Hollywood has brought us a fair share of dystopian sci-fi stories in recent years, spinning immersive virtual worlds that appeal to a collectively enforced escapism. And perhaps this could be said of most experiences in the recent year: living in a nearly unrecognizable reality, longing for an escape. The stark contrast between our lockdown reality and the promise of freedom the virtual universes bring, alluring to be explored and consumed, cannot be overlooked as a societal catharsis. But let’s start from the beginning.
How it all started..
Outlier Ventures started as Europe’s first dedicated blockchain investor back in 2013. Yet a “fund, launch, & scale” approach was constrained by limited awareness of the potential for blockchain and lack of an ecosystem to nurture emerging entrants. Jamie recognized the need for a broader launch platform with established linkages to sharpen emerging entities. Looking across the business landscape, he recognized Silicon Valley’s business incubator model could offer the necessary cultivation for new ventures.
As the team pivoted to an accelerator model, Burke expanded his impact on a wider range of projects, currently supporting 50 start-ups a year. Jamie points out two areas that are witnessing an increasing level of traction in the last 12 months and offer the greatest near-term potential. The first being the widespread use of NFTs – unique, digital items with blockchain-managed ownership – and their adaptation across the creative industry. “There’s art, of course, but we also see gaming, music and more collectables embracing the various NFT use-cases” he notes. And the second area is DeFi, short for “decentralized finance,” the term used to describe the range of financial applications in cryptocurrency or blockchain.
Jamie’s team at Outlier Ventures enables projects in both the NFT and DeFi space. Having a creative element made his work “more fun, at least on a personal level”, says Jamie. And while his understanding and interest about NFTs started in a professional capacity, Jamie firmly believes that experimenting and actively piloting the technology is the best way to identify key pain points and improvement areas. That’s what led him to truly begin experimenting with NFT art collecting back in the inglorious summer of 2020.
Typically, Jamie’s team would invest in early-stage start-ups, avoiding the premium that comes for the later investors. In a similar fashion, he approached his art collecting: getting in early and receiving a high return. “This is a discipline of how I invest, and I carried that through into art. I want to be the first person buying from the artist, even introduce them to NFTs” he adds, drawing a parallel to “pre-seed” financing. Yet early-stage investing requires a critical skill: portfolio selection. Specifically, identifying those early-stage artists with the potential to deliver long-term returns.
“I would go to Instagram, find artists who had many followers, pay attention to who they were suggesting and then commission them to mint on Raribles of the world” (Rarible and other platforms allowing artists to turn their work into crypto art) Jamie explains. But the reality wasn’t as straightforward as that. The larger an artists’ following, the harder it was to gain access and pitch the value proposition. The artists’ responses varied, with some indirectly wondering “what the f is an NFT, and who the f is this guy?” he says. In short, ‘Jamie’ was another unknown name in a large pool of followers. This acknowledgement paved the path for launching the 100x brand. Jamie quickly acquired a matching website (100x.art) and Instagram channel, both empowering him to communicate the seriousness of the endeavour.
While Jamie humbly disregards himself as a serious art collector, the story of his journey down the NFT rabbit hole is only a testament to the new definition of what it takes to be a modern-day art collector. Entering the digital art domain, he noted a limited ecosystem to connect market participants, nurture enthusiasts and create interest – there were no networks for street-front galleries, museums and auction houses to generate visibility. Perhaps taking a queue from business innovators like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, he immediately recognized the ecosystems matter. The iPod with artists available through iTunes is just a well-designed MP3 player. The Tesla without a supercharging network is an expensive commuter vehicle.
Beyond buying the art, he facilitated the adoption of new models for the ecosystem to thrive. “There was a small niche of people and the environment that felt a bit toxic. There was money coming in, and a feeling of neurosis… and money combined with neurosis is an interesting mix” he smiles, describing the sentiment in the early days of NFT marketplaces for art. Jamie identified early on that collectors regarded themselves as competition between one another, which didn’t make much sense as it was counterproductive to building a liquid market. Another trait of NFT art is the lack of visibility an artwork has once it reaches one’s wallet. “You could point people to your Open Sea page, but it’s not a gallery where you could apply a form of curation, present a concept and an aesthetic”. Jamie adds.
50% of people buying NFT art are other artists
As Jamie’s pursuit of NFT art continued, he used various opportunities to connect with other collectors. The rapport was accelerated when he organized a dedicated Discord channel to lift the curtain on what was going on behind the scenes in the market. “The channel quickly gathered the world’s top 100 NFT collectors” Jamie comments. Similar to the currently popular Clubhouse (and The Facebook back in the days), the only rule was that you need to be invited by a member. The channel now hosts a good balance of artists, including names such as Pranksy and Beeple (who’s work was recently announced to be the first digital NFT offered by Christie’s auction house). You also have collectors and some of the major NFT selling platforms and news outlets joining the conversations.
Enter the Metaverse
To provide more visibility for NFT art in the growing 100x collection, Jamie decided to build a gallery in the virtual space. He found inspiration in the metaverse world; a 3D virtual social hub pioneered in gaming, allowing its users immersive digital co-experiences. “We started with building a gallery in the Cryptovoxels virtual world, but that didn’t communicate the brand well and created challenges for presenting multimedia works” explains Jamie, “we were going for high-end art vs the meme or low-end pixelated art, which the platform was unable to support”. Opting for Decentraland in the end, they continued to build a high-end experience for its visitors, now referred to as 100xARt District. Those that joined the opening in January witnessed ‘Lambo’s’ driving down a high street of galleries, featuring NFT art one could purchase by simply strolling in.
“I first put one building up and shared the news in my Discord server about it. Because many of the collectors didn’t have galleries anywhere, they quickly started buying up the land near my gallery and building their own” explains Jamie, “On the day of the launch people were still adding finishing touches. Most of the things you see literally appeared within 24 hours of the opening”.
The beauty of the virtual world is that it opens room for limitless possibilities, freeing its creators from abiding by the rules of physics – and property zoning regulations. This creative freedom becomes readily apparent as one explores the galleries in the 100xARt District. Some of the galleries are 3D objects, while others represent works of art. When asked about the launch, Jamie proudly admits that they “Broke Decentraland… as we expected”. And why would they expect anything less, for if one has spent nearly a decade testing the limits of possible, why stop now?
As the 100xARt community eminently outgrew its originator, Jamie decided to donate the brand, galleries, buildings, land and spaces. He explained that it would serve as a shared public space to promote the district and its artists. Currently, the communication channels are community-led, opening room for more artists and collectors to join. As for the 100x.art domain, it’s in the works as the central information hub directing its visitors to specific locations, openings and the event schedule.
While the 2018 bull run may have been too early for the larger market players to enter the playing field – 2021 is different – with headlines reading like excerpts from another Hollywood script. In 2020 alone there were over $250 million in NFT transactions. Art and collectables combined comprise a third of those, with Primary Market exceeding Secondary Market sales. And as the art market mulls the cultural value of NFT art, artists react as they have in any tumultuous period: embrace new opportunities, integrate new toolkits and see the world through a refined lens.
So how might the rest of us prepare for the next phase? Jamie advises early adopters to gear up with a gaming PC and a graphics card. The next experience of 100xARt District in Decentraland may be beyond the reach of the ubiquitous MacBook Air – although some snippets of the experience are accessible if you tune your graphics to minimum quality.
Learn more: 100x.art