from Linden to Libra

Join me, friends, in the Wayback Machine …

In 2007, Facebook sent a couple of strategists to Linden Lab to ask us about virtual currency. Of course they would ask us – at the time, we were the world’s leading experts in managing a virtual economy, heading towards a billion dollars of L$ transactions. Yes, that’s a billion real US dollars – unique among all virtual currencies at the time, we supported the exchange of L$ to real US$, so our virtual currency had real world value.

When we heard that they wanted to meet, my colleagues huddled in a room to decide how much we should tell them. We decided to emphasize the difficulties of managing a virtual currency: complexity of implementation, responsibility for users’ financial transactions, intrusive governmental inquiry and oversight, competitive dynamics with banks and payment partners. We went into the meeting and told them this story about how terrible it all was, and how they’d be better off simply issuing credits paid for with real money.

We never heard from them again, but in 2010 they launched Facebook Credits. I laughed at the thought that it seemed our little misdirection had worked – they went down a path that was entirely uninteresting and ultimately untenable, just as we’d hoped. Yeah, I know: that was kinda evil. But at the time, I was just a little evil, trying to stay ahead of bigger evils.

Why didn’t we want Facebook to work on virtual currency? Because I believed that the Linden Dollar was the greatest innovation created by the Lab. Sure, the 3D virtual world was mind-bending – all the avatars and the world building and the art and the boob physics – but for me, the virtual currency was the one element of Second Life that had the opportunity to break out of SL and into prominence in the whole wide world. Facebook had only 50 million users in 2007, and I didn’t want them to get their virtual currency right, so early in the game.

Well, it’s a dozen years later, and blockchain inspired a Facebook exec to figure it out. Facebook has launched Libra, a new cryptocurrency. It is a brilliant implementation: meticulously researched, expertly engineered, broadly partnered, poised for global domination. There’s only two problems: it’s too late, and they’re doing it wrong.

The right time for Facebook to launch a virtual currency would have been, oh, around 2007. That’s right: I’m saying you can thank me and Chris Collins for talking them out of it at the time. As I’ve written previously, a cryptocurrency can only succeed as a medium of exchange if it is a core currency of a powerful platform. Don’t even get me started on Bitcoin. What I didn’t call out in those posts is that the platform must implement currency strategy early in its growth. This is because when you are messing around with payments, you are in a field of giants – global banks and entire nations that have a vested interest in preventing your success. You have to implement your new currency while your platform is still small enough to ignore, or at least dismiss as “merely a game.” Then when you reach enormous scale, it’s too late to do anything about the economy that’s been baked in since the early days.

When a platform already has billions of people, it’s not going to fly under the radar. Facebook is already seeing immediate regulatory interest in Libra. Even with less than a million users, Second Life had to deal with aggressive regulatory interest from Congress and international bodies. I like to think that we talked our way out if it with my silver tongue, but the truth is that we were too small for sustained inquiry. Facebook is far, far, far past that point. Libra will be hounded by regulators until the cost outweighs the benefits.

The part that Libra has wrong is its reserve policy. This is getting into the weeds of managing virtual currency, but to vastly oversimplify: the reserve is a guarantee of currency redemption. If you buy Libra with real currency, you can sell it back to the Libra consortium for a relatively stable amount of real currency. Libra has launched this way in the hopes that a stable currency value will engender trust. The amusing mistake here is that only in the insular world of technocracy could someone believe that Facebook has consumer trust problems that can be cured by a stable rate of exchange on their cryptocurrency. The more serious mistake is that requiring a full reserve limits the utility of the currency.

All major world currencies are fiat currencies, which means that they can be issued at the will of the governing authority. They are not backed by gold or any other asset – though nearly all of them started out backed by a guarantee of redemption in gold. But there is a reason that all of them have moved off of the gold standard: fiat provides the maximum flexibility to manage the currency and its related economy. While it’s true that fiat currencies are more susceptible to hyperinflation, that is only a consequence of bad management. If the manager (i.e. the government, or in this case, Facebook) can be trusted to make good economic decisions, inflation is a limited risk.

Perhaps Facebook is aware of all this, and their plan is to launch with a full reserve, but later evolve into a fiat currency, after some history has demonstrated their trustworthy stewardship. After all, this is actually how all the major world currencies developed: first on the gold standard, then eventually declaring a switch to fiat currency. So if the launch with reserve is a bit of knowing subterfuge, kudos to them.

At this point, I could launch into an extended discussion about the relationship between virtual currencies and MMT. But I’ll leave that exercise for another day. In the meantime, for Linden historians who have stayed with me this long through the discussion, I’ll give you a little blast from the past: a record of posts from Linden Lab as we decided how to think about our currency, and whether to implement fiat sales of L$ into existing exchanges. Enjoy!

69

Wired UK just published a pair of articles that are a great explication of the potential of Virtual Reality to become as powerful as the Web. They fairly report the vision that Philip Rosedale has been pursuing for most of his professional lifetime. My one-sentence summaries:

Second Life was just the beginning – Philip wanted to connect the world in a seamless 3D environment, but was greatly limited by technology of the time; today many of these limitations are lifting.

VR and the CD-ROM – People are most excited about closed VR experiences today, but this is like being excited about Encarta on CD-ROM before people understood how powerful Wikipedia would become.

Good articles; read them if you are interested in VR. I have just one, entirely personal, embarrassingly picayune, totally irrelevant problem …

The first article says: “Then, in 2006, Second Life stopped growing.”

I know this to be untrue. I ran finance for SL from 2005-2006, and remained on the exec team until I left the company in 2009. We raised money in 2006, and I personally prepared the financial projections that predicted our growth through 2008. Financial projections for startups are notoriously optimistic, which is to say they are mostly composed of fairy dust and bullshit. I was surprised as anyone to notice, in 2008, that my projections of fast growth held up, quarter over quarter, with a margin of error of no more than 10% (and even at that, the projection was usually lower than actual growth). So I know that SL was still growing quite well in 2006, in every meaningful aspect of usage and business metrics. The growth rate slowed in 2008, but absolute growth was still positive in 2009 when I left. Yes, SL did stop growing eventually. But not on my watch.

Ok, that’s prideful, and it’s petty. But it’s fair to say that I’m the single most authoritative source in the world on this topic. So when I read the article, I sent a note to the reporter with a correction. He replied that he’d “check it out.” A day later, he said that he followed up and he seems to be right, and cited an article by another reporter.

That is seriously annoying. The other reporter has no better access to the facts than the original reporter. That other reporter is just another source of rumor and speculation. In this case, I am the actual source of truth, and the reporter with access to the truth chose to ignore it!

Obviously, this is trivial. Who cares? No one but me and my wounded pride. But it’s frightening to consider how easily reporters will ignore the truth when it gets in the way of their own goals.

greatness and lateness

The late, great Bill Campbell passed away this week, and there is no shortage of encomia from the technorati about him. He was the greatest coach in Silicon Valley, and the list of leaders that have paid tributes is appropriately star-studded. Some of the most successful people in the business world have benefitted from his wise counsel and friendship. It’s not hard to find stories of some pearl of advice that Bill gave to change the direction of a company, or even a life. I’d like to share a story that’s different, though no less illustrative of his greatness, because it’s a story of what happens when you don’t listen to Bill Campbell.

Back when Linden Lab was one of the most hyped companies in the world, in the interregnum between Google and Facebook, we had typical growing pains that were no less painful for being typical. Through the extraordinary pleading of one of our board members, we had the good fortune to receive some time from Bill Campbell. It was a tough time to get his time. He’d recently found out that his close friend was suffering from a terminal disease, and he knew that supporting his friend and his friend’s family would soon becoming an all-consuming task. He could not agree to a team-wide mentoring relationship. But even in the face of this tragedy and his many other commitments, he agreed to spend some one-on-one time with our CEO in several sessions, and just one round of discussions through the rest of the exec team.

I was very excited when my turn came, having known not only of The Coach’s legendary reputation, but having heard and seen his sharp advice to our CEO implemented on a few occasions in our company already. We sat down in a fishbowl conference room, centrally located on the company’s main floor, with a view out across the desks on an otherwise normal day. As I began responding to his initial questions about my background and context, I saw his attention drawn sharply away to the window.

In just a few seconds of observation, he saw something he didn’t like outside the conference room. “Do you see that?” he asked me. Yes I did, I responded, I knew exactly what he was talking about. “What’s it about?” he probed. I gave my best explanation, no doubt biased, certainly incomplete, filled with my caveats and allowances for things that I perhaps did not understand completely. “Nonsense,” he said, “Your job is to take care of that situation. Do you think this company is going to make or break on the new markets you’re after, on the business deals you’re trying to swing? No. You are here for that, no one else on the team is going to do it. Fix it. That is your most important job.”

I’m sorry I’m being vague about the details of the problem that Bill saw. The details don’t matter in this particular telling of the story. What matters is how quickly Bill could see a critical problem in barely more than a glance, how few questions he had to ask to understand the nature of the problem, how firmly he could direct action where it was needed, how incisively he could assess character and roles on a team. That he could do all this in seconds was simply stunning.

The sad, though hopefully instructive, remainder of the story is how poorly I executed on his insight. Fixing the problem immediately would require an extreme action that would disrupt the company in a sudden and unwelcome manner. I thought that the safer course of action was to confine the problem to a tight but explosive space, allowing it to self-destruct in a formidable container, like a bomb going off under a fortified blast dome. In retrospect, of course this was the wrong choice. The problem lingered longer than it should have, was not completely isolated or contained, and rather than have an explosion in the air that the winds could blow away, I had poison in the ground that was now part and parcel with the soil on which the company was built.

I wish we’d had more time than we got with Bill, I don’t think I would have handled things the same way with just a little bit more counsel. It was not the difference in our company’s success or failure, but it was the best advice for the moment and for the team in place. The lesson, I suppose, if there must be a lesson here, is that when you are fortunate enough to access the wisdom of the great, act on it decisively before it’s too late.

real time

At Second Life, we occasionally debated the merits of virtual reality vs augmented reality. In caricature:

Virtual reality was the core dream of SL, same as the core proposition of Snow Crash, the Holodeck, the Matrix – the idea that a computer simulated world could have all of the sensory and intellectual stimulus, all of the emotion and vitality, all of the commerce and society, of the “real” world (quotations necessary because virtual reality would be so real that non-simulated reality has no better claim on the term).

Augmented reality said that the virtual realists dropped too much acid in their youth. A fully simulated environment might be escapist pleasure for the overcommitted few, but computers would show their real power by adding a layer to our existing lives, not creating entirely new ones. Computers would sink themselves into our phones, our clothes, eventually our fingers and eyeballs and brains, not in the service of making another world, but enhancing the world we live in.

If that debate sounded ridiculously theoretical to you, then I hope that was yesterday because today it’s as real as it gets.

Google Glass is the vanguard of augmented reality, and obviously important to the company.* Google’s mission has always been to organize the world’s information – not to create a fantasy world but to organize our world.

Second Life had its heyday after Google established itself as the new tech titan, but before any serious challenger had risen up behind it. We spent a lot of time trying to convince people that SL could be the next big thing … trying to explain that people wanted to have an online identity, instantiations of themselves that would interact with other online personalities, creating tiny bits of content that might not have individual value, but would have enormous value as a whole fabric of an online world where people would go and interact every day …

I was laughed out of a lot of buildings after explaining SL. Who wants to live online? Who wants friends that they see only in a computer? Who wants to spend their leisure hours pecking away at a keyboard and looking at the cascades of dreck that other non-professional users create?

Second Life missed the mark for a lot of reasons, but not because we were wrong about online life. Facebook came along, and gave us all of the virtual life that the Web could really handle – only 2D, status updates instead of atomic 3D content, kitten pictures instead of furries – but Facebook succeeded in creating a virtual world.

And now they’ve acquired Oculus VR. If it wasn’t clear before – and perhaps it wasn’t clear even to them – they have now taken a side in that old debate, the same side that they’ve been on since the beginning. Facebook is going to go more and more towards virtual reality, while Google expands further and further into augmented reality.

 

*I don’t work on Glass, have no special knowledge of the product or strategy, and actually have never even tried it.

too early in the game

Last month, I wrote about why Second Life failed so I didn’t have to write about why Second Life failed. I mean, that post wasn’t about reasons for failure, it was about the fact of failure. My thought was that there are many people who simply assume Second Life failed, and they’re wrong, and there are many who will passionately argue that Second Life has succeeded … and they’re wrong too. Failure can only be judged by the ones who were trying to succeed.

It would be safer for me to say that failure is a matter of perspective, for surely failure passes through the same lens as beauty in the eye of the beholder. I do understand that many SL Residents were on their own journeys, and so of course they are their own best judges of the success of those journeys. But it would be an artful evasion to claim that any of those journeys, or even all of them together, constitute the sum total equation for the success of Second Life. We were trying to do something more – or at least, something else – and we failed. (Of course, I’m talking about the team and the company that I knew, years ago. The team there today is on their own journey, which I know next to nothing about.)

So if I’m willing to be this myopic and insular about judging failure, you can bet I’d be just as parochial in reviewing the reasons. I’ve seen and heard a lot of speculation that I don’t agree with: poor strategy, worse execution; lack of focus, misplaced focus; poor technology, doomed architecture; dumb marketing, uncontrollable PR; niche market, bizarre customers; crazy culture, undisciplined development; bad hiring, bad management; feckless board, dominating board, ignorant board. I’ve heard it all, and while there may be a grain of something like truth here and there, none of these things holds real explanatory power as a reason for why Second Life failed.

We failed as people. We failed as a team. Our failure was intensely personal, particular to each person involved, and ruinous to the overall team.

I’m going to switch now from “we” to “I” but I want to be really clear about why. We Lindens were all in it together, and there is a broad sense in which all credit and blame goes to all of us … but not in this post. Here, I’m talking about maybe half a dozen people, and so it would be too much of a personal attack for me to try to describe the failures of anyone other than myself. I’m willing to attack myself in this forum, but not my former colleagues, all of whom I still respect and a few of whom I love like my own family. But I want you to remember the “we” because otherwise the rest of this post is going to seem incredibly egocentric: there’s a certain kind of self-blame that’s really self-aggrandizement, and though I regard my own failures as critical, even the most deluded version of the story couldn’t claim it was all about me.

So. I failed as a person. I failed the team. I was responsible for many elements of our strategy, execution, culture and management, and those decisions aren’t the ones I regret. What I regret, to the extent that I’m capable of regretting such a rich learning experience for me, is giving up. I don’t mean at the end, when I was tired and disillusioned and looking around at a company I didn’t recognize and a future I didn’t want to live. A lot earlier than that, I gave up on people that we needed, people who were flawed and fragile but necessary. I let people fail, I let people go, I let people hide in their illusions and fears, I let them give up because I’d already given up.

The irony was, when I joined the company, I was supposed to be an experienced hand that would bring some sanity to a crazy world. But I indulged my own worst instincts – throughout the craziest times, when I could’ve done the most good, I just brought more crazy. I was having fun, but I chose my own twisted growth over a higher goal, and at times I was just plain mean or selfish or drunk. I really wasn’t ready for the opportunity that Linden Lab presented to me. I really wasn’t the guy I should’ve been when I got there; I didn’t know what I needed to know until I left.

Too many of the key leaders at the Lab were working through similarly damaging personal limitations. You might ask whether this really points to a failure in culture or hiring or leadership, and that would be a fair question. It’s true that Linden had a way of hiring certain kinds of people and forcing them to confront their own deepest flaws – but I think that’s beautiful, a feature not a bug. What we needed was one or more or all of us to conquer our flaws, to enable the entire team to rise above the limitations of each of us. But none of us defeated our own demons, and so all of us perished.

I’ve been gone from Linden Lab for over two and a half years, and still my failure haunts me. The last day of the year is always a good moment to come to terms with the passage of time, and this New Year’s Eve I’ve decided I should finally accept the fact that I’m never going to let it go. I’ll try to reach peace through the zen realization that peace is unattainable.

why second life failed

This post is about why Second Life failed – but not in the sense of, “here are the reasons why Second Life failed,” but instead, “here is why it is true that Second Life failed.”

Slate published an article titled “Why Second Life Failed” that also, like this post, is not an elucidation of reasons why SL failed – but unlike this post, it is not an authentic attempt to support the proposition that SL indeed failed. It is simply an effort to market a new book by posting an article with a catchy headline. There is an unavoidable paradox in that any marketable headline with the structure “Why [X] Failed” must use for X something that has first achieved at least some significant success, otherwise the title would be too obscure to attract readers. I started a company called Bynamite that folded after less than two years – no one writes articles titled “Why Bynamite Failed” because no one’s ever heard of Bynamite.

This mild paradox isn’t sufficient defense for SL’s ardent users and thoughtful critics. As is often the case with posts about SL’s demise, the comments to the Slate article are full of well-informed, intelligent and passionate conversation that puts the original article to shame. At Terra Nova, Greg Lastowka suggests that SL remains fertile ground for study, with the pointed rejoinder that “Second Life never failed – the media reporting on Second Life failed.”

As a former Linden, I appreciate the desire to insist that Second Life hasn’t failed. I joined Linden Lab in 2005, at a time when we had a few dozen employees and registered users in the tens of thousands. By the time I left four years later, we had around 7 times the number of employees, several hundred times as many users, and almost a hundred times the revenue. It certainly felt like success to me. I left sated with a feeling of accomplishment, and great hope for the future of Second Life.

But I also left feeling depleted. We had stumbled our way from obscurity to something like prominence, but I didn’t know how to take it to the next level. We weren’t making progress despite having bountiful talent, desire and resources. We had a beautiful company, a real culture of beauty and love, genuine emotion for each other and for the world we were helping to build. And it wasn’t working, not well enough and not fast enough and not big enough.

Perhaps there never was a next level. Perhaps it was always the destiny of Second Life to be an innovative niche product for a select group of people, a worthy subject of serious study, a constantly evolving emporium of edge cases. Maybe we should have just hunkered down, and focused on maintaining an elaborate playground for only a select audience of passionate and creative people. We could eke out a fine living, and damn the rest of the world who just didn’t get it.

But I couldn’t damn the rest of the world, because dammit, I’m from that rest of the world. I was never a true Resident of Second Life; I was a visitor, an outsider with the good fortune to see the incredible things that people can do in a truly free environment. I was inspired, amazed and delighted by Second Life – as well as occasionally revolted, offended and demoralized – and the diversity and depth of this experience was a revelation to me, one that I believed that everyone can appreciate.

And I still believe that, which is why I have to accept that Second Life has failed (so far, we must always say so far). The reality is that Second Life is still a niche product, and to deny that I wanted it to be something more would dishonor the heartbreaking glory of our ambition. It’s fair to say that Facebook became our second life, but it’s also shortsighted. Not so long ago, people laughed at the proposition that anyone wanted to maintain a virtual presence online that could form the basis of social interaction. Facebook did put an end to the dismissive chuckles on that topic.

But it’s equally laughable to say that this is where we’ll stop, that the final destination of online interaction consists of wall posts and text messages in two dimensions. I still believe that there’s no sensible way to define an impassible boundary between where we are today and a time when people “live” in a three-dimensional virtual environment. I’m still a true believer, an old true Linden in that way. So I have to admit that Second Life has failed.

So far.

drive me crazy

Bob Lutz was a product development executive at BMW, Ford, Chrysler and GM over a 47-year career in the auto industry. His book Car Guys vs Bean Counters focuses on his second stint at GM, from 2001-2010.

In an excerpt in the WSJ, Lutz phrases a classic question of executive management, about the tension between leading by example or by autocratic demand:

I had to ask myself, and still do today, if it is the proper role … to get down in the trenches for hours on end, teaching the love of perfection in the smallest details when perhaps a more impatient autocrat would simply have ordered—nay, demanded—that it happen ….

This question has been asked and debated across many industries over many years. In information technology, we’ve seen different answers at HP, Intel, Microsoft, Google, Apple and Facebook. Often within the same company, the story swings between democratic (“emergent” is the trendier term) and autocratic over time, but you could roughly say that HP and Google have been known for emergent corporate cultures, and Intel, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook have been thought of as more autocratic. The public imagination tends to favor stories based on a single personality as leader, so it is likely that every tale of an “autocratic” workplace radically overstates the effect that any one person can have on a large organization.

But still, leaders matter even in the most emergent management styles, and Lutz’s question is a deep one. The tension exists because when a leader is right, autocratic demand will always lead to the best outcome in the shortest possible time – but no one is always right, and the flip side is that autocratic demand leads to the most disastrous failures very quickly when the leader is wrong. Emergent management is an attempt to institutionalize greatness over a long period of time, a period exceeding the career length of any single leader. Lutz asks the right questions again:

But does the autocrat, no matter how gifted, create sustainable success? Or does his style drive away other capable leaders who would form a leadership team after the great man’s departure? . . .

The fact is, though, that my effort to instill into the organization a drive for perfection and customer delight in all things was successful. And still I wonder—was I right? Did I change the core of the product development culture by teaching, or did I rely too much on my own will and my considerable influence to get what I wanted?

Strikingly, Lutz is haunted by the failure of his lessons to stick at Chrysler. He had left that company secure in the knowledge that his standards and principles were permanently embedded in the corporate culture. But it didn’t work – new leadership quickly shifted the company into a bean-counting mentality, and the passion he’d invested there evaporated as easily as spilled alcohol. He thinks there will be a different outcome at GM, but it’s not clear why there’s any reason to believe this.

I find some divisions in Lutz’s dichotomy questionable: an autocratic leader can certainly get down in the trenches, and an emergent leader can certainly demand great results. I agree that sustainable success is the ultimate arbiter of greatness – but if the company doesn’t succeed through crisis points, which sometimes require an autocratic hand, then it will not have the chance to measure a track record over generations of leadership. So I would say that a company – and its leaders – have to be able to master both styles, and most crucially, know when and how to switch from one to the other.