Bitcoin Foundation 2015: Some thoughts and suggestions

Since pulling together the original Foundation team and board, I've had an on-again off-again love affair with the idea of it. I have no idea what kind of job Bruce Fenton will do as the new ED, but I hope he's crazy successful and he enjoys his job. Seeing the news got me thinking about the Foundation and its next few steps.

I have mixed feelings about the Foundation living on. I personally thought it would have been best to refund members their coins and put the brand in a sort of deep freeze through late 2014, but I'm cautiously glad that someone thinks it's worth preserving. I'm encouraged by Olivier Janssen's engagement and communication: some radical openness is a good start at airing out the governance structure at the Foundation.

When we launched in 2012, it seemed clear to me that the (small) Bitcoin community wouldn't play well in the public eye, or with governments or regulators. It was also pretty obvious that crypto-anarchists would hate any attempt at organization like the Foundation.

And they did really and truly hate it. I kept a few choice e-mails from that era, along the lines of "If you intend to harm Bitcoin, watch out for your family."

Thanks guys, love you too. My wife and kids totally appreciate it.

I remember saying at the time "If crypto-anarchists get rich from what I'm doing and keep hating me, no problem." And, I think at least in part, they did make great money off the Foundation. Only the few of us doing day-to-day ops there in the first year understand how much work was done in the community, behind closed doors with government agencies and with the press. That work directly translated into reduced knee-jerk enforcement and more positive articles. And both of those pushed prices up, repeatedly.

Being such a broad brand made things ten times harder. Many assumed we were Bitcoin, and so every time some bad thing happened we would be on the hook in the public eye. Links to child porn in the Blockchain? We're the ones who are looked to by press, banks and at times government agencies to explain, correct and defend(?!) this shit.

I can't count the number of PR firms who got in touch suggesting we had a 'moderate branding problem' that they wanted to help us with. Yes, we did have a moderate branding problem what with the Ponzi schemes, drug lords, outright thefts and scams, the pro-drug folks who don't like being lumped in with the scammers, the anti-government constituents who want to be clear that they're not consenting to this organization or any form of enforced organization and so on. It was a broad-based set of people; the way they wanted to communicate, each on their own terms, was just not going to be possible to 'fix' with a PR firm.

Instead, we mostly chose to play defense and explain. "Bitcoin is more of a movement than an organization, stupid people do stupid shit, but please look over here and notice the normal people doing good and normal things.."

And to get that message out, the team had to keep up trusting relationships with press and government. And of course, as history went, fence with those community members on Bitcointalk who hated the idea of doing what we were doing. Oh, and keep up trusting relationships with the businesses who funded us, and the entrepreneurs and technologists and investors who were interested in our baby industry.

Elections were my idea, I think. I definitely remember suggesting that we split up governance between the community at large, businesses (those who were going to pay for the industry to grow with money rather than just time), and founders. Elections seemed like such a good way to make sure that everybody had a stake in what was happening, but in the end, they are what got me convinced to move on personally -- the organization became incredibly political almost instantly.

I really hated the politics. Deeply. I tried to cut myself out of politics by putting myself in a seat that only had eight constituents. Even then, over just a couple years, the time I spent on actually pushing the Foundation ahead vs. figuring out who was going to vote for what on which issue quickly went to almost zero. And, it was alienating getting there. And time consuming.

For a while, I was hoping to ditch any board engagement at all and spend my time getting national chapters up and running; the little time I did spend in local chapters or local communities was super fun; the people were kind, interesting and full of enthusiasm and energy. In the end, I worked to get my "Founder" seat on the board retired and turned over to our international chapters.

Bitcoiners are rad. They're diverse and interesting, and when I would go visit, I would find they often needed some help negotiating between say ex-Merill Lynch fund managers and near-homeless anarchists as to how to put together a functional organization that included both of them. (I do note the irony). I loved meeting with people like that and being able to offer a little bit of help and support.

At core, I think we wanted to be like the NRA if we could have been -- the US pro-gun lobby that has legendary member engagement and influence. Getting there could have been possible, but it was going to be massively expensive, and I don't think the Foundation ever really had the funds to pull it off even at the brief heady days of $1,000+ Bitcoin value. It was too big a job to bite off with our available funds.

So, inevitably, even with good intentions, the organization didn't execute well: it needed more capital, less politicking by the board and willingness to narrow the vision to something achievable but able to grow into that giant thing.

Blame those initial founding members, including me. It's fine. The board hires the executive and oversees what's happening. We were, if I may say so, almost completely ineffective at everything but government relations from the day it was clear Mt. Gox was going under.

I don't say this to minimize the hard work that people like Patrick Murck, or Jon Matonis and their teams put in; they worked very hard, they booted up better communications, they ground it out fundraising and signing up new members, but to my mind, when you have one board member strongly implicated in the loss of hundreds of thousands of coins, [note: in jail now as of late 2015] and another shortly thereafter accused (and now convicted) of a number of matters of national and international law, it's tough. I'm not sure what the right move from there would have been, or if there was a right move.

But, maybe the right move is to keep on trucking. In ten years, this will all be a happy memory, and ideally the new team will be able to help solidify a useful and beneficial brand and plan of action for the Foundation going forward worldwide. That would be great; a great thing to have done, and great for Bitcoiners.

At it's best, I loved being part of the Foundation, I loved being part of an organization that could help finance, promote and protect a technology that I deeply love and believe in. At its worst, I got threats of bodily harm, had to live through grinding politics and deal with multiple 'crisis communication' situations.

If I had to pick a direction now, I would suggest that the Foundation needs to choose an identity. I think it needs to choose between "Industry" and "Individual" members, and focus on one of them. Their needs and methods are too diverse to do well together.

Although I'm not the right person to run an "Individual Member" oriented organization, my gut is that this is the way to go ahead with the Foundation. Turn it into the people's Foundation. At first, it won't have the money it could have had from working with the well-funded Silicon Valley folks. But, it isn't pulling that money anyway because it has a large-scale group of Bitcoiners that have a lot of say over what happens, and the Silicon Valley folks just don't work that way.

In fact, we've seen a number of competing groups come out of Silicon Valley over the last few years, and I think we'll continue to see them until one 'sticks'.

Or, even worse, we'll see people just appropriate titles and names that aggrandize their own position without earning them. The title of Bitcoin Core Developer is on track to become one of these devalued titles right now, without some sort of outside influence.

In summary, thanks for the memories. I had a dream that industry and individuals could work together, but I no longer think it's possible, even from a distance: the methods, values and goals of each group are very different.