(an interview with co-founder Jack Du Rose)

On March 25, 2020 I had the pleasure of interviewing Colony co-founder, Jack du Rose. We ended up having a delightfully broad-reaching discussion, covering:

  1. The history of, and Jack’s original motivation behind Colony (including ants..!)
  2. The community’s role in development, past, present, and future
  3. What possibilities Colony represents to different people
  4. Jack’s long-term vision and future development goals
  5. Possibilities for a new economy and new internet
  6. Trust, leadership, and soft skills in conventional and “trustless” organizations

CM: You were the original founder of Colony—what was the first inkling of its beginning? What motivated you?

JDR: I was working as a jeweler in London with subcontractors around the world. It was fun, but really hard from a coordination perspective. I often felt like the incentives within my supply chain were not well aligned (particularly in the sales & marketing realm, but in other areas as well). There was always just a kind of fundamental tension there.

At some point I had a client who was the daughter of a Russian oligarch. During an event I was attending in Moscow, she asked if I could help her start a company that was similar to the one I was running, and I had this really visceral negative reaction. I thought this was curious, because it was basically a blank check being waved under my nose. It caused me to go back to my hotel and think about why I was reacting so badly to the idea.

I realized that I really hated what I was doing. I hated how difficult and frictional everything was. It occured to me at maybe 2 or 3 AM, “would it be possible to create a supply chain that would be more self-organizing by aligning all of the incentives with everyone within it? Without me needing to be the person prodding everyone and getting them to play nice?”

CM: I notice on the vision page of your website you speak about the “Responsive Org” movement, and the Colony whitepaper goes into some interesting social science nuance around decision making and cognitive bias. Did that come later?

JDR: Yeah, that did come later. It’s called Colony because I’m sort of an entomology nerd and I had a pet leaf cutter ant colony as a teenager. So I was kind of aware of complex adaptive systems theory, of which an ant colony is a brilliant example. That theory informed the first versions of Colony.

As I began working on Colony I became aware of Holocracy and Sociocracy, and through them firms like Undercurrent. Aaron Dignan was the first person that reached out to me from there.

CM: Let’s talk about the community, and how far it has come since you started. Obviously you can’t do all of this yourself.

JDR: Community has been tremendously valuable to the project, though it has sort of waxed and waned over time. I created a community really early on in the project—in 2015—and it grew really quickly because we were featured on the Ethereum website and the general hype that was starting to build around crypto and blockchain technology back then. We got a lot of people into our community really quickly, and I met a lot of great people including Collin Vine, who previously co-founded Zirtual, and would become one of my cofounders a little later on. Several other people ended up joining as full time team members.

At some point though we realized that this was going to be a long haul. People wanted a product right away, and we just weren’t going to be able to provide it in the short term. Around the same time, the ICO frenzy was at its peak, and community channels got totally overrun with phishing scams. We didn’t intend to ICO due to concerns about securities regulations, so we allowed the Slack community to wither on the vine. We resurrected the community on Discord around December 2019 because we were in a position to give people something to play with. It’s been amazing seeing more meaningful and directed conversation happen, and how that’s been able to be leveraged in development.

Colony as an application is still pretty limited in terms of delivering on the vision contained in the whitepaper, but seeing people’s willingness to poke around and to make observations, and then pick up pieces of that work and take on the tasks themselves… it’s inspiring.

I’m excited to see how people’s willingness to participate is potentiated further when they’re able to express their agency more directly in the application by directly getting things funded, instead of just signaling what they think is valuable.

CM: What do you think is so attractive to people about Colony? Do you think it’s one goal or feature set that everyone’s aligned around?

JDR: There are some people that see it from an org design perspective: the agile, responsive, organizational methodologies where you’re pushing the authority out to the edges of the organization and putting the power in the hands of the people who have the direct, practical expertise.

Then you’ve also got the extreme other end of the spectrum where people are interested in organizations where you don’t need to know or trust any of the people that you’re working with, and you’re able to collaborate with people across the web, knowing that everyone’s actions have got consequences to them if they misbehave.

I think even within our team we have differing perspectives on what Colony could be, and it’ll necessarily be even more diverse in the wider community.

CM: Here’s a question Auryn wanted me to ask you: “What would you be most interested in seeing in future versions of Colony?”

JDR: I’m excited to see real value-transacting organizations that people make money from within virtual worlds. I can absolutely see that happening in a meaningful way. It’s so radically different than the status quo of commerce now, to have an organization which is just as real as our regular organizations, but representing, well, you can imagine nerds in their moms’ basements and all sorts of people on the fringe of our current economy that are able to do incredible things online and in virtual worlds that they may not have been given an opportunity or have had the confidence to do otherwise.

People can be more their real self in some sense behind this avatar, on this platform, than they are in what many people might call the “real world.” They can also provide more value.

CM: It’s a bit of a paradox: somehow, the use of an avatar in a system that isn’t based on human bias and interpersonal trust provides more potential to express your full self.

JDR: Exactly. Once I got through my first thinking about Colony as a tool for my own supply chain, I kind of quickly moved on to being very excited about opening up a world of collaboration with potentially thousands of people able to work together on things in a sensible and meaningful fashion. Like, what if you had something the scale of a subreddit, but where shit got done rather than just talked about.

What if you had something the scale of a subreddit, but where shit got done
rather than just talked about.

That’s pretty out there—I don’t know how feasible it is because there’s probably some challenges of scale somewhere in collaborating, and more can be done with a relatively small team that’s able to work tightly in the early days. But it’s the experimentation and things bubbling up that are new and unexpected that’s really exciting.

CM: Let’s go back to trust for a minute—which is generally considered a good thing—what would you like to say about trust as a prerequisite to successful collaboration?

JDR: So obviously trust is a good thing, but in many cases you can’t have trust. It’s really platforms run by companies that are at least in some way regulated by commercial law and the interest of being in business that has enabled us to cross the rubicon of trust when transacting between people online.

For example, if you don’t have something like eBay, it’s very difficult to buy something like a beanie baby from somebody halfway across the world. Having a reputation system, a trusted payment mechanism, and some underwriting of your transaction going on by the platform, has meant that we can have a great deal of confidence in the process. All the way through these processes, we’re trusting the company to act in its rational self-interest by facilitating a transaction effectively.

Blockchain technology removes the need for the intermediary—the company—by enabling transactions that would otherwise require trust, to be autonomously handled by a decentralized software protocol.

That opens up some really interesting opportunities to think about the technology we’ve created in quite different ways: ideally you can create a piece of software that can exist in the indefinite absence of the creators. The Colony network, for example, will be “out there” and can never be taken away. That means people can have absolute confidence in the fact this piece of software which facilitates their endeavour is going to be there for as long as they need it. At this point you can come to think of that software as infrastructure for the internet, rather than an application that is owned by a company and could be taken away. Companies can go out of business, be acquired, or otherwise change the rules, and none of those things are possible if you’ve got correctly built, decentralized and trustless software.

At a point, blockchain software can come to be seen as infrastructure for the internet, rather than an application that is owned by a company and could be taken away. Companies can go out of business, be acquired, or otherwise change the rules, and none of those things are possible if you’ve got correctly built, decentralized and trustless software.

CM: How challenging do you think it might be to use Colony’s reputation system to value soft skills (e.g. mindfulness, emotional intelligence, leadership) and how crucial do you think those soft skills are to high functioning within a trustless environment?

JDR: That’s a really fascinating question… So, I think that all of the soft skills that you mentioned are valuable and necessary in operating in a trustless environment—necessary for a team working together—because I don’t know that a team working together with trustless software really makes it any less of a team that has got to communicate and collaborate effectively.

It’s really important to draw a distinction between on chain reputation which is what we call “consensus relevant” (that is to say, it has a direct consequence or influence on their ability to get things funded) and their informal reputation (what you know of your teammates' attitude, behavior, and softer skills).

It’s a question of the extent to which somebody’s mindfulness is capturable, or would ordinarily be captured in their work and how their work is compensated. Because their work is likely something that is more concrete, but their slightly less tangible qualities are very valuable in enabling them to do that work well.

CM: Right. Or, sometimes those qualities may enable others to do their work well, and that is harder to quantify, I think. That’s a quality of leadership, perhaps. It seems that even trustless organizations benefit from leadership skills, but these are obviously often difficult to quantify and maybe even more difficult to develop when the traditional career path is to be a subject matter expert, then a people manager, then eventually (if you keep going), a leader.

JDR: I’m fascinated by the issue. It’s interesting that your observation is implicitly that Colony’s reputation system doesn’t have the requisite flexibility to capture those kinds of things. It’s most apparent and easiest to think of Colony as being about defining tasks which have got these very explicit criteria associated with them. But that’s not necessarily the case. All payments and tasks within Colony are intended to be is a means by which funds within a Colony get to your own personal wallet. That can be compensation on any basis you like—a monthly salary, a gig, or whatever payment modality you like—and you can associate as many skills as you like with it. Leadership, or mindfulness, or whatever you want in addition to any hard skills.

CM: So it seems theoretically possible, but perhaps a more human challenge to define a theory of leadership relevant to your organization, and define evidence of its existence, and a routine or other opportunities that facilitate recognition of such skills.

JDR: Absolutely. We try to draw apart the tools that you might use to run an organization, and how the organization ought to be run. One thing we’ve realized is that no two organizations are the same and if we try to design for any one particular kind, you will exclude everybody else. So we just try to be as general purpose as possible, and hopefully we can learn something about what effective organizations look like over time using Colony.

CM: You talked about aligning incentives of all the stakeholders. That was the first impetus for creating Colony. What else do you think is critical that has already been accomplished, or is yet to be accomplished in terms of managing this alignment, or managing decisions?

JDR: I think one thing that is markedly different in the way we’ve thought about the decision making mechanisms within Colony is that we’re not only thinking about the game theory—which is the underpinning all cryptoeconomic systems use to minimize attack surface as much as possible, and therefore decrease opportunities to cheat one another—but we also think hard about cognitive biases, and how while designing Colony’s mechanisms we can try to decrease their sway.

We think hard about cognitive biases and how, while designing Colony’s mechanisms, we can try to decrease their sway.

Ultimately all of these mechanisms are about aggregating collective intelligence, the wisdom of the crowd, and it is very much easier to do a bad job of that, and get poor decision making to occur, than it is to get effective collective intelligence. Many others who attempt things like voting fall for common pitfalls, like encouraging things like group-think, or conformity bias. So there are all of these challenges, and others around collusion, and coercion in decision making, which are even harder to solve. We try to think of all of these when we design our decision making mechanisms—particularly voting.

The thing is: voting sucks. Nobody in an organization wants to have to vote on whether Lee from accounting gets his coffee reimbursed. You’ve got to have executive authority granted to people as well. You’ve got to be able to act independently. And that’s something we don’t see others trying to focus on.

We try to avoid voting wherever possible—it’s a measure of last resort—but wherever voting does happen we try to reduce the amount of cognitive biases that are likely to have an impact and more effectively aggregate.

CM: What do you see on the horizon in terms of community support? Any gaps between where you are now and where you’d like to go?

JDR: Where we really want to get to is the Metacolony running the show. We want the Colony Network to operate as a colony in the way that everybody else is expected to, or some permutation of that. People will have Colony Network tokens (CLNY), and be able to propose things that ought to happen, and they’ll have a reputation in the skills that they think are needed to make these things happen, which increases their influence in how quickly those get funded. Ultimately it’s a platform that is able to, and will fund itself indefinitely. I’m really keen to push towards that reality.

Technical people are always valuable, but there’s a whole range of skills that are completely critical, particularly from a communication, comprehension, and sense making perspective. There’s something of a gap between being good at thinking of something and architecting it technically, and also good at explaining it succinctly to a mainstream audience.

CM: So it sounds like there’s a need for a bit of a translation function, and maybe a “brand ambassador” to a less technical audience.

JDR: Yeah. And I think understanding better how we transition to that, how we make it accessible to more audiences...One thing that I think is super valuable and people in the DAO space maybe understanding a bit less is that role of leadership and having a north star to navigate by.

One of the most powerful use cases that I can perceive is regarding major thought leaders in the world who have several thousands of followers and are doing something useful and valuable in the world and helping people’s thinking. I could really see them being able to activate that devoted following into an organization that is very active, and actively contributes to their cause, furthering whatever mission they’re on.

CM: Influencers?

JDR: Yeah. Influencer has become a word that has become closely associated with disposable fashion and Instagram, I think, but…

CM: Not that brand of influencer, precisely.

JDR: No, not exactly, no.

CM: Maybe the Bill Gates brand of influencer…

JDR: Could be. Right.

One of the things that the Web3 space lacks is that kind of charisma, I suppose. There’s not too many charismatic leaders in the Web3 space, which is what our early target market is, just because of the limitations of the technology in the first instance. And I think that people love to rally behind a person ultimately.

CM: It seems that this individual may need to be in front of a fairly technical audience?

JDR: Not necessarily. I think we want to get past the expectation that you understand Web3 pretty quickly. I don’t think that should prove to be too much of an impediment. I mean we’ll probably never be as simple as, say TikTok, but perhaps more in the realm of Asana, or something like that.

CM: Where are you at in terms of funding?

JDR: We’re a fulltime team of 10, currently. We’ve been working on it for a long time and haven’t raised a VC round, but we’ve raised some money from a few angels within the crypto community, along with funding that I’ve put in myself. We were just about to be going out to raise a VC round but then coronavirus happened, and that looks like a challenging prospect. Our goal has always been to get to the Metacolony running the show, and us as a team melting away into the background.  

CM: Any final “state of the union” thoughts? Something you want people to know?

JDR: It’s interesting to be asked that. You always feel like you’re at the beginning. It feels like you need to have really gotten somewhere and seen some change, and I think we’re just starting to see that. I think we’re starting to see the need for the vision that we’ve held for a really long time.

We’re starting to see the fragility of centralizing all your resources in one place, and that there’s a much better alternative of building up some resilience by having more broadly spread pools of talent, manufacturing, or resource, etc. Then you are, to use Nasim Taleb’s term, antifragile. That’s one of the key principles of Colony and the complex adaptive systems theory underpinning it: you can lose parts of yourself and it will be OK. It will form back around and be responsive to that change. And I feel like the world is going in a direction where that is better and better understood, and it is having to do so under some pressure at the moment.

CM: Thank you so much for your time and your insights!

JDR: It’s been a pleasure.

Corey Morrow helps teams and leaders meet the Future of Work’s increasing demands for foresight, innovation, collaboration, and learning. Learn more at www.newnormal.cc