Aaron Lammer’s Advice for Making It in Crypto: Just Do Something
After writing songs for Drake and the Kardashians and hosting a podcast about QuadrigaCX, Aaron Lammer joined quant crypto trading firm Radkl. It’s not as big a stretch as you might think.
There’s no such thing as a “traditional” career path in cryptocurrency. Everything is nontraditional. Since the industry is so new, almost by definition, everyone has an arc that is surprising, daring and a bit weird.
And then there’s Aaron Lammer.
Even by the unconventional standards of crypto, Lammer’s career has taken a wild twist. Many people know him as the co-founder of Longform.org, the website and podcast that highlights exceptional works of nonfiction. (The website recently shuttered, prompting many tears on literary Twitter, but the podcast lives on.) Others know him as the guy who co-wrote a Drake song (“Karaoke”), or the guy whose band, Francis and the Lights, cranked out a hit (“Morning”) that became the theme song to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” And still others – particularly CoinDesk readers – know him as the co-host of "CoinTalk" (along with New York Times opinion writer Jay Caspian Kang), one of the earliest, most thoughtful, and most engaging crypto podcasts.
Now people know Aaron Lammer as the splashy new hire by Radkl, the new crypto trading shop that’s backed by Steve Cohen, the polarizing owner of the New York Mets and inspiration for the Bobby Axelrod character on "Billions." Lammer and Radkl have been cagey about revealing exactly what it is he does there, but it seems he’s something of an “Explainer in Chief,” translating what he calls the “wacky funhouse version” of finance into simple, relatable concepts that normal traders can understand.
Lammer’s story is useful – even instructive – for anyone who has long been “crypto curious” and now hopes to do it for a living. Lammer’s secret for cracking open the door? “Do something,” he says. “Actually do something that someone might notice and care about.” Lammer did something. Then he did something again. And again. That’s his philosophy for finding plum new opportunities, instead of trying to “LinkedIn your way through life.”
Interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
CoinDesk: Let’s start with your writing. What are some ways that nonfiction helped launch your journey?
Aaron Lammer: Honestly, even the perception that I'm a writer is actually a weird anachronism for me, because I've never been a journalist. I started Longform with a guy named Max Linsky, who was a journalist. At the time, I just wanted to be part of a project. I just wanted to do stuff.
Back in 2007, I had admired the people who were doing internet startups. I was friendly with people who were early at places like Vimeo and Tumblr. But I'm not a skilled programmer. And so [in 2010] I needed to do something very, very easy. And I had this idea to do this website, longform.org.
And that thrust me on this road of being really interested in nonfiction writing and reporting. About three years in, we decided to start a podcast, which made me need to learn how to make podcasts. And so I got deeper into nonfiction writing and podcasting. Once you have an interest in podcasting, very quickly, whenever there’s something that interests you, you feel like it’s a natural thing to do a podcast about it, because you want to have an excuse to talk about it.
I’m guessing this is where "CoinTalk" comes in?
I just started getting into it [crypto], and I wanted to meet other people who were into it. And I wanted to talk about it all the time and I wanted to soak in it. Podcasting was kind of like a road in.
And honestly, at the time, there were really only a handful of crypto podcasts. I remember Peter McCormack was doing “What Bitcoin Did,” and I remember DMing with him. It was nascent enough that he was like, “Can you get ads in podcasts? How does that work?” There were a few shows around. I think CoinDesk had a show…
And Laura Shin’s ”Unchained.”
[Nods.] Honestly, Laura Shin wrote me a couple of corrections after early "CoinTalk" episodes that explained things I got wrong about Bitcoin, for which I'm forever grateful. I think I said that proof-of-work was something that had existed before Bitcoin, when in fact, Bitcoin is the first instance of proof-of-work.
I think Steve Jobs invented proof-of-work in 1972, right? [Both laugh.] A good chunk of your work at "CoinTalk" was “learning by doing.” Of you doing crypto-experiments. What are some of your favorites?
This was when the first few dapps (decentralized applications) were coming out. (Although I feel like the word dapp is used less now, right?) So on the show, we used this prediction market, called Augur. It still exists. I think it's now on V3 or something, but this was V1 Augur. I started a market that was whether the Donald Trump “pee tape” would be released during his first term.
So you didn’t just bet on the pee tape being released, you literally created the market itself?
That’s the way Augur worked at the time. I thought that all this stuff was going to take off in like a month, not in five years. The person who created the market got a small fee from every bettor, so I was like, “Oh, I'll create these viral prediction markets.” At the time, people would ask me to go on Gizmodo TV. So I was thinking, “I'll just, you know, tell a few people about my pee tape market, then the bets are going to roll in.”
Did they ever roll in?
That did not happen. But those experiences were helpful to me in understanding what the possibilities of smart contracts were, and making me realize that crypto was not going to simply be this pure speculation game about buying this stuff and keeping it on Coinbase. That people were actually going to start building stuff in the wild. People were going to take tokens off exchanges into places where they could actually use them, and interact with smart contracts. So that was a good primer.
What is it about DeFi that you find so exciting?
I mean, it’s weird. I almost expect in a couple of years, we're not going to use the term DeFi (decentralized finance), because I think it's a little bit limited. The term “finance” gives it a very specific coloring. What I'm interested in is on-chain stuff. Stuff you can do on the blockchain. And so that would include NFTs (non-fungible tokens), and it would include DeFi, because they're all these on-chain activities. And they're all experiences that people are building on the blockchain.
And a secondary experience I’ve had since then is learning about bridging (when one blockchain connects to another), and getting to explore other blockchains, which is like visiting other countries on the internet or something, where things operate slightly differently, and your native customs are slightly altered, right?
So all of those things have been super interesting to me. I don't think it's surprising that the initial applications have a tilt towards finance, because that’s how you generate money to develop things.
Can you share a concrete example of someone doing stuff on-chain that excites you?
One of the early things I got into was the Ethereum Name Service, ENS. I think it's a really cool project. By the way, nothing I'm saying is financial advice. I don't mean to say that I like the ENS token.
But first of all, full disclosure, I've always been interested in domain name flipping. There's actually a "Reply All" episode that's about my attempt to buy longform.com from a domain flipper. So I already had a pre-existing interest in the world of people buying and selling domain names.
And when you look at what ENS does, it's a really cool wrinkle on that, which is to take a domain name, which is this static thing that's supposed to sort of persist into perpetuity, and putting it into an NFT that you can hold in your wallet. And having that be something that you can trade and send around and use as this sort of permanent anchor that can represent everything from a website to an identity, which people can send stuff to … or really anything. It's a very rich object that you can actually build a lot on top of, and yet, it's very simple.
It's just the word .eth, you know. They put a little cover on it like an NFT. But I think the experience of how much you could build into that, and how permanent that is, [shows the] potential future infrastructure for the internet. All of that stuff was like fireworks going off in my head. I was like, wow, if you can do this by just typing something.eth and logging on the blockchain, you're going to be able to build some pretty impressive stuff on top of this kind of technology.
Okay, so how did you go from covering this stuff on "CoinTalk" to now working for a trade shop?
If there’s anything I’m good at in crypto, it’s that I’m pretty good at describing complicated ideas to normal people. A lot of that I learned while doing this podcast, "Exit Scam,” which was about the demise of the Canadian crypto exchange Quadriga. And whether or not the co-founder, Gerald Cotten, might have faked his own death. You’ll have to listen; I simply will not reveal the ending of this.
Fair! And for what it’s worth, CoinDesk’s David Z. Morris gave “Exit Scam” a glowing review.
That story was very challenging, because we always wanted it to appeal to a general interest audience. This has to work for someone who knows nothing about crypto, who does not know what a wallet is, does not know what the blockchain is, does not understand the concept of private keys, and the fact that when your private keys are gone, everything's gone. So wipe out every single thing you know about crypto, and then tell a true crime story in which almost all the clues and evidence are crypto. It really forces you to keep going simpler and simpler and thinking about ways that a person can understand this.
That was the experience I was coming off of. I understand this stuff, I think, in a way that certainly doesn't make me an expert, but makes me maybe better at explaining it to a general interest audience than a regular person.
And so now … You’re helping to explain DeFi to finance-types?
I think the crypto that happens on centralized exchanges is actually fairly easy [for the traditional finance world] to understand on a certain level. If you've traded equities, and now you're trading bitcoin, it's like, “Okay, there's a bid, there's an ask. I’m trying to sell it for more than I bought it for.” It's not like you need that much of a primer.
But then when you start dealing with things like DEXs (decentralized exchanges), you know, interacting with smart contracts, the metaphor very quickly falls apart. You're like, “Wait, who’s my counterparty? I just send money to this pool, and then the pool sends back money? How does that work? How do they know the spot prices? Do people arb[itrage] these pools?”
That’s kind of what led me into working in crypto, more so than I’m some kind of hotshot trader. I try to be helpful in showing people what's going on and my opinions of it, but with less of a directional market slant, and more of a, “Let's just try and understand, let's just try and pick through what's going on here first.”
Are you surprised your career took this turn?
It certainly was not my plan to get a job like this. On the other hand, it was not my plan to start a crypto podcast; it was not my plan to be involved in journalism stuff. So my whole life has been a bunch of things that I haven't really planned for, and I try to stay open to it, and try to generally embrace the idea of being a person who is learning at all times, and ideally, sharing that learning with others.
What’s the toughest adjustment in joining the trading firm?
That's a good question. I think the hardest part is being disciplined and sticking with one idea for a while. There's so much happening in crypto that you can just have your eyes fly all over the place. But doing this in a more official capacity, with a team, you can't just change your mind every two minutes. You need to plan more. Think things through more.
I don't mean it's a tough adjustment in a negative way. It's a positive. It has caused me to think longer term, to plan more and be more disciplined about what I'm interested in, versus what's at the top of my Twitter feed right now, every second.
Like when I see that the Solana Wormhole was exploited, my brain wants to just dig into this event, and I'm super interested in it and I want to read about it. But my job is not to investigate the Wormhole.
What are some ways that having a creative background might give you an almost … sneaky edge in crypto?
Well, I think crypto is a pretty cultural space in general. So having a cultural lens on crypto is helpful. There are people who have a quantitative lens on crypto who I like and respect, but my lens is cultural.
Like who's into this stuff? Why are they into it? What are they into? What kind of people are they, right?
And so when you have a background in creative stuff, it helps you put yourself in the shoes of the people who are building within crypto, and I think the people who are building are the people who are going to have the biggest influence on where things go. I think if you understand the motivations that drive people to build within crypto, you can see where things are going.
Interesting. To your point, I think a lot about how the founders of Bored Ape Yacht Club are creative writers – that can’t be a coincidence.
Oh, really? I didn't know that. [Since our interview, BuzzFeed revealed, or “doxxed," the identities of the BAYC co-founders.]
Yeah it’s wild. Okay, last question. What advice would you give someone who has been, like yourself in the past, very crypto-curious, but now they want to work in crypto for a living?
You know, I don't know that much about other people's experiences. But my experience is that going out and doing things is valuable. When you do things in the world you encounter people that you could not have predicted you would encounter, who might be important to your life. And I don't mean, like, being a “reply guy” for every crypto figure, as doing something.
Read More: How to Get a Job in Crypto
I mean, actually do something that someone might notice and care about. It's been helpful to me that I made that Quadriga podcast, because I'll meet a blockchain security expert, who probably would not know who I am normally, but maybe they've heard the podcast. Well, now we have something to talk about, and I've established that I take this stuff seriously and can work at a high level.
So I would advise [people] to not LinkedIn your way through life, but to make things and do stuff that people might find, and then they’ll find you with your work. That's kind of my overall life philosophy.
The leader in news and information on cryptocurrency, digital assets and the future of money, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups. As part of their compensation, certain CoinDesk employees, including editorial employees, may receive exposure to DCG equity in the form of stock appreciation rights, which vest over a multi-year period. CoinDesk journalists are not allowed to purchase stock outright in DCG.
Learn more about Consensus 2023, CoinDesk’s longest-running and most influential event that brings together all sides of crypto, blockchain and Web3. Head to consensus.coindesk.com to register and buy your pass now.