Muneeb Ali is co-founder and CEO of Blockstack. But his career has taken a meandering path to get here. A graduate of Princeton, Ali spent his formative years working in academia on ways to improve existing internet protocols. After a chance encounter with a colleague inside the computer science faculty, Ali diverted away from his research to explore how the decentralized web might provide a solution to digital rights for all. In this profile we explore that journey and why for Ali, there's always more to learn.
How did you first get into blockchain and the decentralized web?
One of the crucial questions my research communities have asked is: how can we build a better internet. It is a question that has fascinated and plagued me since my undergraduate thesis in 2003 when I was concerned with improving classic internet protocols, and later in 2008 when I began my graduate program at Princeton. I’ve been working on improving internet protocols for over 15 years now, and am proud of what we’ve accomplished by building on the lessons of previous pioneers and adding our own technology to the mix.
When did you set up your company?
Ryan Shea and I met at Princeton University’s computer science department in 2013 and decided to start a long journey of solving the foundational problems of today’s internet. When things really started to crystallize, we went through Y-Combinator in summer 2014, and raised a round of seed investment led by Union Square Ventures, with participation from innovation supporters like Naval Ravikant and SV Angel.
What need does it serve?
Fundamental digital rights for all, where companies can’t be evil. With Blockstack apps, users no longer have to trust large companies to respect and protect their personal data. Beyond that, decentralized apps are more secure, more private, and offer data portability and ownership. For a specific example of a problem Blockstack apps solve, we can look at the recent issue HackerNoon had with Medium. This situation exemplifies how overly reliant publishers (and their audience) are on third-parties; in a decentralized system, the user and the publisher would be connected directly and a platform could not change the rules without consent from both, or freedom for one or both parties to take their data and leave.
Have you launched other companies before? What were they?
I’ve mostly worked in academia before Blockstack. I entered the startup world with the original intention of commercializing cutting-edge scientific research. In many ways, Blockstack is a startup and a high-tech research center that is building real-world solutions in addition to publishing research findings.
Can you give us a summary of your career thus far, how did you get here?
My academic story began in Pakistan, where I studied computer science and mathematics. Eventually, I pursued a Ph.D. at Princeton to continue my research in distributed systems, taking a four-year hiatus to incubate Blockstack in Silicon Valley’s Y Combinator. Blockstack has been in research and development for over four years, and is now the foremost decentralized architecture for secure, private internet applications.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in building a business in this space?
Internet and cloud infrastructure is hard enough to build in a centralized way (where a company controls the servers, data, etc), these systems are even more difficult to build in a decentralized way where no single entity is in control. We had to push the boundaries of what is possible to enable scalable decentralized apps.
Beyond that, bad actors in the space have, at times, cast a shadow on legitimate projects. We’re fortunate to have a strong brand and a technical community that understands Blockstack has been delivering for 4+ years and has proven code in production. We value transparency and highlight our milestone achievements, which is why we continue to have one of the most robust communities in the technology industry.
What’s the best piece of advice you were given when it comes to being an entrepreneur in this space?
Collaborate with first-rate researchers and the creators of what you are trying to learn or build upon. Never lose your curiosity and always think like a student; there is always more to learn.
What advice would you give to someone setting up a business in the decentralized web?
Building a business in crypto affords you some new options, surely, but getting the fundamentals right is still a must. Pay attention to your customer’s needs, ship software regularly and iterate, and particularly in crypto, dedicate time to community building and interaction from day one.
Focus on the experience and the value you provide. By their nature, decentralized applications are easier for users to move to or from. Less platform lock-in means the importance of all the aspects of your business become even more critical.
If you built your business all over again, what would you do differently?
Explore partnerships in Asia sooner. We have enjoyed an exceptional amount of support from community members and development partners in places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Beijing, and I would have deployed more resources, earlier had I had this knowledge in our early days.
What project or projects are you most excited about (that aren’t yours!)
I use Graphite, Dmail, and Blockusign. They use Blockstack but are entirely separate teams. I'm clearly biased here though 🙂
Did you know?
My father was the first person in his family to get basic education; he’d travel on foot to a nearby city from his village to go to school. He didn’t have electricity and would study under an oil lamp. This was in Punjab, Pakistan. My dad’s elder brother still lives in that village, doesn’t know how to read or write, and is a farmer. The challenges that I’ve faced in my personal life and career are nothing compared to what my father faced, and I’m eternally grateful to him and my mom for giving me the best possible education and opportunities that any kid growing up in Pakistan could’ve wished for.
What is (or what will be) blockchain’s ‘killer app’
There are several groundbreaking blockchain-based apps already in their early stage. We’re in the phase where people are building decentralized versions of what’s already available in web 2.0. It’s entirely possible that the killer apps come when developers start building things that go beyond decentralized versions of what’s currently available but start building “decentralized native” apps meaning apps that we couldn’t even think of in the web 2.0 era.
What’s the difference between setting up a company in the decentralized space versus regular business?
A regular business tends to have a centralized entity making most of the decisions, whereas a company in the decentralized space tends to connect people directly to each other and diminish the need for intermediaries.
How would you describe blockchain to someone who has never heard of it before?
I think this fundamental description has been covered by others, so instead, I’ll give an example of something the blockchain enables that centralized internet does not. Imagine having one universal username on the internet that works on every website and on every application you use. You would never have to login multiple times a day or check off “remember me” boxes or create a new account ever again. The internet just works seamlessly for you.