Maaria Bajwa: 'People Like to Root Against the Winners'

Bajwa once got wise advice from a mentor: To be valuable to your venture firm, you must have “domain expertise that no one else has.”

AccessTimeIconApr 25, 2022 at 5:52 p.m. UTC
Updated May 11, 2023 at 5:39 p.m. UTC

Maaria Bajwa, who has a background in investing for ultra-high-net worth individuals, had been buying cryptocurrency since 2016. So when a year later she joined the venture capital firm Sound Ventures, which was founded by actor Ashton Kutcher and talent manager Guy Oseary, who has represented Madonna for decades, as well as acts like U2, she knew exactly where her expertise would lie – Web 3.

“It's technically more complex, it requires time, it's new,” she says of the crypto industry. “I knew that I would never be as good at analyzing marketplaces as Ashton or growth consumer deals like Guy, so that's when I started really digging into crypto.”

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    She’s only dug deeper since. With Sound Ventures, Bajwa has invested in Chainalysis, bitcoin rewards app Lolli and metaverse fashion brand The Fabricant. She also co-founded Sixth Wall, a blockchain entertainment company that helps artists use the technology to keep control of their work. The other founders included Mila Kunis, Kutcher’s wife; Morgan Beller, co-creator of libra, the digital currency Facebook tried to establish; actress Lisa Sterbakov; and metaverse consultant Lindsey McInerney.

    And Bajwa also sits on the board of the Ape Foundation, which helps govern the Bored Ape Yacht Club community, and has been adding to her own personal NFT collection alongside her enthusiast husband.

    “One hundred percent of both my personal and professional time is in crypto,” she says. “My whole day, I'm talking to companies and different projects in the crypto world, and then I come home from work, and me and my husband are just talking about crypto, NFTs (non-fungible tokens) and DeFi (decentralized finance). There's not really a divide.”

    When you live and breathe crypto like Bajwa does, you get a pretty good sense of where the industry is going and what projects will survive or die. She explained how she gleans these insights with CoinDesk, addressing the importance of building basic blockchain infrastructure, the criticisms of Ape Coin and the voice acting talents of Vitalik Buterin, a co-founder of the Ethereum blockchain.

    How do you and Sound Ventures choose which blockchain companies to invest in? What's some of your criteria?

    The way that we think about investing is we do a lot of building in this space. That means being active with folks who are doing really interesting, exciting things in this ecosystem. For example, as co-founder of Sixth Wall, the company behind (animated series) “Stoner Cats,” we just released another show called “The Gimmicks” on Solana. It’s doing very, very well and was the first NFT for a lot of people. Then there’s Guy Oseary and his work [representing] Yuga Labs and World of Women, and I’m helping out with Hop Protocol by running a liquidity bonder that Hop uses for its bridge.

    By being active in the ecosystem, we can see the pain points and the infrastructure and technology that doesn't exist yet. That’s where there's a gap. That informs a lot of our investment decisions.

    Take MoonPay, for example – they make it very easy for people to on-board into crypto, which traditionally has been a very challenging thing. That's a big unlock for the ecosystem and for the environment. Things like that, that address, how do we get more people into the space? How do we make sure that this is sustainable growth and that we're growing in the smart, right way? A lot of what we do on the building side informs that.

    You’re basically making decisions by living them.

    Yeah, because in crypto, it's so complicated and technologically hard to use and build. People often make the mistaken assumption that the ecosystem is far more advanced than it actually is. Everyone says, "We're so early," but from a technology implementation perspective, we are still very early. There's still infrastructure that needs to be built to make multi-chain a possibility. We spend a lot of time thinking through, "What are the pieces of the puzzle that need to be put in place to fuel the next wave of innovation or growth in this ecosystem?"

    You've invested in all kinds of different industries in blockchain – like video and virtual fashion. Which industry excites you the most in terms of its prospects in the metaverse right now?

    I'm a big VR (virtual reality) person. When the Vive first came out, I was on their early access list, so I got one of the first five. There was this multi-player, first-person shooting game that I played called Hover Junkers – at one point, I was ranked like 250th in the world. I believe in the metaverse and think it is going to exist at some point; I just don't know if NFTs and crypto bring product market fit to that VR metaverse experience that people are talking about. I'm a little less bullish on the metaverse being a thing this year or next year.

    I really like things like The Fabricant because they’re building out the infrastructure that's going to be needed for the metaverse when it comes, like by giving people easy tools to create their own UGC (user-generated content). Because it’s so visual, fashion is a big thing that probably will exist in the metaverse. The way we think about metaverse investing specifically is like, what are the building blocks? And what are the tools that are going to be needed for the metaverse when we eventually get to that reality?

    Other verticals we focus on are NFTs. We don't invest specifically in any NFTs, but rather in NFT infrastructure – the platforms that enable NFTs, like SuperRare and OpenSea. We're also looking at DeFi. We're investors in Zapper, a portfolio management tool where you can look at all the money that you have in different DeFi protocols in a single place.

    The third vertical we focus on is just infrastructure, which I think about as anything that makes it easier for developers to build and for consumers to come in and use. That’s the high-level breakdown of how we think about investing.

    You mentioned “Stoner Cats,” and I saw that in addition to Kutcher and Kunis being involved, Vitalik Buterin is one of the voice actors, along with Jane Fonda. How did you get those people to work on the series?

    It's pretty incredible. The three creators [one of whom is a Pixar animator] had a show they wanted to create about an older woman who starts getting Alzheimer's, and her cats come to life when they smoke weed and try to save her. They pitched Jane Fonda, who agreed to be a voice actor before the show became an NFT thing. But when the creators pitched the show to all the major studios, no one wanted to create it, because it was cannabis content, or they wanted to pay a very small amount and then own the IP (intellectual property). We thought that NFTs could be an interesting way to go directly to consumers and to allow the show’s creators to have more control over the process and storyline.

    Vitalik is a friend of one of Sixth Wall’s founders, so we got him involved. He's very excited about anything that's built on Ethereum and tests new use cases. He plays one of the cats. He doesn't have very many lines, but everything that he says is just wise. He’s like a seer.

    I see your Twitter profile picture is a Bored Ape, and you’re on the board of the Ape Foundation. What does being on the board entail?

    It’s a lot of getting the community up to speed, making sure they're engaged, making sure that we're doing governance the right way. Decentralized governance isn’t easy. Oftentimes, you need to start off a bit more centralized and then grow into decentralized as the ecosystem evolves and processes are put in place. We (board members) are only chosen for six months, then the community votes on who they want on the board. Now, it’s primarily thinking about some of the proposals that are coming through – like there’s a big staking proposal for Ape Coin. So that's probably where we're spending most of our time. But really, it's about making sure that the ecosystem’s thriving.

    You were quoted in an article from The Verge about Ape Coin that brings up some criticisms of the project, like that it's a “SPAC without the legal protections of SPAC,” and the Kyle Chayka analysis that it’s “as close to a fake stock as you can get without being blatantly illegal.” In what ways do you see those criticisms being valid or not valid?

    I didn't even realize they had called it a stock. I don't think about it as an IPO or going public. What it's meant to do is to build an ecosystem around NFTs. The Ape Coin airdrop went to Yuga Lab NFT holders. Ape Coin is meant for the entire ecosystem, and leveraging this community and what they're building to expand the environment. I don't think about it as a stock because there's no revenue going back to the Ape Coins. There's no centralized governance. It's just a token that's meant to be the currency for this ecosystem.

    You see those types of criticisms a lot about different crypto and NFT projects. Where do you think they come from?

    People like to root against the winners. Part of it also comes from a general, not lack of understanding, but lack of a deep, intellectual curiosity about what tokenomics can mean and enable. There's different use cases and parameters around traditional stocks versus tokens. The more that people dig into DeFi, governance tokens, utility tokens and play-to-earn economics, all of that will make a lot more sense. But when you come from that traditional finance world and you see something without diving deep into the space, it's easy to make basic comparisons that might not necessarily apply.


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    Jessica  Klein

    Jessica Klein is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, Fortune, The New York Times, and other publications. She is currently a contributing reporter at The Fuller Project, a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to reporting on issues that affect women.