Sitting on a wobbly stool with my notepad out, I try to understand the significance of a product, pitched as a new kind of cloud platform.
“So it works as an API connecting different blockchains to user data?” I ask.
“Not exactly,” my interviewee responds.
I try again. “So it’s an infrastructure system for DeFi, involving data?”
I’m getting closer, but can’t quite hit the nail on the head, chatting to a founder who is finding it difficult to explain in layman's terms a product that’s attracted more than $10 million in funding. Even he admits it’s been difficult to market.
My interviewee is one of more than 3,500 nerdy but friendly people who descended on Barcelona last week, ready to convene around one blockchain — Avalanche. Some were looking to do deals. Others came for the hackathon. But many just wanted to network (read: party).
The venue for Avalanche’s first conference, Poble Espanyol, is built like a fort. A sprawling, high-walled mini village at the top of a steep hill. It’s a DeFi kingdom where VCs search for moats, coders are kings — and a surprisingly chilly wind whistles through the craggy recreations of Spanish architecture.
With the crypto conference season ramping up, many people I meet have flown straight in from another event in Dubai, and are heading on to Miami’s Bitcoin 2022 or Paris Blockchain Week in April.
Contrary to the tight security on the door, Avalanche founder and CEO Emin Gün Sirer’s opening address hails financial systems that are built without gatekeepers, and an industry that has become “too big to be killed.” As it begins, there is a cult-like excitement in the air about all things Avalanche, from its subnets — a kind of technical offshoot from its main blockchain — to the many new gaming and metaverse projects hosted on the platform.
Avalanche has attracted an impressive critical mass for a protocol that shipped less than two years ago, not to mention a project whose token, AVAX, has had a rocky ride since the start of the year.
The dress code seems to be strictly “not suits.” You wouldn’t want to be identified as a tradfi guy, even though many people here used to work for one of four or five big banks. Instead, most people are decked out in company swag; baseball caps, trainers and hoodies, the gear that has become the uniform of the fintech bro elite.
Some people didn’t get the memo, however. I overhear someone mocking a badly-fitted suit, wondering if the industry is starting to become uncool.
Some more extravagant outfits are difficult to miss. A giant axolotl, a company mascot for Dexalot, can be spotted being awkwardly escorted up the steps to one of the smaller conference stages. Axolotls, a type of critically endangered salamander, are usually found lurking at the bottom of lakes in Mexico, so it’s a surprise to see one mingling among the devs.
A woman in a hot pink blazer and a long wig with a shimmery veil over her face carries around a briefcase handcuffed to her wrist. She dubs this “performance art.” A half-naked viking from the “ValhallaVerse” leans on the side of his stand, texting.
Tables in the main arena are covered with spoof $100 bills, with a CryptoPunk in place of Benjamin Franklin and phrases like “to the moon!” and “GM” printed on them. Other flyers tout promotions for free fox NFTs, or present a mystery QR code.
As for refreshments, tables are stacked with canned water, labeled to look suspiciously like beer. Although actual beers and wines become the beverages of choice for many come 1pm.
Pushing the boundaries of remote work
There is no press area, which occasionally proves problematic for actually getting work done. When I arrive, someone shows me to what they think is the press room, which turns out to be a spooky corridor with a couple of nine-foot tall dolls in it.
This means it’s difficult to cover the multiple new Ava product launches, including the Core wallet – a competitor to MetaMask – and the bitcoin bridge. These are aimed at simplifying the user experience as Avalanche muscles in on the booming web3 market.
Core is “a curated Web3 operating system that combines secure wallet architecture with technology not found in any other wallet,” Nick Mussallem, head of product at Ava Labs, says in a statement.
The true limits of remote-first working are hit on Thursday as the three members of The Block’s editorial team — news editor Tim Copeland, European managing editor Andrew Rummer and myself — dial into the company all-hands meeting. We sit on the edge of a 15-foot wide, circular stage in the centre of the exhibition dome that will later become home to a DJ booth. Vibey electronic dance music blasts in the background as our bosses lay out company KPIs.
The environment takes some adjusting to, but by Friday I’m somewhat embracing working with remixes of Dolly Parton’s Jolene and Four Tet as a backdrop.
Sneaking into the VIP area bears some fruit in terms of peace and quiet – with fewer people, more sofas and a well-stocked juice bar. In VIP, people of all walks still stop to chat, including a retired actor, a music-loving code auditor and a CEO whose company collates DeFi transaction data. The AVAX crowd is nothing if not eclectic.
But everyone knows the real networking is done at night, with a clutch of coveted invite-only side events run by companies big and small.
This is an industry where artificial scarcity is often the name of the game — a mantra that sometimes bleeds into IRL events. Take the exclusive Injective X Burnt X Copper party, which starts at 11pm one evening. The event is so exclusive, in fact, that the main room is half-empty for much of the night, while people line up outside or are turned away at the door. Representatives from Copper are difficult to track down, too – an occupational hazard for a journalist who has turned up specifically to meet them.
Then there’s the Rekt party on Wednesday, where attendees have to solve a riddle or know the password to get in. What looks like an empty barbershop has a secret door, giving way to a speakeasy-style bar serving cocktails themed around Bored Ape NFTs and whitepapers. As in many areas of crypto, it’s overwhelmingly male, with a ratio of around 25 men to every two women. The tight-knit crowd is quite the contrast to the widely-publicised Frens Party at a club called DownTown, where revellers spill onto the street.
The conference rounds off with a surprise announcement. As the main dome fills up, pop star Grimes is beamed onto a screen to announce a $100 million initiative for creatives to build projects on Avalanche, shepherded by the Avalanche Foundation and web3 social media platform Op3n.
Grimes will receive the first of these grants, with which she plans to create an "intergalactic childrens' metaverse book." The work will be motivated by the fact that books for babies can afford to be “a lot more conceptual,” she says.
I leave Barcelona with a slightly better grasp of staking and zero knowledge proofs, what feels like hundreds of new people to send stickers to on Telegram, and a voice lost somewhere in between the “zen garden” and the paella stand. See you at the next one, I guess?
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