'We're Freaking DAOing It': The People Who Think DAOs Are the Future of Work
What it's like to work for a decentralized autonomous organization.
“This is the best day ever,” Willy Ogorzaly says with a grin. And he’ll tell you the same thing tomorrow. He’ll tell you that next week. This is because every day for the past five years, in what has now become a ritual, Ogorzaly cheerfully says out loud, “This is the best day ever!”
Here’s how Ogorzaly’s best day ever begins: He wakes up in time for a 7 a.m. meeting. By then his phone has over 100 Direct Messages, mostly in Discord. He’ll be glued to screens for the next 12 hours. He’ll take a break to cook dinner with his girlfriend, but when she goes to bed he’ll do more work. “I don’t have a great work-life balance,” Ogorzaly says, “but fortunately I love what I do.”
Why is Ogorzaly so damned chipper? Because he’s working at a DAO, or decentralized autonomous organization, and this makes him euphoric. He actually works at two DAOs – ShapeShift (the decentralized exchange) and Giveth (a decentralized philanthropic group). Six months ago I spoke to Ogorzaly when ShapeShift transformed itself from a company into a DAO. Back then Ogorzaly pushed for the change and he predicted it would work. Now? He feels vindicated. “It’s working. It’s working, man,” he says with another big smile. “We’re moving faster as a DAO than ShapeShift has ever moved.” Then he adds another catchphrase: “We’re freaking DAOing it.”
Read More: What Is a DAO?
More and more people are DAOing it, and Ogorzaly believes DAOs are the future of work. He’s far from alone. The DAOers say the new structure is empowering, invigorating and a natural fit for our fluid work-from-home schedules. “It feels so much more collaborative. There’s a unified sense of purpose,” says Patti Hauseman, who left a career in the music industry to become the head of operations at Friends with Benefits, a prominent social and networking DAO. All of her colleagues seem to actually care about what they’re doing, says Hauseman, and it reminds her of those rare moments in the music industry “where you connect with an artist.”
Here's the lure: DAOs take the most intoxicating parts of startup culture – the rush of adrenaline, the faith in your company’s vision, the joy of the work itself and, yes, the chance to get rich – and then extends that buzz to the entire organization. Everyone gets to feel like a CEO. Everyone gets to feel like a founder. “In the traditional organization you have three or five founders who own the bulk of the company, and then a few investors who own the other bulk,” says Juan Dulanto, operations lead at PleasrDAO. “Whereas with DAOs … it really is community-owned from day one. It’s just refreshing.”
In a traditional company, it’s easy to feel like a cog in the machine. It’s easy to feel like your work is pointless or the bureaucracy is dumb or your brilliant ideas are ignored by a clueless boss. In a DAO? In theory, your merit will be rewarded and you can work on whatever you find interesting.
Rafa, aka “rafathebuilder” on Twitter, and the DAO lead at Mirror DAO, tries to explain this to me by grounding it in the personal.
“Do you like writing?” Rafa asks me over Zoom.
“Kind of?” I say, avoiding for a moment the existential dread that this question brings all writers.
“If you weren’t getting paid, would you still write?”
“Um … Probably?”
He explains that because I enjoy writing (kind of), I would be able to find opportunities to create within a DAO – adding value to the community and then being compensated for my work. Maybe I would find a blog that needs content. Or if that doesn’t exist, perhaps I would suggest the DAO creates a blog and then maybe that blog would generate ads and revenue that’s shared by all. That’s the heartbeat of a DAO: Creators have a way to collaborate, coordinate and monetize their creations.
“People are self-organizing into groups of things that they want to do,” says Rafa. “People have realized, 'Oh shoot, I can just do interesting work, and people give me money?'” Before helping to launch Mirror DAO (a Web 3 publishing platform), Rafa studied organizational behavior for years. He came to the conclusion that most of the bureaucracy, waste and bloated tiers of management in corporations exist for a simple reason: Companies were stuck trying to get people to do work they didn’t really want to do. That’s why we have bosses and deadlines. Whereas at DAOs, contributors “like doing work and like doing cool stuff,” says Rafa. “And it turns out that you can create value online by creating cool stuff, because people recognize quality and will give you money for it.”
So what does this mean, pragmatically?
At DAOs, there are many different ways to “create cool stuff” and then get money for it. That’s part of the pitch. At PleasrDAO (a DAO that collects and then fractionalizes digital art, allowing for collective ownership), you can work as a full-time contributor, a part-time contributor or you can just knock out some one-off tasks. These different tiers of contribution are “one of the major strengths of DAOs,” allowing people to contribute whenever they have the time and bandwidth, says Dulanto.
Dulanto gives a theoretical example: “One of our projects for the DAO is to launch XYZ Project in Q1 of this year, and we’re going to need someone to build a website.” So Pleasr would set up a “bounty” for the DAO. As Dulanto explains it, this means, “Hey, this is a one-time need that we have. It’s a bounty. We need X website built out with Y scope. And this is what we’re willing to pay.” The bounty is then open to all PleasrDAO members, or even “to people who are not yet members.”
Organizing a DAO
DAOs are often thought of as “flat” organizational hierarchies. But that’s not entirely true and they often have structure. ShapeShift, for example, has six different “Work Streams,” such as Product and Partnerships. (You can view the org chart here.) These can be thought of as divisions in a corporation. Each Work Stream then breaks down into “squads” and contributors. So the head of a Work Stream is analogous to a vice president; squad leaders are de facto bosses.
However, buttoned-up words like “vice president” and “bosses” are anathema to the vibe of DAOs. “I don’t feel like anybody’s really a boss,” says FWB's Hauseman. “Everybody’s sort of working collectively together.” In a structure similar to ShapeShift, FWB splits the organization into six “teams” such as Editorial, Product and Membership. The teams do normal business-type things like have meetings and issue deadlines.
In other words, it’s not a free-for-all. “It’s not necessarily throwing out every old playbook, or that there’s not hierarchy or accountability,” says Nicole d'Avis, a core team member at Seed Club, a DAO that’s an accelerator for Web 3 projects. She says her DAO is “bringing over only the pieces that make sense.”
Dulanto is doing the same thing at PleasrDAO. “We still need to organize and collaborate with people, and figure out how to allocate resources,” says Dulanto, who conducts regular weekly calls to keep the team in synch. “I’m a big believer that organizations really need a cadence and a healthy rhythm to operate well.”
That’s one reason why every Wednesday, at noon, Ogorzaly facilitates a lunch for the entire ShapeShift community. "Anyone can hop in at the ShapeShift Discord," says Ogorzaly. "It’s a decentralized 'ask anyone anything' lunch." Eating lunch is a bit of an anomaly for Ogorzaly, who is usually so swamped with work that he skips meals. Even when it’s the best day ever. Ogorzaly skipped so many meals that he began intermittent fasting by accident, and later he was “so stoked to hear that this was actually healthy.”
DAOs are a curious blend of socialism and hyper-capitalism. Socialism, because they’re essentially “employee-owned” like a co-op. Capitalism, because in the incentive-based mechanisms of the free market structure within the DAO, contributors bid on projects (like the website bounty example) and merit is rewarded.
Blockchain technology gives DAOs their rocket fuel, but the roots go back to the 19th century. “The main philosophy has been at work since the emergence of Robert Owen’s ideas about cooperatives,” says Koray Caliskan, associate professor of Strategic Design and Management at the Parsons School of Design, a college of New York's New School, who has studied crypto for years. Caliskan, who’s based in Brooklyn, N.Y., jokes that if he wanted to go to a real DAO he can walk down the street and head to the Park Slope Food Coop.
Caliskan also jokes that “DAOs are not decentralized, they’re not autonomous and they’re not organizations.” But he’s not really joking. He argues that DAOs are not decentralized because they’re often controlled by a small group of people who control most of the tokens; they’re not autonomous because they’re “created by human actors, with certain interests and with politics embedded in it;” and they’re not even organizations because the DAO is a technological “instrument,” or a means of infrastructure, as opposed to the actual organization of people. (This recalls Voltaire’s quip that the Holy Roman Empire was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”)
Semantics aside, Caliskan believes that while DAOs might not be revolutionary, they are also “fantastic, of course” and that “preliminary research suggests they [DAO contributors] enjoy being actors, equal actors, and having a say on economic matters of concern.” But he adds two notes of caution. First, it’s hard to untangle the appeal of a DAO from the lure of price speculation. (Maybe you just hope your DAO’s token goes “to the moon.”)
Second, we don’t know if workers’ appreciation of DAOs are correlation or causation; it’s possible the DAO enthusiasts are simply jazzed about their projects and maybe they’d be loving the work no matter the organizational structure. Ogorzaly is a counter-argument to this counter-argument. He worked at ShapeShift when it was a traditional company and now as a DAO. He’s all about “DAO Life” – even if it’s starving him.
Ogorzaly clearly loves what he does, but the DAO’s tendency to erode our free time is a concern of Quinn Dupont, an assistant professor at the University College Dublin, who has studied both organization behavior and crypto. An implicit risk of DAO work, says Dupont, is a “deep financialization of the everyday.”
Because DAOs are structured with financial and incentive-based mechanisms, it’s possible that we will increasingly use our free time to press a lever that brings us money. “I really, truly believe that much of what crypto-economics amounts to are behavioral technologies, in the sense that BF Skinner talked about in the 1950s.” Skinner is the psychologist who developed a theory of “operant conditioning,” or, as Dupont explains it, “Humans are placed into rat-feeder games.” (This doesn’t mean Dupont is anti-DAO. In fact, he’s actually leaving University College Dublin to launch a DAO of his own, Alumni, with the goal of putting university diplomas on the blockchain.)
Part of a long-term trend
DAOs have some obvious downsides. Let’s start with that quaint old concept from the world of traditional jobs called a “salary.” These are rare (but not unheard of) at DAOs. Job security looks and feels different.
Often you’re paid on a project-to-project basis, meaning you’re not entirely sure how much money, if any, you’ll make in the future. Maybe you win the “bounty” to create the website for PleasrDAO in Dulanto’s example, but then what’s next? Or at ShapeShift, most of the Work Streams are only funded for six months. This gives you only six months of job security. “That’s not bad in the startup space,” says Ogorzaly with his customary good cheer, but he acknowledges that it does take a leap of faith and that “If you can’t handle uncertainty, you’re not going to have a great time in the DAO.”
Then again, is that any worse than the current uncertainty for most freelancers in the gig economy? “Job security is not something that a Web 2 company, or the traditional work world, is great at either,” says d'Avis. She says that given all of the work that needs to be done in building Web 3, “the power dynamic is much more in the other direction.” The workers have the power. There aren’t enough skilled developers, designers and community managers to go around. “I don’t know that anyone who’s working hard and providing value is worried about job security,” says d’Avis. “Right now, job security is not that hot of a topic.” (Counterargument: On Jan. 24, the token holders of MakerDAO, in a narrow 49% to 47% decision, voted to shutter one of its core teams, effectively putting people out of work. Democracies can be fickle.)
Or maybe we should zoom out and think about jobs with a wider lens. “Job security is going to be defined differently as society evolves,” says Hauseman at FWB. She notes that decades ago, our parents and grandparents worked at the same company for 20 to 30 years. A generation later, “five to eight years” was considered a long time to work at a company. So extrapolating this trend, Hauseman doesn’t see the short-term horizons of DAO work as a sudden collapse of job security but the continuation of a much broader trend – the fractionalization of employment.
Maybe this is true. But it also seems true that this kind of “leap of faith,” as Ogorzaly calls it, probably isn’t as doable for those with less of a financial cushion, or those in tough economic circumstances. “Early on,” says Dulanto, “it has only really been an industry [for] people who have the fortune and privilege to take big risks.” He acknowledges that “for people who have a family, or have different needs in regards to job security, this hasn’t been the easiest option.” He views this as something the industry needs to work on.
And what about the other perks of normal jobs, like health care? Vacation days? Even 401(k)s? “To be completely honest with you, we’ve been trying to figure it out,” says Dulanto, at PleasrDAO. “We’re [figuratively] building the road in front of us as we’re walking.” But he knows this is important. Dulanto says that if Web 3 organizations truly want to attract and keep top talent, “We have to be paying better than an early-stage, venture-backed startup.” Hauseman thinks that providing benefits is a matter of principle. “Speaking just on behalf of myself,” says Hauseman, “I feel very strongly that the future of Web 3 is not Uber at scale.”
Then there’s still the tricky question of “work-life balance,” and Dupont’s concern about the rat-feeder games. With DAOs, it seems the work is the life. “Anecdotally, I would say that most people that work in these digital communities are working longer hours than in traditional employment,” says Rafa. When you plunge into a DAO, you’re signing up for a gushing fire hydrant of Discord DMs that blasts you all day and all night and most weekends and holidays. “There’s just always something that has to get done at a DAO because we’re so early,” says Hauseman, which makes it easy to slip into a pattern of constantly being “on.” Hauseman tries to end her workday at 6 p.m. but often it goes till 8 p.m. She’s now trying to be “more protective of downtime.”
D’Avis agrees that work-life balance can be a struggle, but says that’s true of any startup, and that it’s up to the person to find the right balance. She usually logs off on weekends. But given the global and 24/7 nature of crypto, she has found that “there are certainly people with funny avatars showing up in your DMs at all times.”
Another DAO limitation: A good chunk of the population isn’t really “passionate” about their work or what they do; they just want to punch the clock and collect a paycheck. DAO enthusiasts might argue that these poor rubes simply haven’t yet melded their true burning passion to the needs of an organization, and the DAO could be their answer.
Maybe. But I wouldn’t underestimate the population of cube-dwellers who toil away in Excel and log out at 5 p.m., eager to hit Happy Hour and forget about work. “DAO Life isn’t a fit for everybody,” says Ogorzaly. “If you really need a lot of structure and organization, and if you want a boss telling you what to do, and if you want to start at 9 a.m. and check out at 5 p.m., then you might have more fun at a bank startup.”
So could DAOs actually be the future of work? “It can’t,” says Caliskan. “We cannot eat bytes. We eat bread. We still need to eat. We still need houses. We still need to produce things on the ground.” This is hard to argue. Even the most bullish champions of DAOs acknowledge that the scope is largely in the creative and digital realm, not factories or hamburger stands.
Then again, consider the size and scale of the “gig economy.” This is no longer a fringe group. An estimated 55 million people in the United States are classified as gig workers, a scattered population that has little ability to organize, to collaborate or to exert leverage. Each of these 55 million workers feels powerless against the machine. United, they could be an army. While it’s true that many of these gigs are driving an Uber, delivering Postmates or walking dogs – not exactly “DAO-able” digital jobs – it’s also true that the status quo is rather bleak.
It’s a hustle to get new clients. You never know if you’ll be paid next month. You feel alone. So while I’m skeptical that DAOs will topple Corporate America or revolutionize the workplace, in theory, if things break right, I could see them improving the pay, career prospects, camaraderie and job satisfaction of millions of freelancers. That would not be a small thing. For millions of coders and artists and graphic designers and project managers, that could even lead to the best day ever.
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