Hi defiers! Today’s interview is with Austin Griffith, who created one of the most successful onramps into crypto with the Burner Wallet. He probably knows more about user interface than most anyone in the cryptocurrency space.
He talks about how he believes the tools to make decentralized applications easier to use are all here, it’s just a matter of implementing them. Austin also believes there’s as much work to be done in giving users and developers that “magic moment” that will pull them into dapps and crypto. He talks about the hard lesson he learned about funding in the space and his next challenges with ConsenSys and Gnosis.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity and I’ve bolded what I think are the best quotes.
Camila Russo: How did you first get into crypto and developing on Ethereum?
Austin Griffith: The first thing I did on Ethereum was built a couple of games. I put my heart and soul into these things, hand painted these really unique, deep games, with smart contracts and everything was on chain. I expected they would take off and they totally didn’t It taught me that onboarding on Ethereum is really tough. We have rough UX, where if you want to get in and play the game you have to own ETH and you have to understand how gas works, and you have to download MetaMask or some other browser extension.
The barrier to entry is way too rough, and so that got me thinking about other ways I can produce value within the ecosystem and I started doing a lot of research and building little things here and there hoping to break into the space.
CR: What was your big break?
AG: My big break was into meta transactions, which was figuring out a way to abstract away the need for ETH and the need for gas. The way a meta-transaction works is it’s a signed message. You’re basically using cryptography from 1983. You’re using Ethereum key pair, and you sign a message that says I want to send Dai to this person, and then you sign that, and instead of putting it on chain, you send it to a relay network and pay the relay network to put it on chain. The user is still doing a cryptographically-backed action on a smart contract but they never have to have ETH, and they never have to understand gas, and they really don’t have to have MetaMask. You can just generate a key pair on page load.
When I released that work, that got my name out there in the space. I got that out and tried to show people how to use meta transactions, and really evangelize the idea of using time messages more in the space.
CR: Did the Burner Wallet develop from there?
AG: I met Alejandro from Open Money initiative and we started talking about what a wallet inn Venezuela would look like and he thought the best way to do it was to build a native application on Android and I thought the best way to go would be to build a web wallet. Put the key pair right on local storage and just sign transactions with it. We kind of went on different directions with the same goal and we remain great friends, but what happened was I built the wallet and I showed it off to a few people at Devcon. We’d be standing in a circle, and I would be like hey pull out your phone and I would shoot someone 3 xDai in five seconds. And what I realized is that the space is really hungry for that magic moment. This goes back to UX, the current user experience at the time, was really lacking and so when someone got their hands on something that was just really intuitive and easy to use and fast and cheap and made a lot of sense they had this magic moment, and all of the sudden I noticed people were having a magic moment with their wallet, there’s something with this.
At the same time I got hired at Gitcoin and we started doing this weekly and bi weekly, and we were shipping these interesting little research projects on a bi weekly cadence, so I put the Burner Wallet on the back burner. The common theme of Trying to make the experience and interface with the user a lot smoother, trying to make it look like web 2.0.
CR: When were you able to go back to Burner Wallet?
AG: It was a combination of Maker and POA and EthDevnver. We all got together and realized that we’re finally ready to get people to use crypto at a large scale to buy things at a conference. That was probably two months before EthDenver. We realized we could take this little web wallet that I was playing around with, and we could turn it into a real product for EthDenver. The wallet was really ugly when I showed it people at Devcon, it was basically a QR code and a send button. So we cleaned it up, we used Gitcoin to put up some bounties, we got a lot of help from bounty hunters, got it translated to different languages, cleaned up the UI, added things like a native exchange so you could send ETH and then the ETH went to Uniswap for Dai and to the bridge to xDai.
Leading up to EthDenver, we had what we called cypherpunk speakeasy events, where we went to a bar in northern Colorado, and we forced people to buy beer with crypto, and the way we did it is we would emulate what it would look like at EthDenver, we handed people a paper wallet at the door, and they would scan that paper wallet with their phone, and so immediately they would have a crypto wallet on their phone browser, they’d hit the scan button, scan a QR code at the bar, and buy a beer. We did this over and over again, we’d watch how people used it, how they got hung up, we would observe where their thumbs are gong, where their eyes are going, and each week we’d come back and code all the fixes and get it to where we thought it was good. We did this for six weeks in a row, lots of UX studies to get it as smooth as possible and work out all the rough the edges.
CR: What was the experience like at EthDenver?
The product generally worked great at EthDenver. 80 percent of the people who used it had a happy experience, they used it at the food trucks to buy food and it worked great. There was another 15 or 20 percent where they didn’t know how to use a QR code, or it didn’t quite work on their phone, so there were some edge cases we had to work out, but in general it worked pretty well. And the number were fascinating, it was like 4,400 meals or something, over the course of the weekend, and we off ramped like $40,000 in Dai using Wyre to the food trucks and it ended up costing 20 cents on transaction fees on xDai, like the whole thing costed 20 cents so it was a great experience.
CR: Can you go back and explain what the Burner Wallet is, why you decided to use xDai and not Dai, why you decided to design it the way it’s designed.
AG: It starts with a key pair. A key pair is you have a public and a private key and you don’t ever want to give anybody you’re private key, but anybody can see your public key The private key is important because you use it to sign messages, like when you sign a check and hand it to someone, thats kind of what the private key is doing. So the Burner Wallet generates a public/private key pair on page load. The first time you ever visit xdai.io it just generates you that private key and it keeps it in local storage, like a cookie. It stores it right in the browser and it keeps the key pair there and that’s basically what started it.
So then if we want to talk about why xDai, if you think about sending a transaction on the Ethereum network, depending on how clogged up the network is, if someone’s doing some big token sale, if someone’s airdropping a bunch of tokens, or there’s a bunch of CryptoKitties being sold, it can both be very expensive and take a long time. There’s a block mined every 15 seconds but the chance that you’ll get in that one block depends on a lot of factor, whereas with a sidechain, we can bridge up to it, so you can take ETH on the mainnet, turn it into Dai, lock up that Dai and it gives you xDai over on the sidechain, so you can bridge these funds, there’s still liquidity between the sidechain and the mainnet, but once you’re over on the side chain, the blocks always happen in five seconds, your transaction always goes through in five seconds, it’s always very cheap, and that low cognitive overhead of the rates being in dollars is really easy for someone to understand.
It’s meant to be used for moving small amounts of cash around. It’s not meant for millions of dollars, but if you can imagine of being analogous to cash. We make this trade of, where we keep your private key on local storage, we’re running on a sidechain that’s fast and cheap with the assumption that we’re only gong to be using small amounts of cash. But then at the end of the day when you’re done you can bridge that back to the mainnnet you can send that to a cold storage, thats the trade of.
What we’re finding is that decentralization is a spectrum and in terms of onborading and good UX, you start over on one edge o that spectrum. Let me a give you a quick, easy, fun experience, let me give you that magic moment first, and once you ave value once you have an account, let me try to work you up that spectrum and show you here’s how you protect that here’s how you download a wallet, here’s how you get better decentralization, but you have to give them the magic moment first, then show them why decentralization is important.
CR: So how did you continue to develop it?
AG: At that point is where I got a hard lesson on how finding works in the ecosystem. I thought okay we proved the Burner Wallet worked and someone will give us funding and I’ll run with this. But really I wasn’t able to get funding and I learned you have to built up reputation and that the Burner Wallet is a platform.
I started building games and applications on top of the Burner Wallet, so I was asked to speak at the local university here, and when I walked in I did the whole talk about UX and adoption and my journey through the space and then I dropped 50 paper wallets out to the crowd that when scanned takes you to a game, and it was really neat because instantly 80 percent of the room was just interacting with a smart contract playing this game and really they knew it was a smart contract because I told them but basically they wouldn’t have ever known, the UX was smooth, the onboarding was smooth.
And the game was called Emoji Coin. It was a shitcoin trading game where they would buy and sell emojis that would fluctuate in value. It proved to me that this onboarding was going to work. We could build apps and games on top of it.
So leading up to Ethereal I hooked up with the Helena guys doing a prediction market, and we put that on the wallet. So at Ethereal you were able to buy food at a food truck but when you were waiting in line, you could pull up the wallet and participate in a prediction market and it was very accessible. You clicked yes or no and you bought a position. It was probably the first time that a lot fo people had used a prediction markets. There’s a lot of really neat things in the space that don’t have the users they need and we can deploy these instant onboarding mechanisms, to have a lot more users playing around with them.
CR: So in the end what happened with funding?
AG: I got a couple of small grants. I got a 5k grant from Maker and a 5k grant from Binance per month for a few months, to help push forward the Burner Wallet repo and make it easier to use, and a lot of neat things have come out of that. A lot of people have jumped in and there’s all these burner wallets starting to pop up. Maybe Burner Wallet capital B isn’t going to be a product, but burner wallet lower case b, it’s not a proper noun, but more of a mechanism for onboarding.
CR: What happened was that you got some grants, but at the same time the community as a whole took the idea of the Burner Wallet and started developing it on its own, on many different ways. I guess it’s an alternative way of development, where it’s not just one person, one founder and one team, the one whose developing an idea, but a whole community can pick it up and work on it too.
AG: Exactly, we’re on a very decentralized ecosystem and sometimes that helps a better product come out. Instead of me saying we’re going to build this thing, it was decentralized and people collected around their own ideas and out of that came a more robust ecosystem of other burner wallets, which is really neat.
CR: It’s really interesting but in the end you’re going to have make money off of this, and so will everyone else building these, so how do you think this can be sustainable in the long term?
AG: You’re bringing new people in, you’re giving them a crypto wallet, they’re moving money around. If people are uSing it, you can take a small cut of the ramps, so when someone uses Wyre to out their debit card in and buys xDai, we can take a small cut of that. So there’s little places along the way where you can take small cuts. There’s also a service model, where we can build a wallet for your event and charge to do that, and provide great experiences and services, but to me the home run here is the fact that this thing is a platform, it’s no just a a wallet, it’s a platform for games and apps. So thinking about the Burner Wallet, let’s give it away, let’s lower case b, and let’s all have burner wallets for everything, but on top of those burners we can build these really engaging apps and games and that’s where you monetize. You don’t monetaize the burner, but you monetize all the cool things you built on top of it.
CR: Why couldn’t you continue building the Burner wallet as part of Gitcoin?
AG: So Gitcoin is part of ConsenSys and they need to have a revenue lense. The stuff I was doing was open ended research I couldn’t exactly say what I was going to build, but I knew it was going to be cool and fun and I had a track record for that, so while that was fun, it don’t really fir with the Gitcoin model because they needed to focus on their core product. After EthDenevr I focused on the Burner Wallet, instant onboarding, and apps and games, and Gitcoin needed to focus in their core product. The two things didn’t fit.
CR: So is that when you started working with Gnosis:
AG: Gnosis gave me like a 20k grant for an ongoing relationship, where what we want to do is with one button have a Gnosis Safe in your Burner Wallet and it takes like five seconds and then you can deposit and withdraw to that Gnosis Safe and it’s like lightning fast magic moment. But you can also add a signer, then you can take another account, like your MetaMask on your laptop and you can scan that QR code and five seconds later that account owns the Gnosis Safe. So the Burner Wallet that existed in your local storage in your phone, all of the sudden is permanent and your laptop has access to it.
CR: And what’s next?
AG: I think what’s going to happen is I’ll end up working with ConsenSys. The next thing that we’re building is a Web3 abstraction, that includes a burner wallet, and also does bottom up identity, for developers. So a developer can get all these Web3 tools with one line of code. That’s probably going to be my next challenge.
And I haven’t talked about the DAOG, the decentralized autonomous organization game. Right now we have a lot of DAOs coming out, we’re experimenting with DAOs again, we were a little gun shy after the DAO hack, and now I think it’s really coming back, and Moloch DAO has done a lot to bring it back. So what I wanted to do is create this open ended game and it uses a DAO to bring in new mechanics into the game. It starts in an open ended world, and you have a few basic rules, to start the game off, and everyone buys in, so there’s a little skin in the game, and there’s some victory condition. and as the game progresses we use a MolochDAO to vote in new rules. It’s one of those card games, where you can change the rules throughout the game. like that but we’re suing DAO to vote the rules in, and there’s some victory condition and once that’s met, someone wins. The idea is to play around with game theory and DAOs in a fun and safe way.
We played for the first time at State of Scale in LA. It was like 17 different players, it was fun. Halfway through the game someone voted in that the poop emoji was now a game mechanic, and if you discovered the poop emoji while you were exploring it generated mushrooms, and that became the victory condition, if you had plucked like five mushrooms then you win the pot. So the game changed as we played it, and it was very organic and we got to play with the MolochDAO.
CR: So with the Burner Wallet you got a lot of people to buy stuff with crypto for the first time, at Ethereal you got people to use prediction markets, and now you got people to use DAOs, so you're proving that very easy and fun UXs, really can get people started on things that may sound really complex at first.
AG: Exactly, just get it in people’s hands and we can iterate so much better and more accurately when people are using it, and giving feedback.
CR: What’s the biggest piece that’s missing in UX right for a non-crypto user to start getting into.
AG: I think we’ve proven that a lot of these things can be solved and we can get around a lot of these headaches. The tools and ideas are out there and it’s up to us as we’re building these production grade interfaces to make sure that we do a good job of abstracting away the hard barriers to entry. This instant onbboarding with burner wallets, there’s signed messages, there are so many things that as a space we’ve figured out, like okay, we can do this, and now we can build them into products that are production there.
CR: It’s interesting that you think the pieces are there it’s just a matter of integrating them.
Yes. I think a lot of the developer tools still need work. I think as a blockchain developer I’ve had so many headaches debugging smart contract issues and knowing what’s going on. we have along ways to go with our tooling and in a way we have to do a better job of presenting that tooling to new developers as they get into the space. Now if someone asks how do we get started they’re going to get hit with a wall of links and we need to do a good job of saying here’s how it works and here’s the best tool to do this job. And what we need to do, same thing as giving the user that magic moment, we need to give the developer that magic moment, that rabbit hole moment, where they say oh wow, this is how a cryptocurrency and a smart contract can operate. We need that goosebump moment, and once they have the goosebumps let’s give them all the right tools to build really cool things. We need to create a better onramp not just for our users but also for our developers.
CR: How far away is the space from where it’s really easy and seamless for users and developers?
AG: I don’t know. Theres a shimmer of hope, a lot of the things are there. So many cool products are getting built every day. I get in and click around and I’m like oh gosh this is easy to use, and really gorgeous, and I think DeFi is a great example of how we can get people using things, whether it’s this self referential circle is to be debated. When someone takes out a DeFi loan to open up a mom and pop shop then we’ll have gone the distance, but right now it’s a circle. Still, people are using it and products are getting easier and easier to use. We’re getting there.