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Crypto/Blockchain Interviews

Evin McMullen (YC 12), Founder and Project Lead of Stow Protocol at ConsenSys

Evin McMullen is the Founder of Stow Protocol, a Web 3.0 data security protocol, and co-leads the ConsenSys Entertainment practice. She is also a Guest Lecturer covering topics related to blockchain technology at universities including Harvard, Princeton, UPenn Wharton, Yale, and CUNY. She is a member of the Tachyon Accelerator Advisor Council, mentoring Web 3.0 startups.

Prior to ConsenSys, she was a Director of Product Marketing at Berkshire Hathaway, managing public-facing brand experiences for Warren Buffett’s multi-billion dollar portfolio of companies. She has also advised senior leadership in consumer-facing tech strategy for numerous clients including Nike, Procter & Gamble, Harvard Medical School, BMW, GE and the United Nations. She earned a BA in Anthropology of Information Systems from Yale University.

The Politic: Any words to start?

Evin McMullen: In the early days of the internet, the world embraced email with minimal objection. Nobody got hype about TCP/IP protocols, and nobody was asking how HTTPs works. They just learned to send emails by interacting with what they could see on the screen. It’s fascinating that the advent of blockchain has been entrenched at the protocol layer. Many people get stuck trying to understand how underlying blockchain protocols work, how code moves values around, rather than trying to use it themselves, like the curious consumers who figured out email early on. The inner workings of a protocol layer don’t really matter if there aren’t any valuable implementations. Tech is only valuable if you use it! 

Most people are familiar with blockchain because they’ve heard of Bitcoin or another cryptocurrency. Certainly cryptocurrencies are a valuable and interesting use case for blockchain tech, but financial instruments are far from the only way to use consensus mechanisms. I think there are more business use cases where we can leverage the technology to deliver technical value, and they’re much more complex, sophisticated, and interesting than creating a decentralized simulacra of the financial ecosystem. I think the industry will be taken more seriously when businesses start to make real money with blockchain beyond crypto.

How’d you get involved in blockchain?

I first got involved in the blockchain universe as an undergraduate at Yale. My friends and I started a chapter of Students for Free Culture, and that stemmed from our belief that there existed an inequitable system of data control throughout the world. We had this firm belief that information wanted to be free, and that we should design systems to use digitally-structured datasets as an equalizer. I realize I sound like a bit of a hippie: some people have a vegan phase when they go to college– I had a decentralization and structured data phase.

Then, this Bitcoin paper showed up in my life around 2010– a couple years after the cool kids “in the know” got their hands on it. That was a few years into college, and I didn’t really understand the full gravity what I was reading at the time, but it answered a really important question: How can we incentivize collaborations that deliver more value than mere competition? When I stumbled upon the Ethereum whitepaper a few years later, I realized that Ethereum would provide the ability for true decentralization, not just transacting digital gold. Ethereum offered a technical solution to a lot of the philosophical questions I’d thought about in college like, What’s the locus of control in the digital economy? If my data is an expression of myself, why don’t I own it? Why don’t I know where it exists, or how to derive value from it like enterprises can?

I was an armchair enthusiast lurking on Reddit and attending Meetups; in general, I was just a peripheral fangirl of the blockchain industry. After graduation, I started out producing music videos in Hollywood, and after a few years I started working on user interface and product design. I began wondering: How do we take technology out of the lab? How do we deliver user-facing experiences that bring tech to the people, not the other way around? I was dealing with other technologies than blockchain like machine learning (ML), artificial intelligence (AI), predictive analytics, and all those great buzzwords. I then ended up in a position where I was running product marketing and advising on technology investments for Warren Buffett at Berkshire Hathaway.

After a while, I realized I was spending so much time thinking, living, and breathing blockchain that I succumbed to the requests of my friends in the ConsenSys universe: I finally met with Joe Lubin, the CEO of ConsenSys. He convinced me of his vision for a decentralized and interconnected ecosystem which would place user autonomy first; he also convinced me that I should stop working for Warren Buffett and bet on new-wave billions instead, working together toward a decentralized dream.

What projects are you working on right now?

My experience at ConsenSys has been similarly diverse to a lot of my previous experiences. At ConsenSys, I lead a project we’ve founded on Ethereum Mainnet called the “Stow” protocol (formerly known as Linnea). It’s an open source protocol that allows app developers to give users end control of their data. 

In addition, I lead the entertainment practice, which means I’m often the one who picks up the phone when big media companies, sports leagues, and other brands you love calls ConsenSys. I can’t disclose a lot of the projects I’m working on, but I can say that I’m helping build products to lead solution or software stacks (subsystems or components needed to create a complete platform such that no additional software is needed to support applications) that will revolutionize the way that music payments are made. If you talk to Taylor Swift, let her know we’ve got her back.

We also have a bunch of other really exciting projects from Energy to Sports and Esports. I’m working on projects which will assist the United Nations in documenting anthropogenic climate emissions in accordance with the Paris Agreement. We do work in just about every single vertical, in 32 countries. I serve as a bridge between business problems and technical areas relating to distributed ledger technology. People come to me with their problems, and I pick out potential solutions they should try implementing. That’s what I do most days.

Last thing that I’ll flag here. It’s really important to me that we create spaces within our country and within the blockchain community that are supportive of young enthusiasts. I advise some startups relating to distributed ledger technology, and I sit on the Diversity & Inclusion Team at ConsenSys. We constantly need to hold up a mirror to ourselves at Ethereum and ConsenSys to create spaces that aren’t exclusively white, western, male, English-speaking. We need to make sure that all voices are heard. It’s incredibly important to me that we put a lens of inclusion on all the technical work that we do, because everything from hackathons to job protocols need to foster inclusivity. Even job descriptions can be written in a way that’s optimally inclusive.

That’s funny you worked at Berkshire Hathaway, given the highly sought-after crypto dinners with Warren Buffett!

It’s so weird to me that entrepreneurs fetishize Buffett as the Holder of the Universe. As far as marketing spend goes for this auctioned lunch, they’ve earned an insane amount of media for however millions of dollars have gone into the event. But Warren Buffett is not who you need to convince that blockchain is a good idea. There are people in much more advantageous positions than Buffet to materially impact the way Berkshire Hathaway interacts with the blockchain space at large, if investment is the goal. Buffett isn’t the right target. He’s not going to say anything insightful about this technology, because he’s not bothering to learn how it works. He isn’t taking the time.

Can you tell me about the Ethereum community?

The Ethereum developer community is the most important driver of the blockchain conversation. There are probably hundreds of more developers on the Ethereum platform than any other platform. The Ethereum developer community is the largest set of developers working on blockchain-based technology, including the protocol layer, applications, and even regulatory oversight. 

Being engaged on the build side means you’re creating the system, rather than just talking about it like everyone else. I realized that I had to follow the engineers, listen to what they wanted, and then form a team empathetic to those values and needs. At the end of the day, your end users are engineers if you’re designing protocols. The concept of human-centered design is pretty big in the blockchain community, but we can always focus on it more. When you create something, you should always think about the end user. 

The Ethereum developer community is really unique in that it’s highly decentralized. You can contribute to digital projects on GitHub whether you’re in Austria, Fiji, or Manhattan. You have to figure out where these communities gather: they’re online, they attend Meetups, and they attend hackathons. We started our own Meetups that have tens of thousands of members worldwide, and also meet every Monday in New York City. These Meetups offer space for people to discuss ideas and start learning about blockchain. A lot of people show up every week without knowing anything. Other people come and explain the concepts and the coding languages like Solidity. 

The Ethereum developer community is unique from other developer communities and other startup landscapes is that it’s so profoundly different in terms of the requisite technical acumen: Fluidity is pretty simple, there’s a generous learning curve, and it does a lot of the heavy lifting for you. Just about everyone can join the developer community. It’s okay not to have 10 to 15 years of experience because you can catch up pretty quickly. People come together every weekend, just for fun, to teach their friends. There are webinars online. There are remote hackathons with thousands of dollars of prizes happening every weekend. 

Final thoughts?

There’s a really interesting phenomenon in the blockchain universe right now where the ecosystem of developers builds sophisticated and competitive ideas which are often more functional than those of top-down reputable enterprises with legacy systems. Usually when Facebook or Google starts a product, it’s going to be better than similar products made by competitors; however, Facebook is clueless when it starts with blockchain. They haven’t had time to understand the technology like independent developers. A lot of people in this community are building on a three-to-four year head start.

In that way, we’re experiencing a more democratic and open developer community than we’ve previously seen. A lot of products are open source, and that’s why I think Yale is uniquely well-positioned to participate in this moment. So many facets of this community are so accessible and participatory: hackathons, Meetups, study groups, and online forums. If you’re a student at a place like Yale, it’s easier than ever before to represent your incredible organization and bring what you’re learning in an academic environment to the market. I hope that you, your roommates, and your friends really think of what entrepreneurial mindset you could have on campus. We didn’t take advantage of that as much as we could have.

Blockchain is like the advent of a new industry, not just a new technology. Imagine someone showed up with Post-it Notes for the first time, or Google Docs for the first time. Blockchain belongs to the same category as Post-it Notes and Google Docs: It can be used by everyone, it can deliver value to most people, and it’s not as important to understand its inner workings as it is to grasp its potential applications.

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