If you build it, they will come.
Based on a line from the 1989 movie Field of Dreams, this misquoted variant has forever entered popular culture as a metaphor for the kind of willpower and grit that will inevitably lead to success. Or at least that’s what many a powerpoint presentation will have people believe.
The message here is quite obvious: if you ignore the choir of naysayers and just put in enough work and effort, you’ll win in the end. But the analogy with a man who obeys the voice in his head and builds a baseball field in the middle of a corn field is telling. The line between crazy and visionary is sometimes razor-thin and can only really be seen in hindsight. So do so at your own peril.
When all is said and done, very few people are actually willing to follow through with this whole building thing, and even less are willing to put their money where their mouths are.
It takes the usual suspects to get the ball rolling in the first place. The misfits, the reckless, the lunatics. You know, the people who actually innovate. Not coincidentally, the people who came up with this whole blockchain thing.
Even now, after a decade of experimenting and billions in market capitalisation, we’ve still only scratched the surface when it comes to blockchain systems. Building around such a disruptive technology is tricky: there are few - if any - proven business models, and it’s all just one hack away from collapsing overnight. Plus, real life is no Hollywood movie.
So why would anyone even try that? And moreover, why on earth would they work to convince other people to do the same?
We want you (to work on blockchain)
In what can only be described as a recurring theme in the short history of the blockchain industry, Antonio Sabado was introduced to bitcoin by “people from the banking sector that were trying to get out of the banking sector.” Up until that moment, he had spent over 12 years hiring technical professionals for big global banks - see the pattern here?
His leap into the crypto rabbit hole started when he began attending one of the first bitcoin meet-ups in London. It was quite a small scene at that time. In those meetups he met a small group of like-minded people who were keen on growing the ecosystem. It was around 2015 and cryptocurrencies were hardly making any headlines, so that was no easy task.
“They wanted to start a community, but had problems finding developers that were interested in the technology at that time. So we started providing educational workshops on blockchain technology for free. [...] In four or five months we started to get more and more devs”, recounted Antonio - sowing the seeds of what would later become the cornerstone of his new project.
In 2017, the crypto market was heating up in an unprecedented pace, driving more and more people into blockchain - and to Antonio’s workshops. At the same time, “a lot of blockchain companies were struggling to find people and they knew about the workshop. They wanted to hire developers. I’d get contacted by companies and they’d just interview people coming out of that workshop. Some actually came into the workshop and interviewed students.”
Antonio has barely been able to keep up. Between running workshops, looking for partners, and recruiting engineers, he was increasingly unable to stay on top of the ever-growing demand.
That was when he met Jack Tanner, a mechanical engineer and developer who had learned about bitcoin whilst living in Latin America and started attending the workshop. Jack had recently moved back to the UK and was eager to contribute to the space however he could, sharing much of Antonio’s enthusiasm and ideals.
They soon began to collaborate, as Jack took on an active role in the workshops. After a few months of ideation and polishing, their collaboration led to Work on Blockchain, with Antonio as CEO and Jack taking the technical lead as CTO.
It’s the community, stupid
“It was all about scaling up what Antonio was already doing. He had the community, the demand, had the clients, but not the capacity to work with so many of them at a time. It was a bit like automating Antonio”, recalled Jack. That means putting community first, at all times.
In a way, that concept resonates perfectly with blockchain’s grassroots, almost tribal appeal. Here’s a global, borderless technology, born out of - and hugely driven by - communities. This isn’t your top-down, corporate-led development. To achieve success in this space, it’s necessary to win the hearts and minds of actual people. And that is what differentiates them from the rest.
“The idea materialised from the community. They wanted a platform that protects their privacy. They wanted to pick and choose who they wanted to interview with. Why? A lot of them don’t want to get bombarded by recruiters”, Antonio explains. And in return, they offer clients a network of “candidates who are passionate about working on the blockchain space, and that is a big plus for companies. Because the feedback we got from a number of clients we spoke to was they were receiving a lot of applications, and a lot of them (80-90%) just didn’t have that interest and just went for the interview for the sake of it.”
Their platform went live in September 2018, and in less than a year they have built a community of more than 280 active candidates worldwide, with more than half having commercial blockchain experience. So far they have over 40 companies on their platform, from startups like TokenAnalyst and FilmChain, to Bitfinex, one of the world’s biggest crypto exchanges. And they aim to double those numbers in the next six months.
How exactly are they going to do that?
Sharing is caring
Both as a company and as blockchain enthusiasts themselves, they have come up with a two-tiered approach to how they aim to expand in a sustainable way.
And the first pillar of their strategy is, unsurprisingly, all about building, nurturing, and scaling communities.
Even before formally launching the company, they had been working to build up and share educational resources, and to grow their workshops. And they intend on keeping them free of charge to anyone with the passion and commitment to put their spare time into learning about blockchain.
This approach has helped them foster a lot of support, as former students regularly come back and volunteer to help, creating a positive feedback loop around their community.
Global demand is mounting up, too. Recently, one developer even flew in from Poland just to attend a one-day workshop in London. That hasn’t escaped Antonio’s and Jack’s attention, and plans to expand into other countries are already under way.
It’s not only developers who are looking at them with interest; other entities are increasingly aware of the value of their approach in the space - and getting them involved is paramount.
The second pillar of their approach to community growth is to form partnerships with companies and institutions to channel resources, spark opportunities, and create more incentives for fledgling communities to thrive.
On the educational side, Work on Blockchain are earning support in offering open workshops to bring more people into the space. This initiative was led by blockchain researcher Patrick McCorry, assistant professor in King's College London. Apart from hosting weekend bootcamps on King's College facilities, earlier this year they have successfully run a joint MSc-level Cryptocurrency masterclass with over 400 students in attendance. McCorry taught the class together with fellow PhDs Sergi Delgado and Luke Riley, taking students through a 10-week long introduction to cryptocurrencies.
But their partnerships go beyond just training and education. Students that took part in the cryptocurrency class also got the opportunity to enter the Future of blockchain hackathon, sponsored by StakeZero ventures - a fund dedicated to investing in early-stage ideas in the space.
And finally on the commercial side, more companies are beginning to see the value in taking part in the early stages of community growth. Blockchain startups like Extropy and Nethermind have been working together with Antonio for a while. Now, heavyweights like wallet and block explorer Blockchain.com, one of the most established companies in the space, have joined forces with Work on Blockchain in sponsoring bootcamps for developers.
Antonio & co. are currently in talks with other universities and companies across the globe to try and replicate the success they had in other markets. The idea is to not only draw in and train passionate blockchain talent, but also to create a sustainable ecosystem that will help them thrive and actually put their skills to use in creating the infrastructure for the future.
Chain-ing the world
Another recurrent theme in the blockchain ecosystem - and one which echoes in how Work on Blockchain are doing - is that it’s not just about the bottom line. Both co-founders are deeply passionate about the space, and it shows in how they are choosing to operate.
Unlike traditional recruiting companies who make a business out of information asymmetry, they strive for transparency and always put their community first. But perhaps more important is that they give value first and foremost, and don’t just indiscriminately extract it. So far it seems to be working, perhaps exactly because it aligns so well with how blockchain works.
Whether that will keep working in the long run, it is still an open question. In the end they are running a company and do need to turn a profit. This approach requires a huge overhead in terms of time and effort, as well as unflappable belief in the technology. It’s not your run-of-the-mill business model, but then again neither is blockchain. And much like everyone else in the blockchain space, despite their accumulated experience Antonio and Jack are in a way breaking new ground.
If you build it, they will come
So we’ve come full circle here, and back to Kevin Costner’s misquoted inspirational line from Field of Dreams.
Back when bitcoin launched, it was this magic internet money that only lunatics could believe had any value. Today, more than a hundred billion dollars in market valuation and investment have blurred that line, so perhaps crazy is kind of the new black. And whoever “they” are in that one-liner, they seem to be coming by the droves.
Antonio, Jack, and their collaborators have made it clear on which side they stand. What they are building is a new model for organising and allocating technical expertise, empowering individuals and focusing on community; arguably a lot more aligned with the core values of the industry they’re helping build. It might fail, but then again it might not.
Either way, they are doing it because they believe it will lead to a better future, and so far a lot of really smart people seem to agree.