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Practical Advice

Lessons for founders on building a Web3 unicorn by Robby Yung, CEO of Animoca Brands

Practical Advice

Lessons for founders on building a Web3 unicorn by Robby Yung, CEO of Animoca Brands

November 10th 2022 / 8 min read

Robby Yung can remember the early days of the internet. He remembers how clunky it was, how difficult it was to use and understand, even for something as simple as setting up an email account. He remembers the swathes of people who called it unintelligible, a passing fad, something that would fade away just as quickly as it appeared. 

It’s easy to draw a comparison between those early critics of the web, and current critics of Web3, believed to be the next transformational phase of the internet. To today’s Web3 cynics, Robby’s response is always along the same lines—I was there, I remember how bad the internet was, and saw what it became. I’m optimistic. 

But Robby is more than just optimistic. Animoca Brands, where Robby is CEO, is one of the most prominent builders and investors in blockchain gaming and Web3 projects. Chief among these is The Sandbox, the game developed by Animoca considered one of the most successful metaverse projects to date. Other investments include Web3 unicorns such as NFT marketplace OpenSea, crypto wallet Metamask, NFT studio Dapper Labs, and play-to-earn game Axie Infinity

While he joined a few years into the Animoca journey, Robby has been present for large parts of its success. The company hit unicorn valuation in 2021, and is now valued at just shy of $6 billion, having raised $110 million in July 2022. In December 2021, they launched a $100 million investment program in partnership with crypto marketplace Binance to fund blockchain game development.

As a serial founder and one of the most prominent CEOs in Web3, Robby has unique insights into entrepreneurship and future trends in technology. In a recent fireside chat with Founders Factory, Robby shared some of his most valuable lessons for founders and CEOs, including:

  1. Flexibility is a huge asset to founders 

  2. Collaboration is the new competition

  3. To succeed in Web3, you need to build in the spirit of Web3

  4. Don’t make the hard decisions too late

  5. There are benefits to building in the open

1. Flexibility is a huge asset to founders 

My success so far has been a result of a relentless focus on one thing: not the business itself, but being flexible. This is a core mindset that drives my decision making as a founder and a CEO, and has proved to be of huge value. 

Take Animoca. When I joined in 2012, Animoca was a mobile, free-to-play gaming studio. Like any technology, the industry changed quickly, and soon we found we were no longer able to keep up with our competitors. Instead of doubling down and asking ourselves what was wrong, we started to look at new growth opportunities, areas where we could be more competitive. This was a huge learning experience: we tried subscription models, children and family content. Each time, we tried, failed, and pivoted to the next opportunity. 

This is how we came to blockchain gaming—an opportunity we quickly seized and have stuck with ever since. This also demonstrates the element of serendipity, or even luck, that contributes to success. We managed to get involved quite early on with Dapper Labs on a project called Cryptokitties, which was the first ever NFT project (they wrote the ERC-721 standard in August 2017 when we met). Half of your journey is luck, meeting the right people at the right time and seizing the opportunity before it passes you by. 

What you start out building is rarely what you’ll end up building. Founders talk about their North Star, but you should also adopt a healthy degree of flexibility. Being a founder ​​is about identifying new trends, pivoting and pivoting, until you find your lane. 

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2. Collaboration is the new competition

Animoca was an early mover in blockchain gaming. So early, in fact, that when we launched, there wasn’t really an industry there yet. We realised that, in order for us to see success in this sector, we needed to seed the industry around us. 

That’s why we’ve placed just as much of an emphasis on investing as we have on building. Often this has even involved us investing in companies we might have once seen as ‘competitors’, but rather are people creating more value and convenience for the ecosystem. Companies like OpenSea who are building the marketplace for people to sell their NFTs, Dapper Labs who are creating great content, and Polygon who are building tech to make the whole system more efficient and easier to use. 

In recent years, there’s definitely been a shift towards collaboration and openness. A lot of the world is run on open source software, while some of today’s best entertainment platforms (like TikTok) are powered by user-generated content. When you leverage the resources of huge communities of people, it’s hardly surprising that they can create better software and better experiences than you can.

3. To succeed in Web3, you need to build in the spirit of Web3

So what do I look for in founders that I’m investing in? What indicates success in this new phase of the internet? 

One key notion is that founders have to understand Web3. And that’s not as simple as it might sound. In game development, for example, someone might pitch a game where all in-game items are NFTs which you “own”: but as soon as you suggest the idea that players can bring NFTs from other platforms into that, they’ll reject it. Now what they’ve built there is a Web2 game with NFTs in it. One of the key principles of Web3 is the mindset that, it’s not just my game, I’m part of a wider community. 

So why is this? Well traditional business models are driven by an attention economy idea, that you create incredible ease of use in order to keep customers on your platform and engaged for as long as possible. Web3 flips this on its head. We’re managing the digital rights of the stuff you buy and own, so it doesn’t matter if you’re using it on my platform or elsewhere, I’ll still make royalties from you selling or trading it. 

Interoperability (the ability to carry your data between platforms) has huge implications for Web3 venture building. Founders shouldn’t just be interested in selling you an infinite amount of stuff; instead, they should be focused on fostering a community and encouraging that community to trade and thrive itself. 

From a tech perspective, that’s a much healthier ecosystem. You don’t need to focus on building your own community at the expense of other communities: instead, you can tap into the same shared community by creating added value for them. In this sense, interoperability creates its own network effects.

I like to view Web3 platforms as a train station. You want people to move in and out of your station all day long, but it doesn’t matter if they eventually move on somewhere else. All that matters is that they pick up stuff from you along the way. 

4. Don’t make the hard decisions too late

Your founder journey is paved by difficult decisions. But what will make them even harder is leaving them too late. 

One of the hardest things I’ve had to do is lay people off when companies I’ve built or run have been struggling. When you see trouble coming, you really can’t lay people off too early. I am an inherently optimistic person, so no doubt felt things were going to improve (in this instance, I was confident we were going to close the next round of funding in time). So I dragged the decision on, kept people on the payroll for too long, and ultimately lost a lot of money as a result. 

For this reason, I couldn’t advocate harder for founders to find a co-founder. I’ve done it with and without co-founders, and the experience doesn’t even compare: having someone there who shares the responsibility is infinitely better. That way, you don’t get stuck with this “the buck stops here” mentality and you have trusted colleagues with similarly vested interests in finding solutions to the hardest problems. It’s also much more fun. 

5. Building in the open can derisk your product

The traditional product cycle has been reversed in Web3. Take game development. Typically (in very simplified terms)—you would raise money from a VC, develop your game, launch it to an audience, and hope it works. Essentially, you are launching all your content in one go and hoping it sticks. 

In Web3, you can do things quite differently. By selling digital content (such as NFTs or tokens), you can not only crowdfund your business, you can also start to engage a community earlier on and build more openly in front of them, releasing features and pieces of content as you go. That way, there’s more of a cadence of content. You can also gauge their experience and feedback through on-going channels like a Discord server.

With The Sandbox, we started building and engaging our community from a very early stage. We launched a creator fund to offer microgrants to creators to just start building stuff in our metaverse. If they enjoyed it, we hoped they’d just keep building—and they did. Seeing how engaged people were, I was confident this was never going to fail. So by building openly in front of our community, we essentially de-risked the launch of our product.

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About Robby

Robby Yung is the CEO of Animoca Brands. Prior to joining Animoca in 2012, he co-founded Redgate Media Group (which he sold to Inno-Tech Holdings in 2012), and One Studio, a web consulting and IT services business. 


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