on me; should there be decks available and I feel compelled to go up and say something with what I want to do, versus trying to be booked as a DJ and be on someone's bill.

U: Lately, I’ve noticed that unless you’re booked, you can't go to a party and just DJ even if they have the CD-J there, because everyone is lined up for it. Everyone in a three mile radius is a DJ.

S: See, that's interesting. If I'm pulling up to a party with strangers, they typically want DJs. But to your point, with our group of friends in New York, everyone's a DJ. Quite frankly, I don't find myself in the position where I'm fighting with people to DJ because I don't really ever want to unless I'm very compelled to do so. But this is why it comes down to someone who can DJ versus someone who is a DJ.

U: Right, it's not your calling. What else are your roles or titles that I missed… your hidden talents?

S: One that I think is resonant is the concept of an Animator. When you hear that, a lot of people will think of someone who draws and animates those drawings. But, I'm using the concept of an Animator borrowed from the Baha'i community; I'm someone who practices the Baha'i faith and my role was essentially animating ideas, beliefs, projects, artifacts out of what they call “junior youth,” which is generally middle school aged kids. Your goal as an Animator is to draw out inherent and under-utilized capacities in the junior youth. What I like about the role of the Animator is that it takes an existing substrate and pulls it out into what it wants to be in its final form. These kids have a ton of capacity, but it’s my job to help them articulate it. I think that can be applied to other avenues simply as a teaching style or pedagogy of sorts. Maybe the pithy way to explain Animators is just as a teacher. I really like facilitating and leading workshops. That's something that I've always done, and I’ve resonated with the purpose of teaching through the concept or role of the Animator.

U: Is it always necessarily to do with the junior youth?

S: It's not always that. I’m basically just borrowing a role and applying it as a more generalized principle. I'm not an Animator anymore, but I think that belief system can be applied to your peers, people that you report to, and people who report to you. I think this notion of facilitation is more or less just a way of being. You can learn something from anyone, including of course, junior youth. That was the point of thinking of the Animator in that capacity, but also you can learn things from your peers. Seeing everyone or anyone as a potential place for learning and growth is caked into the concept of the Animator.

U: The way that you frame it, are you animating the ambitions that are inside of us inherently, or does it have more to do with catching ideas that are floating around in the aether?

S: I think those things are related. But it's more the former in the sense that, traditionally, this demographic of people—kids—are undervalued in their already-latent potential. What Animators try to do is recognize that potential and help them find both the language around their ideas and also the skills and resources required to act on them. That's where the Animator is a little different than a teacher. A teacher will give you frameworks for you to use, but Animators help you articulate your own frameworks and provide an operational capacity to execute on them, making it a little bit more actionable using their own agency and ability to act on that, on your behalf.

U: So it’s an ability to see longer or deeper into it, and break down all of the different elements you have to execute in order to actualize this idea.

S: Yeah, and you can then apply that way of facilitating or teaching to other things in life. Like, I'm a startup founder, so a lot of what I do is taking what are sound ingredients in people and just connecting the dots for them or resourcing them properly to execute those ideas. So it's the same methodology. I'm not teaching people, I'm just saying “Oh, there's some good ingredients here, and I think like, if you did this and that, and I help you with this other thing, we can make something cool happen.” I think that's a better way for people to be invested in their own agency because you can prove to them that things are possible when you coordinate with other people.

U: Did you know this was something you were good at, or was this something that you wanted to do when you built a startup? Or was it something that you've found along the way?

S: Being an Animator? In short, no. I think I would characterize this M.O. as more of a lifestyle thing. I have this belief that no humans are on pedestals. I guess people articulate this sometimes as “kill your heroes,” but I think of it more as like, you have an opportunity to learn from and alongside anyone, including people that you look up to, that they are a peer apprentice of sorts. That's language that some of the folks at Teal, specifically Yatu, has used before.

So, was this something that I wanted to do as a function of running my startup? No, but it is a way that I like to get things done. I like working with people and seeing the potential that they have despite their skillset, despite their age, or experience. I would say it's a helpful mindset to have, especially if you're a scrappy startup founder because you could do a lot with what is around you. It's a super big benefit to be able to not need a certain bar to be met on any axis. You'll work with what you have around you and you can bring out the best in people. I think if you're a leader that can do that, and in this case, being a startup founder, you're in a really good position to just execute and bring good people around you who see that their value and perspective has been respected.

U: In terms of your path of how you became a founder—you have a co-founder, right?

S: I have two co-founders.

U: Okay. Do all of you guys share this role? I guess I never fully introduced your startup. Your startup is called Genesis, and Genesis is…

S: Genesis is a way to bring the context layer of the internet, specifically the crypto-powered internet, closer to the interaction layer, what people often called wallets and signers. Put more simply, what we're trying to do is make it safer, easier, more ergonomic and familiar for you to interact with crypto; thinking of crypto as a facet of the internet instead of this very discreet, separate subculture that exists peripheral to it. That's the broad idea of what Genesis is trying to do, but practically speaking, what we make is a wallet infrastructure for you to start interacting.

 Courtesy of Genesis

U: Interacting with what?

S: With crypto applications on the web. Pretty soon here, if all goes well in the next few weeks, we’ll be introducing a way for you to do all this without a separate app. You could use the web to do all this. That's all that I can say right now, 'cause we're cooking.

U: Got it. So, when did Genesis start? When did you start getting the idea for it? And then when did you guys start putting it into reality?

S: So, it was the end of 2021 and I was in Europe with a friend. I was on a vacation and feeling really fed up with my last job—I was working in AI before this as a product manager. I realized that as I was approaching my two year mark at this company, I was reaching the point where I was one of the most tenured people on my team, but the most junior in terms of title. I had all this baked-in institutional knowledge where I was always the youngest, probably lowest paid person in the room. I just reached a point where I stopped learning, so I straight up just quit. No notice. I don't love that, but I had this belief that if I spent another day working at that company, in that team, it would just feel really incongruent with my life. So, I said fuck it.

I was in Portugal, in Lisbon, and I put out a tweet that was about something not related to Genesis. This is pre-Genesis, before the Genesis concept even came to fruition. I put out a tweet that said “Hey everyone, I am a free agent. I’m going to be working on objects, software, and art.” That was probably a bad categorization of what I actually wanted to do, but basically, I launched this studio that I was going to freelance through called Menagerie.

Menagerie, in concept, is a place to honor ideas in their inherent life. The concept of a menagerie is a zoo that has animals in it; extending that metaphor, I wanted this little zoo to be a place where all my ideas can be animals that live their own lives as a result of their own independent progression. It was basically a creative studio. I have a skillset of being able to make stuff with my hands and build objects, but also write software and design. It felt like the right abstraction. So, when I put out that tweet, I added in the tagline that if anyone needed any work done, I'm really interested in crypto and frontier tech. That somehow made its way to a crypto investor's inbox, and he blasted that tweet to his portfolio companies, many of whom hit me up. That was totally unexpected, but importantly, I ended up taking a small part-time gig doing design work while I was figuring out what I wanted to do. During that time, the older brother of my best friend from high school hit me up and was like “Yo, I haven't spoken to you in a long time, but I really think that you'd resonate with this idea that I have for a company called Genesis.”

So, Genesis was not my idea. But in terms of concept and product, what resonated for me around its motivations was the perfect convergence of conditions that I needed to be willing to dedicate the next chunk of my life to; dedicating my reputation, financial future, all of that. It was a compound decision. So, the co-founding team is me, Sammy, my friend's older brother, and Dan is another New York-based engineer that I met recently and hit it off with very deeply to the point where I got him on board.

Sammy had the idea, which was a product-concept: what if we made an integrated experience where you could understand the full context of a transaction in the same interface where you actually approve it. For example, blockchain data is notoriously difficult to interpret. So if you want to swap tokens on an app like Uniswap, that should be super simple. In Genesis, you can understand what token you're swapping. Ideally, this kind of experience would prevent phishing, it would prevent people being hacked or scammed.

In a nutshell, that’s what the product-concept was. But importantly, what we wanted to do was more than just a product—we wanted to change the aesthetics and culture of crypto. The biggest thing for me was, here I have one of my oldest friend’s older brothers, who I've always respected and had a ton of great conversations with since I was 17, and he was telling me “I think you'd resonate with this.” When we discussed all the things that we thought we could improve about crypto fundamentally, bringing a better UX at the product level was one of them. But a big one was the images, the aesthetics, the community, the language that we're using in crypto. The plot line of this greed and hyper-volatility and, you know, cringe factor, was really dissonant with the way that I saw these sound ingredients. A big motivator for me was that my co-founders are people whose visions of the future I agree with at a cultural level. I think if we're successful, we can become agents of change at a cultural level to introduce—not cringe, ugly-ass art—but introduce applications that are actually relevant; and to introduce a UI and UX pattern that pushes the entire space forward.

Not only did I feel very aligned at a vision level, but I think that we have a really strong mix of people. Dan is an engineer who's probably one of the best engineers I've ever met; Sammy is one of the best designers I know who can make brands, products, and physical goods. He's really, really talented as a designer. And then myself, I am by no means an excellent engineer, but I can code, and I would say I'm a very good designer, but I'm not a better designer than Sammy. I'm also able to communicate most effectively against the engineering arm and the design arm. I can speak pretty well and sell, all that stuff. There’s a trifecta of pretty mutually exclusive spikes, but overlapping skill-sets as the founding team. I had the perfect confluence of the team, our vision and the product feeling really, really strong. So we started the company pretty soon after that initial conversation with Sammy, around November of 2021. We raised a round of venture funding in the beginning of 2022, and we've been building since then.

U: So when you're initially raising, what are you raising off of? Do you just have a pitch deck or design mockups? What do you need to show VCs when raising?

S: Well, it depends a lot on what stage you're presenting the idea. As a reference point, they're typically ideas that consider themselves pre-seed, seed and series A. Those are early-stage, I would argue. There is not a hard and fast rule of what constitutes a pre-seed versus a seed startup, they’re kind of made up titles that are more reflective of your set of hypotheses for what you've proven, and what amount of money you wanna raise.

In our case, it was early on enough in this idea where we had an articulate vision, we had a plan for how we would execute on this, I knew the people that we would hire, we had a team, and we had designs. So before we had built anything, I had the research prompt and the set of experiments we would run. We would probably call that a pre-seed; there wasn't a product yet, so it's not necessarily a seed. To answer your question, I had a pitch deck, I had a team, I had my first few hires locked in and ready to go as soon as we got capital, and then a plan for how to execute.

There's one detail of this that's pretty important; I'm really lucky to have the accidental network that I created by living in New York. Half of my friends on the tech side of my life were founders, the other half were VCs. Before Genesis, there was never an angle of wanting to raise money from them one day, or wanting to be a founder someday.

That has never been a desire of mine. And because there was a ton of good faith and they knew me really well on both sides, it was really easy for me to come to my founder friends and be like, “Yo, this is my set of intuitions, can you help me construct something that's pitchable?” and they helped me. I have to give my shout out to Reggie here. Reggie's a friend of ours and he runs a company called Eternal. When I was ready to become a founder, I called him and he invited me over to his house, we just sat on his roof and he talked me through all the things that I need to know. I'll never forget how in-depth and helpful that conversation was for forming crucial decisions in the beginning that felt really scary. Also Kristin, who's another friend of ours, a VC at a company called Eniac. I sat with her with my extremely bad, embarrassing pitch deck that had good ingredients but was not pitchable. I talked with her at her kitchen table that same week and she helped me construct a pitch deck that I could actually show to VCs. I had a really, really good accidental network of people that I could immediately go and talk to, and I don’t many people have that.

U: I mean, someone who just has a bright idea that they want to build on, why would they know how any of this works? How would you know what VCs want and what they're used to looking at, what they’re buying into versus what they're not? But then again, in New York and LA, we’re pretty exposed to that culture.

So when you guys started raising for Genesis, I'm curious to know how long of a time it was between you guys raising money and launching the app?

S: So, when you're raising, it’s frustrating because you’re not building, and when you're building, you're generally not talking to investors. In terms of the actual timeline, we did our first public product around March of 2022. It was about three months from the raise to a product launch. It was an experiment where we livestreamed my team in a warehouse in Brooklyn, and we played music on each of the five days to represent each of the five team members. We would drop custom art that we made for that team member, so you could collect, using Genesis's infra, a piece of custom art that linked to the Spotify playlist that was being played that day of the livestream. So, the mechanism to claim the art was: you tune into our website, there's a livestream and a QR code would pop up as you're listening to music and watching the team work, and claim free art that way.

That was like our first product. I think what that did is, it started the lore-building of what Genesis was, at least from a vibes perspective. It probably wasn't telling you that much about our product, but it was a way for us to tell the people who were watching that when we ask for your attention, we're typically going to ask you to do something and give you something in return.

POAP from Genesis

U: How did you devise these plans in the time that you were raising? You were building the product, but you decided that you needed to do some more preliminary steps first before launching?

S: Generally speaking, there’s three motions at a company. Most things that you do bubble up into one of these three goals: One is fundraising, rule number one is don't run out of money. Number two is building actual product. That takes time, research, development, ideation, designing. And then the third is marketing, or what I typically call distribution. In other words, make money to power the whole thing, build the product so that you have something to ship, and build distribution so that people are ready to receive it through some rail, whether that's Twitter, Instagram, email, or whatever, when the product is ready.

In that first motion, we were building distribution, and in the background building products as we're building the rails of distribution. More and more people join those rails, and through that, there's an audience to receive the product when we’re ready to ship to them. There were things we learned that worked and things that didn't work; we had to adjust over the last year and a half. But generally speaking, I've spent the last year and a half doing a lot of the product building, and a fair bit of distribution building in the form of viral stunts or spectacle-oriented events to conjure the feeling of interest. I think asking people's attention in that way adds some delight factor to the brand and to the audience’s association with what Genesis is.

U: What you were saying before made me think of something that I would predict to be a problem in building any kind of product from the ground up, all of the constraints that arise within the time from conception to the actual launch. I don't know if the work is largely held in enacting your vision and perfectly executing it so that everything from the original idea is preserved in the final product; or if it's about making concessions along the way, and compromising your original idea with all of these real world constraints that are now being imposed upon you.

S: I could talk forever about that, but I learned really painfully that you should start with the hookiest part of the thing that you're making—the thing that's most sticky, the real meat of the thing and not the pixel perfect, concession free version of your idea. I learned at a visceral level to ship the thing that is the sticky hook. Also, to constantly test the fundamentals of your idea.

To your latter point, around how do you stay focused when your idea changes, I think your idea should change as you develop awareness of the context that you're building in. Crypto changes so frequently; new infrastructure gets developed, new narratives begin to emerge that then inform how people interact with such a nascent space, and you have to be aware of those. Testing the fundamentals of what it is that you're building means revisiting what your mission is and what assumptions that you had when you first went to build. Are those still true? If those are sound and fundamental enough, then you're probably on the right track in your convictions. But don't look at data that is saying otherwise and fall into the trap of thinking “Oh, they'll come around.” You have to be really sober to that. People have already sung the praises of being focused over and over again, but I'm also one of those people now. If it's not a fundamental product that has a hook that you can build a story on top of quickly and with real users, then don't do it.

U: I guess this is an assumption, but I feel like there's two camps of founders, or people who have these bright ideas who want to build on them. In one, it’s products that have a very specific use case; a product that fulfills a very specific need. And then on the opposite side of that, there’s the idyllic people who want to change or revolutionize the whole scope of an entire space or domain. If you're in the latter camp, it might be kind of painful to have to narrow your vision down to this thing that is sticky or much more tangible, and then build off of that.

S: I can't speak for all founders, but it comes down to a relationship with work. Do you have a transactional relationship with work, or do you have a transformational one? I think the former is: I get money, ideally a lot of it, to create resources to use in the things that I actually wanna do with my life. Very European, very Roman. Then I think the latter, transformational work is more like: I'm looking for meaning or fundamental fulfillment from my work. A lot of founders fall into the second camp because they've seen things like The Social Network and are very inspired by that story. That's a super individual choice.

I think that there's sound fundamentals to a nascent technology that's still finding its language system and broader culture. Of course, part of that culture is the technology and tools that are used within it. I feel that I have a perspective on how that should look and I want to do my best to apply myself towards that. The best way that I could see myself doing that is through a venture-backed company like Genesis. I think that probably lands itself more in the transformational camp. I would also say that you have to have some degree of delusion to also be in that camp.

U: That is definitely true, also just to have a startup in the first place.

S: Totally, this is the hardest, most insane thing that I've ever spent my time doing. It's the best job I've ever had, and also the most emotionally challenging as someone who's relatively level-headed and pretty sound. I'm constantly shocked at how extremely high the highs feel, and how depressingly low I've felt in the last year and some change of doing this thing.

U: I guess I’ve never validated this statistic, it's just something that I hear, but people always say that 90% of startups fail.

S: I think that statistic is true, I've also heard something like that. In my head it, you're more likely to fail than you are to succeed. But I think failure looks like a lot of different things. Success is defined as, by most heuristics at least, did you become a unicorn (which is a billion dollar valuation company)? Or even more aspirationally, did you IPO successfully and generate a huge return for both your investors, your team, and yourself?

Failure can look like a lot of different things; for instance, did you sell the company even though you didn't make any money, but you technically got acquired? That could be a form of failure. Or, did you shut down the company and return all the money to people because you lost conviction? That's also a failure. I think there's also this weird middle ground of people who probably will fail eventually, but their company exists in this zombie state of being a thing that no one wants and is somehow still alive, just burning money. That's also a bad place to be.

U: I guess when you frame it like that, the statistic doesn't really make any sense. It would make more sense if they said most startups fail within the first year or two. Because everything ends eventually, right? Or I guess you stop becoming a startup when you get acquired. That's the end goal. If you don't get acquired and you shut things down for one reason or another while you're still considered a startup, that's a failure.

Something that you mentioned earlier is about how crypto is ever-changing, quickly evolving. You get a good idea and you're trying to build something within this area that is rapidly evolving—markets are crashing, they're rising. Nobody knows what's going to happen next. Are you struck with this anxiety, or how do you maintain your own self-assuredness in the product that you're building?

S: Yeah, I forget where and who, but someone said that running a startup is like looking into the void and chewing glass. I cannot think of a more perfect articulation of how it feels sometimes. There are ways that you can make the void less of a void and illuminate it; usually that boils down to whether or not you’re talking to your customers and sense-checking your hypotheses around the product that you're building. Then, there's a very practical, macro-level answer of how the market is changing. You can make the void less of a void, but if you're building in silence privately, that's really hard to do. This is where the tension exists between doing the pixel perfect thing or shipping the product that can give you some proxy assurance and make the glass feel less glassy.

With crypto in particular, it's hard because you basically have these really visceral and brutal transparent proxy measures that you can choose to lean into or not. Some of those are like what you mentioned, volatility of price charts. If you're building on a piece of technology that has a coin, and that coin's respective value drops significantly, that really doesn't feel good. That live sentiment tracker on a 24/7 market is really hard to stomach for most people, generally. That's why people always sell their stocks when they're tanking instead of holding them until they’re booming again.

To build technology that's responsive and context aware depends on where you are in the stack. If you believe fundamentally that crypto will exist in some fashion in the next, I don't know, 100+ years of society, then I think it pays to be confident in it as a fundamental primitive that you can build on top of. But stay humble to the reality that the product that you're building on top of that stack needs to be capturing value under the curve of adoption. What I mean by that is, things change really quickly from a technology perspective in crypto. If you think that the current state of affairs can't persist for much longer, then it's beneficial to understand what will persist and develop a thesis around that, and build towards it. But you're not always gonna be right.

The problem and the really awesome challenge is you have to be fundamentally right, not just directionally correct, a lot of the time. And the things that you're fundamentally right about, not just directionally correct, you can win extremely big on. People say that startup building is a mix of luck, skill, and sheer foresight or vision. But I would say that it's all of those things plus an awareness that you can't just be at the right place at the right time. You get that way by capturing value under the curve by solving real problems that people have now, and building good faith, a story, and history with the people that are ultimately gonna be using your product.

To overlay that and sum it up: don't be building in silence. Try to develop relationships with people who are gonna be durable through the cycles of shit changing. Ideally, target a related and ancillary group of people who you think you could bring in and be their shepherd, be their—I'm gonna say it—be their Animator. Facilitate them to get into the space. That's more on the targeting and positioning angle.

U: In terms of making the right calls, how do you try your best to achieve that? Is it just keeping your finger on the pulse or your ear to the ground?

S: Yeah, I mean, both of those things. I don't know if I'm correct. I'll find out if I'm correct as we keep launching these things. But directionally, we have evidence that the things that we believe to be true are problems that people are willing to pay to solve for. The way I try to be right is to make sure that I'm sense-checking my own logic and my own conviction, while also being aware of the fact that I don't know everything and I'm not the market. I'm a constituent of it and I'm a participant in it.

Talking to people and keeping a pulse on sentiment towards technologies that are developing, as well as problems that people have or don't have anymore. In our case, I feel like I have a pretty good pulse on that, being on Twitter and also my own personal networks. I understand what narratives are forming and where things are changing.

U: Being in New York, in the spaces that you find yourself in the city, you do get a really good platform for seeing what people are excited about and what people are drawn to before it gets too blown up. But these are also the people who are going to be leading that, right?

S: Well, yes and no. I think that you can't exist in a silo. One of the things that I'm really grateful for is, as I said earlier, half my friends are VCs and the other half are founders. But I would say that's a quarter true. Half my friend group are people in tech, so one fourth are founders and one fourth VCs. These are very simplified fractions. But the other half of my friend group are in the realm of media, entertainment, art, and science; I would argue that being able to talk to them about what’s happening, what they've been experiencing, and what they think of things that feel very fringe and foreign to them, like crypto.

It’s important to have a non-scary, approachable person who is interested in this kind of stuff, for a lot of my friends who are not in crypto or tech. Being able to step out of your bubble is a pretty big skill, if you can call it that. Or, it’s an affordance of having a diverse set of friends. I try to make sure that I'm not in my own little bubble by listening with curiosity, without judgment or an angle, to what my friends hear about and care about who are not really interested in this shit. Because that'll make it very clear to you if you're in your own little world.

U: In terms of trends that you're trying to predict, what are the calls that you're making?

S: I think with Genesis, we believe that the fundamentals of the technology are sound, but there's a cultural iteration that needs to happen and a return of values. The bet we're making is that crypto is here to stay, but it'll become part of the fabric of the internet. There is only so much you can do on the UI front, people have been designing better products. But what really needs to happen is people need to build a reason for people to be here— an integration of the crypto space with the broader community of the internet, not just this fringe thing that weirdos are using. That's obviously a pretty uncharitable take, but I think it's the perception that a lot of people have. It's like, ugly monkey picture and a weird nerd who spent $60,000 to be part of this. That's the most uncharitable version of this, but I think we have a job in terms of both culture and product to make this stuff better on all fronts. I'm betting the next few years of my career and reputation on being right about this.

In terms of my other projects, I'm just trying to return to form, you know? I think people want to step into smaller groups where they're not in town squares constantly and influencing. I try to foster a smallness to my friend group, and a closeness. Like, I’ve got a really poppin close friends story; I feel like my group chats are where I spend most of my time, not so much on Twitter anymore or public forums where I'm shooting content into the void. I think people want to be in tiny little iMessage chats these days.

U: I’m also seeing that trend, for sure. So you have a studio now? What's going on at the studio?

S: Yeah, there’s a physical space, a studio near here in Queens that I also call Menagerie. But then there is this conceptual structure also called Menagerie, that is the thing that I mentioned earlier. It's kind of like a concept studio container.

I am up to a few things. Principally, the space is supposed to be a place that embodies this philosophy of small friend groups. So, a few close friends have access to the studio, I give them keys and they can use it however and whenever they want. Later, there's gonna be a small library so you can pop in books and see who else in the network has rented out books or put in new books and that will be cool, it'll just be a physical representation of my tiny little social circle.

But yeah, it's a space for my friends and also it’s supposed to be a teaching space. I do workshops, for instance, last year I was doing a chair building workshop. Later this fall, I'll be doing a 3D printing, modeling, and software workshop, going over how to 3D print and model your own stuff in Blender. I’m probably gonna do another chair workshop as well.

So, it's a teaching space, but also just a productive space. I have a decently stocked wood shop; I have a laser cutter that you can use for engraving as well as cutting acrylics, plastics, metals, woods, whatever; the 3D printer for prototyping; and even a ceramic oven. It's kind of hard to describe the purpose of the space. It's a productive space. It's a space for animating, if you will.


U: Right, the laser cutter, you were just getting that in today, right?

S: Yeah, I'm about to get it delivered this week. We're gonna be using that for an upcoming Genesis project, but I use it for making wood cuts for furniture that's pretty intricate and hard to make with your hands.

U: Right, I feel like there’s this balance to your work… I know Genesis might have a physical component coming, which maybe you can't talk about very much yet, but this does seem like two separate spheres or spaces that balance each other out. I have this prediction that people are getting sick of SaaS, or getting sick of pure digital in general. Maybe that's just me, but for my 2024 trend forecast, I’m predicting a return to hardware. No more Software as a Service, but Hardware as a One Time Purchase… HaaOTP.

S: Yeah. It's interesting that you're applying a type of product to a business model. Which, yeah, subscriptions are a great business model. The way I think of it is in terms of atoms and bits—objects and software. Atoms have a tangibility to them, there's a cost to owning them. They are not free.

Something I tweeted last year that I still think about is how a lot of designers got really drunk off pixels because they're free; it's really important to have a balance to that, by understanding the cost of producing, owning, iterating on things. I think working with atoms teaches you that. I feel really lucky that I started my life as a designer in the world of atoms and making furniture before I was making software products. At Genesis, we’re aware of the subconscious cost when we're making something, and because of that, we’re making sure that it has some sort of a lasting impact. Not being blinded by that, but being informed by that is helpful.

Then in the realm of whether or not people are sick of software and subscriptions? For sure, yeah. But I think that people turn to hardware or objects as a way to get off of their computer. I think that the most common person who hits me up on Instagram when they see that I'm making chairs and teaching people how to do that are always the software engineers who are perhaps, I'm assuming, disillusioned by their inputs every day and the lack of tangibility of the work that they put in, and the hours of their lives that they're spending behind the screen. For those people, making something with your hands, feeling it, owning it, and being part of its creation process definitely balances out what was fucking two and a half years of COVID and being inside. It also creates some substance to your work that is a lot more grokable for most people. So yeah, I'm glad that they're in vogue right now.

Teal Process on

U: Yeah, I don't know if it's just something that I'm seeing from where I'm sitting… I know that you're really into hardware, you’re always hacking gaming systems, then there’s also USB club.

I didn't even fully realize that I have this major hesitancy to pay for anything that's on a computer. I just don't want to do it. I still intuitively feel like it should be free.

S: Yeah, well that's the question, right? Information that's digital should be both valuable and freely accessible. Not to be that guy, but crypto's trying to answer that question of: what do expansive fee models look like? That's certainly a question we're interested in. Part of the vision for Genesis is for humans and software to have a more harmonious relationship with each other where there isn't this rent-seeking business model that drives a lot of platform capitalism, which locks people in and makes it hard for them to leave. There's an opportunity there with respect to using crypto, to make that a lot more feasible if you can create more fundamentally aligned business models to power that.

I agree with you that open source shit is sick. This isn’t open source, this is technically illegal, but I learned how to design because I torrented Photoshop. That's a tool that should be freely available and is extremely valuable. I think there's a tension there presently with current software and the business models that power it. But there are a lot of people that probably resonate with what you're saying, myself included. It's hard for me to pay $30 for something that I know costs barely anything to the person who is selling it.

U: I think there's something there that’s related to the era in which we grew up on the internet. Pretty much everything was free back then, right? I can't really think of anything that I had to pay for or wanted to pay for that was on the computer. It felt like such a free space. I remember seeing computer games, CDRoms, or Rosetta Stone that you had to pay for. But I think the dawn of streaming services was when everyone stopped questioning whether or not it was worth it to shell out money for their computer or TV every month. Then once you start dipping that toe in the water, you're in. Then you're just paying for digital shit left, right, and center.

S: Yeah. That's a good metaphor, because back when we were paying for songs, I had to go to Longs Drug Store to buy iTunes gift cards in the suburbs of L.A. in order to get the new Radiohead album or whatever. And now I have literally everything at the tip of my fingers. I'm a hoarder now. The marginal cost for me is mentally zero, but also financially zero, I'll just hoard shit. And because it's free, it makes it feel less valuable versus if I can only take a CD and my Walkman, I'm choosing one CD that I really love. Things have value because I have to own them, care for them, and be a steward of it until I'm ready to get rid of it.

U: And they also take up actual space in your home, right?

S: Yeah, it's harder to be a physical hoarder.

U: The sentiment that we're talking about where people expect things on the internet to be free, that's obviously still pervasive because everything has a free tier, and you still need that to sell something. The only real world equivalent that I can think of is at Sephora, when you can get samples or testers. But in real life, that's very few and far between when you get to try something out for a little bit first, or you get a part of it without having to pay. I know that a lot of people would prefer our digital services to be paid in order to cut out all of this shit that comes along with the free price tag.

S: This kind of stuff stresses me out, because it's the question of how you subvert business models that inform entire paradigms of software or products more broadly. That is ultimately incongruent with the type of future that I want to have for myself and my kids. What we’re essentially asking is: what happens post-subscriptions? Or, what does an ad-less set of social products look like? Those are questions that have largely been narrative foundations for swaths of companies that most people would consider successful, so they become reference points for founders to then pattern-match when they're talking to investors.

The brave thing to do is to continue pushing down this avenue of post-platform capitalism, post-SaaS. Hardware is traditionally something really hard to invest in. If the goal of venture is scale, approaching zero marginal costs, and making something absolutely fucking massive, it's really hard to do that with hardware because the iteration cycles and production cycles tend to take longer. And software is free. The whole point of us paying $30 for something that cost a fixed amount to make and a largely lower amount to maintain is super sweet for investors who ultimately want to make a return. So you have this really interesting confluence of factors around narratives of what people want in the market, what they're tired of, how you as a person want to build a future for your children and yourself in the products that we use, all of these things. I think it just takes a ton of bravery and conviction to move past what you know will “work” for the stakeholders who can enable your ideas, banks who give loans, VCs giving venture, or yourself for funding your own shit. It's brave to go into uncharted territory.

U: So with Genesis, what is your guys' pricing model?

S: Yeah, I will say that we haven't landed on a business model that has generated meaningful traction that I would be convicted in. But, we have hypotheses for what that could look like post-subscriptions, post-ads. Those are not business models that are super compelling to us. I think what I'm really compelled by are positive-sum business models that share its revenue in the form of upside for participants in the product. So, how do we take in the revenue that we generate and redistribute some part of it out to the people who helped participate in that? I think that could look a lot of different ways. But basically we're informed by revenue sharing and expansive value capture. I think that's kind of an oxymoron for a lot of people to think about, but we don't have to just accept that revenue should be solely that of the provider of the utility—a big component of that utility’s value are the people who use it.

Again, one of the things that crypto uniquely provides is a more tangible and grokable set of tools to do that practically and legally. We're experimenting with that business model. Right now, when you download the app, it's free. Everything in Genesis right now is free, but soon that won't be true. We're going to be launching something that is not free, but I think really valuable and involves hardware and also involves the free thing that we are making as the infrastructure; spoiler alert I guess, but the app is going to evolve soon and won't be an iOS app. It will be an app that is available on the web. That means we can escape needing an iPhone, or an updated iOS to use it. It will be available to anyone because it's built on the web, and that's a property that we think is really important and underutilized.

U: I won’t need to update from my iOS 15. OK, I think we covered all of the questions I had, do you think?

S: Yeah, I guess I’ll just say one more thing that's in relation to all of this. There's an interesting angle to thinking about domains that don't really communicate a lot. What used to be a frustration, but is now a little delight every time I get to talk about it, is when people look at the stuff I'm doing with furniture, and then look at the stuff I'm doing with Genesis and they don’t understand how they’re related. It used to frustrate me a lot, but now, I think of something my dad used to say to me that was really impactful and feels like a core theory: that disunity is the illusion. That has informed everything that I do, from being really aware and observational of sampling different reference points and frameworks from domains that typically don't have communication with each other. In my life, that tends to look like landscape architecture and furniture, which is something that my mom did for work, and teaching, which is something that my dad does, but teaching crypto, the internet, social network construction, technology, culture, and my own furniture designs. Those things coalesce really easily for me internally, thinking of my own reference points and people in my life that influence me. But sometimes, people seem confused that I was studying biology, and was going to go to med school, then I dropped out to go to New York when I had never been there before and start working in technology, crypto, AI. To me, there's more that is shared between all of those domains, and a shared motivation behind all of that than meets the eye.

Something that I try to instill in people is just allowing yourself to imagine if these things were related. If you were to draw an arbitrary axis of relationship between any given concept and different zones of reference, you can analyze almost anything through various arbitrary axes and then map that concept on a spectrum. This isn't a new theory, this is me borrowing Brian Eno's axis thinking.

But all of this to say, I think that's where creativity is really apparent—when you sample a topical breadth of two different things and then see how they intersect and what's shared between them and then ultimately what's different. I feel like I'd be missing a core component if I didn't touch on this idea of how all of this shit relates.

U: True, I mean, that is something that I ask a lot of people who I have on here, who do many different things, or they're in four different corners of the world. I never know if I'm trying to force something when I ask them “So, how is this all related? What's the through line?” Because there doesn't necessarily have to be one. You don't necessarily have to have one message, goal, or mission that you're trying to accomplish through the totality or direction of your work.

Do you think that this is a retrospective thing that you do, once you've moved through all these phases and spaces? You look back and pull out the through line, or is it something that you're thinking of from the outset?

S: I think it's more of a retrospective thing, but when you become aware of it as a retrospective phenomenon, you train yourself, or at least I've tuned my eye to recognize where dovetailing and resonance can appear in different projects or domains. That's why I say Menagerie and Genesis are pretty much research studios for each other, right? The stuff that I do at Menagerie is directly informing some of the things that we implement at Genesis, and the other way around is true as well.

I think that you're right, through lines don't necessarily need to exist for everything, but I would argue for the people that don't see them, challenge yourself to think about it. If you force yourself to imagine these things as related, to see what is shared, you'll be surprised at how often you can pattern-match, and what will emerge as arbitrary differences between them which can actually be frameworks that apply really neatly to the other. An example of this is when you think about health as creating an intervention to prevent some kind of disease or illness or condition from harming this person. You can't tell me that's not almost the same thing as thinking about design. Design is a problem that someone has with an intervention, in the form of a product or a UI, that then ideally solves that problem, or makes that person's life better. Now, I’m not arguing that design is the same thing as healing, but what I'm saying is there's a lot of analogous thinking in the motivations for what you're doing as an intervention. You're inserting an object into someone's life that makes it better; those are all interventions of sorts.

That’s an off-the-cuff example, but the point is that sense-making is a skill. If you can do it well, you can narrate parts of your life to make sense to not only yourself, but to other people. That can only help provide legibility into the way you think, who you are, and why you act the way you do.

U: I think it's a really good point; connecting is something I feel like I'm bad at. Not even just ideas or sounds, but even people, you know, those people who are like “You need to link up with this guy because I see some similarities there, you could make some stuff happen.” It's a very, curatorial role for sure. And being a curator is very hot right now.

S: Yeah, it's the new DJ.

U: So in terms of what you have going on…

S: Yeah, is the company website. is the Menagerie website. Then, my personal website is a little on the abstract side, but it does have links to all this stuff:

U: Perfect, thanks so much for joining.

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USURPATOR is an online magazine sharing essays and interviews about the user experience of our current virtual landscape

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