We have said many times that we believe in emergent, decentralized, start-up innovation. Institutions public and private, no matter how well intentioned, tend to protect their institutional interests, whether is it a current revenue stream, or a position of market power. That makes them inherently conservative. Start-ups and the entrepreneurs who create them are almost always outsiders. They depend entirely on innovation for success. So we are sensitive to market power and constantly on the look out for innovations that unlock markets by creating value for consumers and changing the structure of markets.
We bet on networks like Twitter and Tumblr because they efficiently connected creators and consumers challenging the incumbent bureaucratic hierarchies in the media industry. But those networks also concentrate market power through network effects and as they grow, they tend to consolidate control over their creators and consumers in an effort to extract more economic value. This is capitalism’s creative destruction at work. We celebrate it, but we also look for opportunities to continue the process with new models, that are even more efficient.
That interest in what’s next has led us to look closely at protocols that further flatten hierarchies and decentralize control. We are pleased to announce, today, our investment in OB1.
OB1 is a company formed to further the development of OpenBazaar, an open source project that is refining a protocol that will enable anyone, anywhere to sell products and services to anyone, anywhere in a fully decentralized marketplace. Because the marketplace is defined by a protocol and distributed across every participant’s server, the hosting costs are shared and there is no way for a central authority to leverage network effect market power to extract rents from the participants.
This begs the question of how OB1 can be a for profit business that will generate a return on the investment we are announcing today. How can a business that is consciously architected to undo network effect defensibility, one that is tearing down the walls and filling in the moats that every paper on market based competition has insisted are necessary for success… succeed. To paraphrase the old EF Hutton ad (yes I am dating myself), they intend to make money the old fashioned way: they intend to earn it.
OB1 will offer a set of value added services to buyers and sellers on the OpenBazaar market. They expect others to provide services to the participants on OpenBazaar, and they don’t expect to have any proprietary advantage over those competitors. As investors, we hope that their familiarity with the marketplace and the goodwill they generate as early sponsors of the open source project will give them an advantage but we understand they must execute very well or be left behind.
A close observer might say that the recent experience with decentralization is that it often leads to an unanticipated re-aggregation that creates extraordinary market power and financial returns. This is certainly the story of the TCP/IP and HTTP protocols that are the foundation of the Internet. Those protocols radically decentralized the creation and distribution of media and fundamentally changed the structure of the media industry. But the challenge in this newly decentralized world was discovery. When media was defined by distribution, the newspaper, radio station or cable franchise decided what was available to you. In a world where anything was available, the hard problem was finding what you want. The answer was search. And Google, whether they fully understood it or not, stepped in to meet that need and reaggregated human attention is a way that created an enormous amount of market value.
A cynic might then say that OB1, is consciously architected to create this same reaggregation opportunity in commerce. I can say with some conviction, having talked about this for hours with the founders of OB1 that this is not their plan. But I also have to say that none of us understand exactly how discovery will work in a fully decentralized marketplace and how to prevent discovery from becoming a source of market power in the decentralized world we envision. We hope by calling it out here, you will keep us honest and help us imagine a new model for discovery that won’t subvert the goal of empowering buyers and sellers to trade freely and to capture the value they create.
Finally, we can’t end this post without addressing the potential dark side of decentralized markets. Decentralization empowers individual participants in the network or marketplace. Some may use the protocol in ways that others consider immoral or that are illegal in some jurisdictions. That should, however, not prevent us from creating an open protocol. TCP/IP and HTTP, for instance, allow content to be shared between any two people who have access to the Internet. Some of that content is morally reprehensible to many if not most people. Some of that content is illegal. Still overall, most would argue that society is better off because the Internet has enabled everyone to connect and communicate. The Internet could have been designed to centralize control, but then it would not have enabled the permissionless innovation that led to so many of the services we now use every day. The OpenBazaar protocol makes the same conscious design choice. It is inherently decentralized. It favors innovation over control, so it is possible that the openness of the protocol could lead to use cases that some or most of us would disagree with. But as with TCP/IP and HTTP, we believe the creative and legitimate use cases will quickly dominate the marketplace.
OB1 will, of course, not knowingly offer its value added services to anyone using the OpenBazaar protocol to engage in illegal activities. The trickier question is how OB1 supports the development of an open protocol, one that they do not control, without encouraging, or endorsing, or even facilitating the misuse of that protocol. This calculus is further complicated by the fact that many current contributors to the open source project may be motivated by a mistrust of political or economic power. We do not have an easy answer. It would be disingenuous for us to say the OB1 team has no influence over the open source project. They are respected code contributors. They are likely to encourage the development of the protocol through their own work and will now be in a position to offer bounties to encourage the development of specific features. But we can’t think of any design principle we could encourage, that would eliminate the possibility of misuse, without undermining the value inherent in a free and open marketplace, so the best we can do is aggressively advocate for the responsible use of the OpenBazaar protocol, be open and transparent ourselves, and be an example for others.
USV and our syndicate partners at A16Z are committed to responsibly furthering the OpenBazaar protocol. We are excited to be working with the team at OB1 who we know shares our values and that commitment.