Why Andreessen Horowitz believes so deeply in ‘crypto’
While most venture capital firms are on their heels, focused on keeping their existing startup bets alive during the pandemic, Andreessen Horowitz is on the attack.
In April, the Silicon Valley firm redoubled its commitment to a speculative area of emerging technology. The company raised a second cryptocurrency-focused investment fund worth $515 million, on top of its original $300 million fund from two years earlier.
I interviewed Chris Dixon, coleader of the fund, a few weeks ago at a virtual conference playfully named Ready Layer One. (“Layer one,” in the crypto parlance, means “blockchain,” the shared database technology at the core of cryptocurrencies.)
Dixon has staked his reputation on the success of cryptocurrencies—and he wasn’t shy about his unwavering support for the boom-and-bust industry. When I mentioned that many of Dixon’s venture capitalist peers have pulled back on blockchain investing, he said he pays them no mind. The industry is filled with trend-chasers who play “kids’ soccer,” everyone going after the same ball, he said.
During the interview, Dixon touched on everything from the development of artificial intelligence to rethinking the structure of corporations. He said the Facebook-convened Libra Association, which is building a global payments system, is “being underestimated”—as are nonfinancial applications of blockchains, such as crypto-infused social networks, an idea that calls to mind Reddit’s recent cryptocurrency experiment.
The conversation, a video version of which is available online, has been edited for length and clarity.
Fortune: I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, Chris. But the Bitcoin bubble popped at the end of 2017. (After peaking at nearly $20,000, Bitcoin is worth less than half that today.) What are you doing raising another crypto fund?
Dixon: Our view is that crypto, like a lot of emerging technologies, like mobile or A.I., evolves in waves. One of the really exciting things about where we are now in 2020 is the seeds that were planted in the last wave are now finally starting to bloom. A whole bunch of projects are launching this year. A.I. very famously went through all these summers and winters. Since 2013, it’s been this real, enduring spring for machine learning. Crypto will be the same.
The amount of money that VCs are pouring into blockchain businesses has gone down substantially over the past few years. The figure was $4.3 billion in 2018, and it’s gone down by a third or so since then. What do you know that all of the other VCs don’t know?
The VC industry is very “trendy.” It’s like kids’ soccer: Everyone is running after the ball. I don’t try to predict the VC industry and the various trends. I have found throughout my career that betting on the Internet and very smart people building new exciting things on the Internet has been a generally good bet. There’s a certain personality type that wants to play with Nerf guns and eat sushi at Google, and there’s another personality type that wants to do cutting-edge, pioneering Wild West stuff. I’ve always found people who skew more technical, people who want to be on the frontier, to be a good bet.
Have you had any second thoughts about crypto? Have you ever had your faith shaken and felt like, “Oh, crap, maybe I placed the wrong bet here?”
No. For me, it’s never been a question. I’ve never doubted it’s going to happen. The timing is another question. We’re at a really interesting time right now where a whole bunch of work has been done over the last decade that’s about to bear fruit over the next 12 months.
What do you expect to happen over the next 12 months?
Some of the folks sponsoring this conference, for example—like Near [a blockchain designed to process transactions faster than, say, Ethereum or Bitcoin can currently] and Filecoin [the decentralized, crypto-equivalent of Dropbox]—are launching. Polkadot [a technology that aims to connect different blockchains] is launching soon. You’ll see sometime this year, probably, also, Libra and other payment blockchains launch.
Libra made a lot of changes recently, like saying it will add digital versions of existing currencies rather than just a single, overarching global currency. Andreessen remains part of the association working on this. What should we expect to see from that project?
I’m optimistic for a relatively near-term launch. There’s a lot of really high-quality people working on that project. I think it’s being underestimated by the general public.
Right now, payments are very siloed. It reminds me of messaging pre-WhatsApp. For those old enough to remember, messaging, pre–iPhone era, was expensive. We had lots of interoperability issues. And now we just take for granted that you can send a text and video chat and do all these things for free. It’ll be the same thing with money.
Facebook is interested in Libra. Twitter’s Jack Dorsey is very interested in Bitcoin. Are these giants going to co-opt the crypto revolution?
If Twitter wants to get involved, Facebook wants to get involved, startups want to get involved, that’s great. I want to see more people working on stuff, contributing ideas, working together.
One of the nice things about a properly built blockchain is that you don’t have to trust the organizations behind it, you only have to trust the code. I know there are people that don’t trust some of these large companies. If they do it right, if the code is open, if anyone can join, you can fundamentally trust in the architecture, not the folks behind it.
What should prospective crypto entrepreneurs focus on?
Whenever there’s a new wave of computing, the really exciting ideas tend to be things that couldn’t have existed in the prior paradigm. One of the really exciting things going on now is DAOs, or “digital autonomous organizations.” It’s sort of like a digital co-op. It’s a digital service that’s owned and operated by a community instead of by a company.
Compound, which we’re investors in, is a lending protocol [software that enables banking without the need for a traditional bank] that’s now becoming a DAO over time. They’ll basically be owned by the community of users in the same way that Maker [another Andreessen investment] is today. A DAO simply couldn’t have existed before crypto. To me, that’s a very, very powerful idea.
How do you prevent things from splintering apart into an Internet cesspool of QAnon conspiracy theories and neo-Nazi sites?
There are ways to combat that. Think about the star ratings on eBay, Amazon, and Uber. Reddit has a very effective “karma” system. You can debate whether you like each subreddit, but the karma system within any subreddit is generally effective—as opposed to, like, Twitter or something where the “@” replies seem less ranked.
There are a lot of really good bottoms-up curation mechanisms on the Internet. There’s no reason that that toolbox can’t be wielded by a community as opposed to by a private company.
Marc Andreessen, the founder of your investment firm, recently wrote a post that got widely shared online, called “It’s Time to Build.” He talked about public infrastructure, like roads and bridges, and the need to overhaul basic services in our society, whether it’s hospitals or schools. Shouldn’t the founders out there be focused on vaccines and masks, rather than having their heads in the crypto clouds?
We don’t lack the resources. We lack the ability to coordinate things, to get people together and to align incentives. That’s exactly what we’re working on. Crypto is trying to create a better orchestration layer for humanity and the Internet, a new way to layer on incentives and collective action. Crypto is about trying to get over problems where we all want something to happen but, for whatever reason, we can’t all get together and agree on it and do it.
I would argue that people like me are probably better at Internet stuff than they are at physically constructing stuff, and this is probably the best place for us to use our skills to contribute to what Marc was talking about.
What advice do you have for founders who are thinking about dipping their toes into crypto, but think they’re too late?
These are the golden days of crypto. These are the days people will look back on. These are the days when you can go and really make a mark. You can be the Woz and Jobs of the crypto industry. It’s a great time, and you’re definitely not too late. You may be too early, but you’re not too late.