Editor’s note: Decrypt readers know Brother Bing as our China crypto columnist, but lately she has been very busy traveling around the world in her day job as a business developer for a very big and powerful crypto company. What does biz development in crypto entail, you ask? She has the answers.
It probably won’t surprise you that the crypto sector has exploded lately, regardless of the market’s ups and downs, and that for me means nonstop travel to industry events. From Solana Breakpoint in Lisbon, to ETHDenver, to Avalanche Summit in Barcelona, to Harvard Blockchain Conference in Boston, I have been immersed with builders, investors and market watchers for months.
But it’s always been that way in crypto: aside from an 18-month hiatus to get my master’s degree from Harvard Business School, I’ve been doing business development full-time since 2017. I’ve learned a lot, sometimes the hard way. Here are my keys to success for those already in the industry and those looking to get into it. Crypto is chaos, but amidst the chaos, there are principles to follow for success.
Lesson 1: Think like a VC
In the world of Web3, competition is particularly dynamic and fierce. Superior technology, new crypto-economic incentives, or macroeconomic conditions could easily dethrone existing winners. OOperators need to stay vigilant about who’s doing what in the ecosystem (the founder’s popular claim “Our biggest competitor is ourselves” isn’t really good enough) while staying focused on supporting adoption of their own product.
This is where we can learn a few things from our fellow investors.
Observe emerging trends and assess if they are here to stay. My own hard lesson came in the form of so called maximum extractable value. Many of us have heard of the MEV and “researchers” during the 2020s DeFi Summer. To Brother Bing, the SRM seemed almost too technical and sophisticated to find immediate relevance, let alone produce. But some people dug in, took immediate action, and started delivering services. (See for example mempool explorer and partnerships with leading MEV projects such as flashbot.)
Now that two years have passed, people realize that MEV is not just here to stay, it will have a lasting impact on the entire crypto space. Understanding new ideas early and applying them is a huge competitive advantage. (Bonus: this may also be the only way to avoid the innovator’s dilemma.)
Find people who consistently deliver valuable features ahead of the curve. Investors invest in people; the same goes for operators. Crypto is a melting pot where anyone can find some synergy with everyone. Protocols should be in bed with centralized exchanges. Bridges should be friends with liquidity providers. Every wallet should have fiat-onramp partners. When you have so many choices, who do you choose to develop deep partnerships?
It is people who are at the center of everything. Find a team that can innovate and deliver while avoiding distractions and drama. And more importantly, align yourself with people who share your philosophy. That’s what investors do.
Lesson 2: Run like a community member
Crypto is perhaps the only industry where customers are just a Discord message away from the founding team of a billion-dollar company. This community-focused style is also showcased at crypto conferences. At ETHDenver, I’ve had many fangirl moments with founders I’ve admired from a distance for years.
For operators, this community approach can manifest itself in the following way:
Be your clients’ best therapists. Like podcaster Cobie elegantly underlined, “Attention as currency in the token economy is much more obvious and direct.” But more importantly, how can operators ensure that attention remains on your product even when a million dollars”copy pasta” emerging that claim better scalability, interoperability and liquidity?
The solution is to develop intimate relationships with five to ten key customers. Don’t just be there when they have issues with your product, be there when they face growth challenges. Ultimately, their growth is your growth. Being there early builds trust and loyalty and allows you to grow together.
Cultivate “community maxis” by having skin in the game. Brother Bing hates maximalism! But in the crypto world where attention is scarce, having a community of maxis is like building a pipeline of evangelists. A cohort of ambassadors is the eternal moat that every great product needs. Does that mean handing out tokens to each person who utters their daily “gm” in your Discord? No. Rather, operators need to instill a level of accountability in community members.
Empowerment in a community development context means being vulnerable, open-minded and determined. Operators should do things like invite ambassadors to product demonstrations, encourage critical feedback, and generously reward other value-added activities. The key chapter of this playbook is frequent and genuine, sincere Communication.
Lesson 3: Create a “Complete People Network”
Crypto can be incestuous. We like to be on each other’s cap table. We like to hire people from each other. We like to chat with the same set of VCs. This is because the crypto-native network is powerful; this is where the first trends can be detected.
But to truly create a product that attracts the next billion users, operators must have a network that includes crypto-native builders, Web2 builders, retail investors, retail consumers, whales, dolphins and even shrimp. I call this a “full-stack network” because each stack offers a unique perspective of where your product is and where to target.
Ask yourself who is missing from your stack of people. Cocooning in your own echo chamber is the worst situation an operator can find themselves in. A project may find an initial product market suitable for retail, but moving up the institutional ladder may be the only way to scale. In this situation, a trader must have an available network of institutional clients that can be leveraged. Marketing is another pain point for many technology-intensive projects. To build a strong narrative and community, operators need to work closely with influencers and thought leaders, rather than outsourcing the work to an expensive marketing agency.
Look for opposing opinions. Crypto rewards opposites, but that doesn’t mean traders have to change their minds every time a new narrative emerges. Networking with people who disagree with you is the most effective way to challenge your assumptions and, if necessary, pivot.
For example, the 2020 protocol narrative was all about Ethereum and EVM-enabled networks. Opinions about non-EVM networks were considered unrealistic and ignored by many. However, as Ethereum became congested in late 2020, Solana began to take off, and with it, a multi-chain narrative. Operators could try to ignore Solana’s rise, or they could actively reach out to those building in the Solana ecosystem to understand their choice. Seeing people with different beliefs allows operators to review their own assumptions.
Crypto biz dev is just biz dev when all is said and done, albeit in a still new and chaotic industry. The business developer’s job, in any industry, is to nurture and accelerate product growth. With that as your North Star, you can help the right crypto project reach the next billion users.
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