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Editor’s Note: Decrypt readers know Brother Bing as our China crypto columnist, but lately she’s been very busy jet-setting around the world in her day job as a biz dev person for a very large and powerful crypto company. What does biz dev in crypto entail, you ask? She’s got the answers.
It probably doesn’t surprise you that the crypto biz has been booming lately—regardless of the ups and downs in the market—and it has meant nonstop travel to industry events for me. From Solana Breakpoint in Lisbon, to ETHDenver, to Avalanche Summit in Barcelona, to Harvard Blockchain Conference in Boston, I've been immersed with the builders, investors, and market watchers for months.
But it’s always been like this in crypto: Aside from an 18-month hiatus to get my masters degree from Harvard Business School, I’ve been doing the biz dev thing 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 in. Crypto is chaos, but amid the chaos are principles one should follow in order to find success.
Lesson 1: Think like a VC
In the Web3 world, competition is especially dynamic and fierce. Superior technology, novel crypto-economic incentives, or macroeconomic conditions could easily dethrone existing winners. Operators need to stay vigilant about who’s doing what in the ecosystem (the popular founder claim “Our biggest competitor is ourselves” isn’t really good enough) while also remaining laser-focused on supporting their own product adoption.
This is where we can learn a few things from our investor friends.
Watch emerging trends and evaluate whether they're here to stay. My own hard lesson came in the form of so-called maximal extractable value. Many of us heard about MEV and “searchers” during 2020’s DeFi Summer. For Brother Bing, MEV seemed almost too technical and sophisticated to find immediate relevance, let alone productize. But some people dug in, took immediate action, and started providing services. (See for instance mempool explorer and partnerships with leading MEV projects such as Flashbot.)
Now that two years have passed, people realize that MEV is not only here to stay, it will have a long and lasting impact on the entire crypto space. Understanding new ideas early—and applying them—is a massive competitive advantage. (Bonus: It might 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; so should operators. Crypto is a melting pot where everyone can find some synergy with everyone else. Protocols should be in bed with centralized exchanges. Bridges should be friends with liquidity providers. Every wallet ought to have fiat-onramp partners. When one has so many to choose from, whom do you pick to develop deep partnerships?
It’s people who sit at the center of it all. Find a team that is capable of innovating and delivering while avoiding distractions and drama. And more important, align with people who share your philosophy. That’s what investors do.
Lesson 2: Execute like a community member
Crypto is perhaps the only industry where customers are just one Discord message away from a billion-dollar company’s founding team. This community-oriented style is also on display at crypto conferences. At ETHDenver, I had many fangirl moments with founders I’ve admired remotely for years.
For operators, this community-oriented approach can be manifested in the following ways:
Be your customers’ best therapists. As the podcaster Cobie elegantly pointed out, “Attention as a currency in the token economy is much more evident and direct.” But more important, how can operators ensure that attention stays with your product even when a gazillion “copypastas” emerge that claim better scalability, interoperability, and liquidity?
The solution is to develop intimate relationships with five to 10 key customers. Don’t just be there when they have problems with your product, be there when they face growth challenges. At the end of the day, 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 attention-scarce crypto world, having a community of maxis is equivalent to building a pipeline of evangelists. A cohort of ambassadors is the eternal moat that every great product needs. Does this mean handing out tokens to every person who says their daily “gm” in your Discord? Nope. On the contrary, operators must instill a level of accountability in community members.
Accountability in a community-building context means being vulnerable, open-minded, and determined. Operators ought to be doing things like inviting ambassadors to product demos, incentivizing critical feedback, and generously rewarding other value-add activities. The key chapter of this playbook is frequent and genuine communication.
Lesson 3: Build a ‘full-stack people network’
Crypto can be incestuous. We like to be on each other’s cap table. We like to hire each other’s people. We like to schmooze with the same set of VCs. That’s because the crypto-native network is powerful; it’s where early trends can be detected.
But to truly build a product that grabs the next billion users, operators must have a network that includes crypto-native builders, Web2 builders, retail investors, retail consumers, whales, dolphins, and even shrimps. I call this a “full-stack network” because each stack provides a unique perspective of where your product sits and where to target.
Ask yourself who’s missing from your people stack. Cocooning in your own echo chamber is the worst situation an operator could be in. A project might find an initial product-market fit with retail, but moving up the institutional stack might be the only way to scale. In this situation, an operator should have an available network of institutional clients who can be leveraged. Marketing is another pain point for many tech-heavy projects. To build a strong narrative and community, operators need to work closely with influencers and opinion leaders, rather than outsourcing the work to an expensive marketing agency.
Seek contrarian opinions. Crypto rewards contrarians, but that doesn’t mean operators need to change their mind 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-compatible networks. Opinions about non-EVM networks were considered contrarian and were ignored by many. However, as Ethereum became congested in late 2020, Solana started to take off, and with it, a multichain narrative. Operators could try to ignore the rise of Solana, or they could actively reach out to those who were 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 biz dev job—in any industry—is to nurture and accelerate the growth of products. With that as your north star, you can go help the right crypto project reach the next billion users.