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The Bored Ape Founders Haven’t Yet Joined the Yacht Club

How an NFT juggernaut emerged from a grimy bar in Miami.

Sep 1, 2021
CoinDesk Insights

It’s now a tech cliche: “They dropped out of college and became startup millionaires.” Yawn. Happens all the time. Until now, however, we’ve never seen anything quite like this: “Dropped out of getting a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing and became a crypto millionaire.”

Enter the Bored Ape Yacht Club (BAYC). A decade ago, two friends – literary bros – liked to drink beer and shoot the breeze about writers like Hemingway, David Foster Wallace and Wittgenstein. “Gargamel” had an MFA; “Gordon Goner” enrolled in an MFA program but dropped out for health reasons. (Both men, obviously, use pseudonyms.) In 2017, they bought some crypto. For the next two years they stayed on the periphery of the space – watching, learning, lurking, thinking. Gargamel worked as a writer and editor, while Goner was a part-time day-trader.

They mulled over how to get more involved and “join the club” of crypto, but they didn’t see how to crack the door. “I wasn’t the world’s best trader, Gargamel wasn’t the world’s best investor,” says Goner. “We’re not technical guys. We couldn’t be blockchain programmers even if we tried … We’re creatives, right?”

Then came NFTs.

Finally, they could get creative. Finally they had something to contribute. What if we invented some characters? A world? A backstory? A compelling hook? With the help of two friends (“No Sass” and “Emperor Tomato Ketchup”), they hauled in over $2 million in their initial sale of the 10,000-ape non-fungible token (NFT) collection, where the apes went for around $200 a pop. Now that feels like a bargain. Today’s going rate? Just ask NBA star Steph Curry, who bought an ape on Aug. 29 for $180,000 and proudly made it his Twitter profile.

The Bored Apes are now one of the most coveted collections in all of crypto, in the rarefied air of CryptoPunks, with one Sotheby’s listing (of 101 apes) estimated at $12 million on the low end. They’ve spawned countless knockoffs. They even sold $96 million of mutant apes (because of course) in under an hour. The team donated nearly $1 million to animal charities. Perhaps even more satisfying for the literary friends, BAYC was given the imprimatur of that most sacred of publications, The New Yorker, in a 2,500-word profile noting that “Ape avatars are taking over Twitter.”

Gargamel and Goner have quietly, slyly shown the crypto space something profound: the power of an authentic story. Spend any time in a creative writing class, and you’ll hear the word “authenticity” almost as much as the word “organic.” These apes are funny because they come from a weird place of truth. Everyone who has “aped in” to a s**tcoin can relate. Everyone who has spent time on Crypto Twitter can relate.

It’s the ultimate MFA success story. When you can help spur the adoption and evolution of NFTs, who needs to submit short stories to Ploughshares, get politely rejected by The Paris Review or teach fiction classes at college? (Note: These are not specific descriptions of Gargamel or Goner’s writing activities – which remain anonymous – but mere speculation from someone who also has an MFA in creative writing and is also into crypto, but is not exactly a crypto millionaire. Side note to the note: There is zero envy here. None.)

This interview was conducted via Zoom and has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Let’s start with your origin story. How’d this all start?

Gargamel: So we were in our early 20s, and we basically met through friends-of-friends at this kind of grimy bar in Miami. We’d both grown up there, were born and raised there, and that later played into how we imagined the [Ape] club. Fast forward several years, and we were long distance friends on a big group chat, always texting – book recommendations and all that.

When did crypto enter the scene?

Gargamel: In 2017, my brother-in-law was just buying a little bit of ethereum. I had college friends in 2009 who had told me about bitcoin, and I was like, “This is dumb.” The first time you hear about bitcoin you’re like, “This is so stupid.” And the next time you hear about it, the person who told you about it made a shitload of money, and you’re like, “Oh, OK.” And so the third time you hear about it, you buy it.

Hilarious.

Gargamel: And so it was 2017 for me, and I basically texted Gordon, “Hey, let’s buy a little bit of bitcoin and ETH.” And we did. Then all of the sudden we rode that euphoric wave up the top.

How involved were you in the space?

Gargamel: We were immediately on Crypto Twitter. And crypto is a space that rewards your attention. If you’re just keeping your ear to the ground and hearing about everything, it seemed like that was a huge way to gain alpha, to understand what was happening. We were both really in love with all of these Twitter personalities and just learning about crypto.

Goner: We just immersed ourselves into the entire world of crypto, and then slowly but surely became true believers. Crypto, for us, is the future. We’re cultists just like everyone else.

So I got into trading in 2017 and did fairly well, and then got wrecked, like everyone else, with over-leverage. But always in the back of our heads, we wanted to be part of the club. But we didn’t know how, right?

I wasn’t the world’s best trader, Gargamel wasn’t the world’s best investor. We’re not technical guys. We couldn’t be blockchain programmers even if we tried. We’re creatives, right? It’s kind of funny to say it like this, but we really just wanted to join the club, and we didn’t know how. Weirdly, I guess the solution was to make our own club.

And this is when NFTs come in?

Goner: It wasn’t until Hashmasks [one of the original NFT communal digital art projects] that we realized how cool NFTs could be. Gargamel was the one to DM [direct message] me. He’s like, “Hey, look at this. Let’s make an NFT.” And I didn’t remember what NFT meant, because I hadn’t really seen CryptoPunks or CryptoKitties for years. So my response to him was like, “What the f**k is an NFT?”

A lot of people have asked that exact question.

Goner: Then I immediately looked it up, and I’m like, “Yeah, I know what those are.” But I didn’t see what was so cool about it. Then Gargamel was showing me Hashmasks, and I’m thinking, “Wow, this is really looking cool.” It just blew our minds. We immediately went to work thinking up ideas, and we pretty much haven’t stopped since. From that moment on, we’ve basically worked 14 hours a day, building.

What was it about NFTs that lit such a fire?

Gargamel: It just seemed that … Hey, culture is coming to Ethereum. This is what we were waiting for. It felt like the doors were blown open to this whole new space, and as creative people that have been trying to be active – but in the end, quite passive – in interacting with crypto, we thought, here is a way for us to participate in crypto, and actually build something, even if it’s a ridiculous f**king club for apes.

So how’d the idea for the club come about?

Gargamel: We started off thinking, “Okay, what can we do? What do people want? What would be interesting?” And we had some dumb ideas that didn’t go anywhere. You’ve read The New Yorker article. The original idea was pretty artsy-fartsy, to be honest, and frankly not us.

[Note: As The New Yorker piece outlines, one early idea was to create a “shared digital canvas,” where anyone who joins the community can draw on it.]

Gargamel: And Gordon’s friend, who we were talking to, was like, people are gonna draw a d**k on this thing the second it goes up. This is crypto. And that’s exactly what’s gonna happen.

Goner: And that’s the best part of that story, by the way. That was the turning point. I spent all night thinking about what that meant, that there was just going to be this d**k on the wall, as the first thing up. That’s when we came up with Bored Ape Yacht Club. The idea was that it was this place for degenerates to go, right? Because that’s who we were. We were they guys who aped into every f**king s**tcoin. We kind of are that person.

How’d you flesh the idea out?

Goner: We imagined it as, “Where would we go if we could go anywhere?” It was the first time that we stopped thinking about what other people might want. And instead the question became, “What would we want to buy?”

We just went back to our childhoods. And we said, “Oh, let’s put a swamp club in the Everglades, and fill it with apes who are just f**king super ‘80s hardcore and ‘90s hip-hop, and just super weird and crazy, you know?”

But more than anything, they’re just f**king bored, because the yield farms have dried up, and they’re all super rich. It’s 2035 or whenever, and everyone who aped in is just rich beyond their wildest dreams. What do you do then? You just hang out with a bunch of apes and get weird, you know?

There seems to be a kernel of truth in there, of how things work in the crypto space…

Gargamel: We’ve seen it already, which is why it was so interesting. Since 2017, on Twitter, you’d see all these guys who are s**t-posting all day and asking, “Hey, does anyone wanna play a game of League?” You know that these guys, or at least some of them, have hundreds of millions of dollars, and this is what they’re doing. What we’re seeing on Twitter is that the people who understand it – they don’t want to be on South Beach, hanging out with models. They want to be with their friends, in a secret little shitty club in the Everglades.

This could be a stretch, but I’m reminded here of your writing backgrounds. Do you think there’s any parallel between your big conceptual breakthrough – to design NFTs for what interests you, not some “target demo” – and the idea that in writing, sometimes the best stuff comes from channeling what you really want to see, not what some theoretical reader wants?

Goner: Yeah. I think every writer must have that same sort of epiphany at some point in their writing career. At a certain point you realize, you’re not writing to try and impress your professor, or the audience, or the target market, or whatever you had imagined. At a certain point, to borrow a phrase from Gordon Lish, you’re just writing to create that next perfect sentence that delights you.

Love that.

The idea was that it was this place for degenerates to go, right? Because that’s who we were

Gargamel: Ever since the Bored Ape Yacht Club, we’ve seen like 1,000 different avatar collections come up, and a lot of them are really cool. But what we think was special – and what people could kind of read on top of ours – is that we didn’t just throw 3D glasses onto apes. And we didn’t have a long essay on what exactly what this was. But we knew what it was. It’s like Wittgenstein’s “let the unutterable be conveyed unutterably,” or Hemingway’s iceberg theory. We knew all about what this world was, and why these apes are this way. And that somebody else might get a little tingle on their neck looking at it, thinking, “Yeah, this is kind of different. This isn’t just random.”

So you mentioned that you had some early “dumb ideas.” Can you say more?

Goner: The first idea we had was ... What was it? It was monsters, right? H.P. Lovecraft?

Gargamel: Well, we had that Lovecraftian kind of idea. We had an idea of [H.P.] Lovecraft monsters, to do to that type of Gothic horror.

Goner: Because they’re no longer in copyright anymore [they’re in the public domain], so it’s not a trademarked IP. So we said, “Oh, let’s build, like, H.P. Lovecraft monsters.” And then we started exploring. And then we just got really bored. Any idea that just doesn’t have a kernel truth to it, you just get bored with it.

Gargamel: That’s not who we are. We’ve never been [Lovecraft] fans. We were literally like, “Oh, we should do that. People would like that. And then…what the fuck are Lovecraft monsters anyway?”

Any other bad ideas?

Gargamel: At one point we said, “What does Crypto Twitter need?” And we’re like, “They need girlfriends. Okay, so let’s make them little digital girlfriends, it’ll be like CryptoCuties.” And then all of our wives and girlfriends were like –

CryptoKitties, but for women. What could possibly go wrong?! How could that possibly backfire?!

Gargamel: Yeah. All of our partners were like, “You guys suck.” We’re like, “Okay, yeah, we do suck.”

Getting back to the Apes, it seems like you guys are still pumping out new stuff all the time.

Goner: We just kept building. It’s funny. Before us, there were very few projects – not to say there were none – but there were very few projects where a founder stuck around and kept building utility. In fact, before us, very few people even talked about utility in NFTs. Everyone was just making a bunch of money selling NFT collections, and then f**king off to the south of France. We just sort of decided, what if we didn’t do that?

Goner: Like, hey, what if we stayed an extremely small team? Yes, we made $2.2 million overnight, and then we worked 14 hours a day every day. And people see that. They know. We are always in our Discord, we have hundreds of DMs, we respond to almost all of them.

What’s some of the utility – or bonus features – that you’re most proud of?

Gargamel: One of the most innovative things we did was dropping our Bored Ape Kennel Club. We were exhausted, and we were thinking, “What if we just gave every Ape a dog?” Everybody was aping into dogecoins. And crypto is so much about trust, so how do we signal that we want to stick around, we want to build utility here, and we want to think about the long term? What’s the best way to do that?

So we thought, “Hey, what if we gave every single person an NFT for free, and gave all the royalties [off sales from exchanges like OpenSea] to charity?” We ended up donating around $900,000 to different animal charities for that.

We bought Pelotons that we don’t use, that’s what we bought

Goner: Some of the charities even aped in because they became such fans.

Gargamel: Yeah, if you go to the Orangutan Outreach, we gave them like $800 grand or something ridiculous. And if you go on Twitter, their profile picture is a Bored Ape, and they have a bio for him on their website.

Amazing. How have your lives changed since all of this insanity started?

Goner: Well, we don’t sleep.

Gargamel: We don’t sleep anymore. Yeah, we haven’t stopped working. And we haven’t bought anything. [Thinks.] Oh, we bought Pelotons we don’t use.

Goner: We bought Pelotons.

Gargamel: We bought Pelotons that we don’t use, that’s what we bought. Yeah. [On our Zoom, he makes an expression that says, This is crazy.] Last year I made $60,000.

Goner: We’ve made a bunch of money, but we haven’t even had time to think about it. We just keep building. We just keep working. We’re still living the exact same lifestyle as before.

Any favorite moments stand out to you?

Goner: One of the funnier ones for me was with The New Yorker piece. Gargamel was like, “Did you ever think this would be our first time in The New Yorker?”

Gargamel: Like, for this?

Goner: For this?!

Gargamel: For our ape club?

Goner: Like, I’ve been submitting to The New Yorker since I was 17.


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